Why student activism has failed us
By Mbango Sithole
The Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) will hold its 9th Congress this month.
The recent squabbles between the Movement for Democratic Movement (MDC) and the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) prompted me to complete an article I started writing at the beginning of this year — a time when Zinasu was reported as having labelled Zanu PF “an enemy beyond conciliation”.
Current student activism in the country is a pale shadow of its former glory days. Many will remember the Arthur Mutambara and Munyaradzi Gwisai- led student activism.
There were also the days of the late Learnmore Jongwe, Job Sikhala, Daniel Molokele and others who defined student activism’s space in our country before they lost direction due to a combination of compromise and indiscretion. Opposition politics infected the student movement in a big way.
The heyday saw the youth movement getting the desired results in dealings with government. They were effective due to their eloquence in articulating issues affecting the nation such as corruption and deteriorating conditions in health and education.
These were radical voices of reason waging a just and selfless struggle for the betterment of the lives of students and the nation at large.
Their popularity soared on the back of the mistakes which government made by viewing students as a thorn in the flesh and seeking to suppress their voice by the use of force. The perceived lack of a vibrant youth wing within Zanu PF, at that time, ushered an opportunity for these firebrands.
But where is student activism today? We need it to be the boot-camp of patriotism and future nationalist leaders as it holds the current leaders to account.
The glamour of such activism has rusted away slowly due to poor decisions of its leaders who were quick to embed the movement with opposition politics tainted by the western regime change agenda.
The love for power and prestige crept into the hearts and minds of the student movement leaders. They sold their souls and began to fight an ignoble cause.
Zinasu was one of the groups that took part in the Working People’s Convention that gave birth to the MDC in 1999. This resulted in the ascendency of some student leaders into senior positions of the new party.
There was nothing wrong in this, in principle, except that it diverted the student movement and robbed the nation of untainted educated public opinion that had benefited the majority of Zimbabweans.
As declared enemies of the ruling government no meaningful engagement with government was entertained.
Because the students had no financial contribution to make to the MDC, their views were easily swept to the periphery in favour of the powerful voices of the farmers who stood to lose if the land reform utterances which were gaining momentum within Zanu PF at that time were implemented.
Change, for them, was no longer a luxury but survival, so the farmers gladly donated funds for a cause that they thought would succeed because people were weary of the deterioration of standards of living as the combined effect of structural adjustment programmes, corruption and consecutive droughts were biting.
Gwisai refused to swallow the new, western-inspired MDC ideology, and was expelled from the party for refusing to compromise on key issues like land reform.
Gwisai accused the MDC leaders of abandoning the downtrodden who formed the core of the party, and embracing the rich white farmers whose farms were at stake.
Many commentators, because of political immaturity or a serious deficiency of patriotism, saw Gwisai as a mischief-maker who deserved to be thrust into the political abyss.
The Gwisai rebellion was just the tip of the iceberg as it revealed who really wielded real power within the MDC. History should record Gwisai as a true patriot who, despite his hatred for Zanu PF, refused to be compromised to the extent of sacrificing his beliefs.
The former student leaders were reduced to yes-men for fear of losing the fortunes which had started accumulating because of their association with the MDC. They dragged the student body with them as they bumped along the potholed road of blind politics.
So when President Robert Mugabe began to drive issues for the black majority like land reform and black empowerment they remained stuck on an empty childish chant of “Mugabe must go” and opened themselves to manipulation by the rich and powerful.
With that, they also lost their voice in championing education issues as no-one would listen to them after they declared themselves enemies of the government. We saw the standards in our schools and institutions of learning plummeting to their worst since Independence.
Students all over the world have played a key role in national politics. They have been known to be in the forefront of defending their heritage.
In recent years, Zinasu has seemingly woken up from its long slumber and tried to reassert itself as far its relationship with the MDC is concerned.
In a recent press statement Zinasu decried how the voices of the youths were undermined by the arrogance of power within the broader opposition movement.
Zimbabwe is not the only country to have youths giving in to a regime change agenda. We have seen the role of the youths who used the social media to inspire the Arab Spring that toppled leaders like Muammar Gadaffi and Hosni Mubarak.
The disastrous effects of the Arab Spring are there for all to see.
The student activism of yesteryear, where students waged a just fight, must be revived but with wisdom and discretion to draw a line between fighting dictatorships and opening up our country to assaults by the rich and powerful.
Mbango Sithole writes from South Africa. He can be contacted on email@example.com