Students battle on for basic rights

March 1, 2002

Tapera Kapuya was the first of his poor Harare family to go to university, so it came as a great blow to his mother to learn that the final-year psychology student had been suspended from the University of Zimbabwe for leading protests over issues such as fee rises, constitutional reform and the murders of two fellow students.

"My family sort of knows what's going on. It has been very sad for them," said Mr Kapuya, who felt morally compelled to place what he saw as a threat to his country's future - growing oppression by President Robert Mugabe and his ruling Zanu PF party - above personal ambitions.

There is a warrant out for Mr Kapuya's arrest and he is in hiding, surviving with the help of friends and opposition Movement for Democratic Change activists. For him, the results of Zimbabwe's presidential elections on March 9 and 10 are crucial. If Mr Mugabe wins, he could be on the run for a long time, but if the MDC's Morgan Tsvangirai prevails, there is hope.

"Now my mother is being harassed by the police, and she had a threatening visit from war vets [pro-government militia, some of whom are liberation war veterans] in January. I feel terrible, but really don't see that we have a choice when it comes to fighting for our rights."

There are two scars on Mr Kapuya's scalp where, he said, police hit him during one of the ten or so times he has been arrested for leading student protests. They required a dozen stitches and took weeks to heal. He laid charges of assault, but they have gone nowhere because he cannot pay for a lawyer.

Much of his life is spent looking over his shoulder and his future is uncertain, but at least he is alive. Two other UZ students were killed last year, allegedly by members of the security forces.

Batanai Hadzizi, a first-year student, died during a clash with riot police who had been called in to quell an unruly campus protest on April 9 2001. Police denied involvement in his death, but a UZ security guard testified at an inquest in Harare this week that an over-zealous police officer beat the young man with a truncheon and left him for dead.

Godfrey Macheka said he followed police into a room where he saw several students, one of them on the floor and being beaten by a policeman. "I heard one of the police officers shouting: 'Mavhiza, usadaro '. [Mavhiza, don't do that]." Mr Macheka said he tried to restrain the policeman, and then gave first aid to the student "but it did not help". He died of lung and rib-cage injuries "caused by blunt force".

Last November, Lameck Chem-vura was reportedly strangled with a shoelace and thrown from a moving train by soldiers who, witnesses reported, accused him of supporting the MDC. A soldier was arrested but the government denied that the killing was politically motivated.

Both murders sparked campus protests, as did rises in student fees and political issues such as constitutional reform and the undermining of Zimbabwe's fiercely independent judiciary. The university's response was to suspend students - some 30 last year, a record for UZ.

Mr Kapuya, who is secretary general of the UZ students union and of the National Union of University Students, was first cleared by a disciplinary committee of inciting a disturbance. At a second hearing he was found guilty and was suspended last August.

He said: "I first learnt that I would be suspended in the higher education minister's office. We were talking about fee increases when he said he was going to get rid of me. Now the university's top five student leaders are all suspended."

The others are: Tinashe Chimedza, secretary general of the Zimbabwe National Students Union; student activist Tamuka Chirimambuwa; Innocent Mup-ara, president of the UZ students union; and Madock Chivasa, vice-president of the NUUS.

Mr Chimedza has been suspended for four years and is studying through the distance University of South Africa. He said: "It takes conviction to carry on because the price is very high. We've probably lost our future. The police treat us high-handedly, and there is no real solidarity from other students. Lots of them help us but they are too scared to be visible."

Although banned from campus, the students manage to sneak back to organise union affairs. They also work for opposition organisations and have become involved in voter education before the election. "Voter education has become illegal for all but state bodies," Mr Kapuya said. "But we've got involved anyway, travelling around with other students, distributing pamphlets and speaking to people. We tell them 'don't be afraid to vote with your heart because your vote will be secret'."

He added: "Many students have come to realise that Zimbabwe's problems will not be solved within the confines of student issues such as funding. We have to become involved in the big problems that spawn the smaller ones.

"In three years of political deterioration, many people have made major personal sacrifices and many have died for democracy. Land was only one part of what the liberation struggle was about. Other principles are democracy and human rights, and that fight continues."

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