Zimbabwe’s universities must shed politically tainted leaders and rediscover academic freedom in order to fix the damage done to the country’s higher education system by Robert Mugabe, according to researchers who fled his brutal regime.
Winston Mano, who is originally from Zimbabwe and is now director of the Africa Media Centre at the University of Westminster, said that the inauguration of Emmerson Mnangagwa as president offered an opportunity to attend to some of the big problems in Zimbabwean higher education that had been “bubbling for a very long time” under Mr Mugabe’s 37-year rule.
An important first step would be to repeal the PhD in sociology that was awarded to Mr Mugabe’s wife, Grace, by the University of Zimbabwe just two months after she first enrolled, without attending the campus or writing a thesis.
Calls for the PhD to be cancelled were central to student protests on Zimbabwean campuses in the run-up to Mr Mugabe’s resignation in the face of a military takeover and impeachment proceedings.
“It has to be done as a symbol to break away from the past,” Dr Mano told Times Higher Education.
Dr Mano said that university leaderships needed significant change after many years in which political appointees sympathetic to Mr Mugabe had been installed in senior posts. There was “sufficient expertise” within the country to make new appointments on the basis of “proven academic merit”, Dr Mano said, but he argued that universities also needed to re-engage with their academic diaspora. Many researchers fled Zimbabwe in the early 2000s during Mr Mugabe’s land reform programme.
Although Dr Mano feels “very optimistic” about Zimbabwe’s future, he said that things are still too uncertain for him to think about returning.
“We need a clear reform programme from the government,” he said. “They need to be inclusive [and] tolerant.”
Prior to his resignation, Mr Mugabe was chancellor of all 10 state higher education institutions and the higher education minister, Jonathan Moyo, was a key ally of Mrs Mugabe. However, it is by no means guaranteed that the family’s involvement in higher education will end, amid reports that Mrs Mugabe wishes to focus her energies on plans for the $1 billion (£749 million) Robert Gabriel Mugabe University, which was announced in August and will cost the equivalent of a quarter of Zimbabwe’s total annual budget.
Shadreck Chirikure, who left Zimbabwe for the UK in 2001 and is now an associate professor in the University of Cape Town’s department of archaeology, said that the mood among academics was “a little despondent” because of the amount of work now required to rebuild the country’s universities.
“The most important thing that needs to be done is the politicians must realise that they must not interfere with higher education and let people do their own research,” Dr Chirikure said. “If the incoming president is really very sincere, then [the new regime] should be able to guarantee academic freedom because [then it] can constructively engage beyond the parochial interests of the previous regime.”
Wesley Mwatwara, an academic in the University of Zimbabwe’s history department, warned that Mr Mnangagwa may not bring about the changes that many researchers are hoping for.
“Until he says something, we are not really sure,” he said. “People now believe that we are actually going to have more of the same because our former president was [in power for] a very long time.”