The University of Swaziland has become the focus of a political storm which has little to do with academe but may jeopardise future government funding of higher education in the small kingdom.
Virtually the entire student representative council has been expelled and several other students suspended for periods of one to two years for their role in the disturbances that led to the closure of the Kwaluseni campus last November.
While most students seemed relieved to resume their studies when UNISWA re-opened at the end of January and claimed to have had nothing to do with the unrest, the political controversy behind the students' actions is still simmering.
The dispute dates back four years to what has become known as Black Wednesday. On November 14 1990, the Swazi government dispatched armed police and military units to the campus to disperse boycotting students. It was a crackdown of unprecedented violence in the history of the university. In the ensuing melee several students were crippled for life, hundreds injured and one woman successfully sued the government for an out-of-court settlement of 225,000 Lilangeni (Pounds 40,000) for the loss of an eye.
The reason why the students staged the boycott is still the subject of debate. Their grievances ranged from the poor quality of food provided in residence to extremely low allowances. Among their demands was that a student and lecturer who were members of the banned political organisation, Pudemo, and who had been charged and aquitted of high treason, should be reinstated at the university.
Following the crackdown, the government, under pressure from parents and political organisations, established a commission of inquiry to determine who was responsible. The hearings were held in camera and only the findings and recommendations have been released. According to lecturers, parents, past and present students, the wounds will fester while the report remains secret.
The minister of education, Prince Khuzulwandle Dlamini, said it was unlikely the report would ever be released because witnesses testifying to the commission had been guaranteed confidentiality. Legally, he explained, his hands are tied. This lack of transparency has fuelled a major public controversy extending well beyond the confines of the university.
The government believes the students are being used by political activists to advance their own agenda for multi-party democracy in Swaziland. The kingdom is ruled according to the Tinkhundla system which embraces traditional structures and enables a degree of democracy at the grassroots level. However, political parties such as Pudemo, which is banned from operating openly, are increasingly frustrated at the slow progress towards what they perceive as real democracy and the continued involvement of the royal family in political life.
Both Pudemo and the Swaziland Youth Congress have attempted to enlist the support of students, and have partially succeeded.
One moderate student said that over the past couple of years the students council had been "hi-jacked" by these political organisations, leading to increasing militancy.
Since 1990, Black Wednesday has become the point of conflict between the students and university administration leading to disruption of lectures and the suspension or expulsion of several students. However, in the view of Vakashile Simelane, an economics lecturer at UNISWA for the past 16 years, the government's attitude is a little too self-serving. She believes the students are very well aware of the political realities in the region and make their own decisions without necessarily being manipulated by activists. And she says the senate acted too hastily when it closed the campus.
"I think that if the students were allowed to commemorate Black Wednesday it would be better, because we would only lose one day, instead of the weeks and weeks we have lost now."
Parents mainly feel the same way, and the columns of Swaziland's only independent newspaper The Times have been filled with angry criticism of vice chancellor Lydia Makhubu's handling of the whole affair. To root out the culprits responsible for threatening lecturers, intimidating students and destroying university property last November, she convened an informal inquiry and summoned each of the 2,150 students to her office for questioning.
The process dragged on throughout Christmas and New Year and evoked such strong sentiments that Professor Makhubu's home became the target of a fire-bomb attack.
She refused to meet or discuss the issue with a crisis committee composed of concerned parents, who then took their grievances to the cabinet instead.
Deputy prime minister Seshayi Nxumalo, who also has a child at UNISWA, met the committee but says he was perturbed by the number of representatives of organised political groups. "This immediately raises the problem of who the government is dealing with, the students, or the political groups who are attempting to get some form of recognition?" The government has left matters to the university senate and Professor Makhubu. However it could call for a wider inquiry if there was gross injustice.
But there is political fall-out. Swazi students are fully funded by government, unless they fail a year in which case they have to support themselves. Most also enjoy the benefits of campus accommodation. By contrast, primary and secondary school pupils are paid for by their parents.
There is a groundswell of feeling that privileged students should take their studies seriously, and if they paid their own way, maybe they would not be so preoccupied with politics.
The minister admitted that he had already started considering whether the 20 million Lilangeni earmarked for the university in the next budget could not be better spent elsewhere.