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How Mugabe strangled the students’ movement in Zimbabwe (Part 2)

By Alex T. Magaisa

This is the second part in a series that analyses how the students’ movement in Zimbabwe was emasculated by President Robert Mugabe’s Government.

Riot police in Zimbabwe are viewed as an extension of the ruling Zanu PF party
Riot police in Zimbabwe are viewed as an extension of the ruling Zanu PF party

This enquiry is inspired by current events in the students’ movement in South Africa, which have attracted a great deal of debate, part of which, among Zimbabweans and external observers alike, revolves around the question why Zimbabwean students have not been able to do the same given their dire circumstances.

My effort here is to place this debate into context, and to demonstrate that while it might seem novel and ground-breaking to some, the road that the South African students’ movement is travelling is hardly new and, if comparisons must be made with their Zimbabwean counterparts, they must at least be done in context.

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In this regard, I venture to suggest that the South African students’ movement and South Africans in general, might learn a thing or two from the less pleasant experience of their neighbours north of the Limpopo, if they are to avoid the usual pitfalls. As such it is as much a cautionary tale as it is an explanatory one.

However, before I proceed, I must add an important qualification: It is that while my analysis looks at how the State debilitated the students’ movement in Zimbabwe, this is by no means a suggestion that the State’s conduct was the sole cause of the problems that befell this critical constituency.

There are, of course, many other ills, including corruption, inept leadership, general lethargy, unhealthy alliances, among others, which also affected the strength and independence of the students’ movement. But this analysis is restricted to the conduct of Government as a significant cause of the weakening of the students’ movement.

“Unprofessional Fingers”

In 1991, Professor Walter Kamba, who was the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) announced his decision to resign. He had been appointed in 1980, shortly after independence, as the first black Vice-Chancellor at the country’s only university at the time. He had steered the UZ ship well and had earned a lot of respect for his work in the transformation and expansion of the university. But when he departed, he was not a happy man.

“There are too many unprofessional fingers interfering in the running of the University,” he famously remarked at the graduation ceremony in 1991, in the presence of the Chancellor, President Mugabe and members of his cabinet.

That iconic statement remains a perfect representation of the decay that has characterised not just the UZ, but higher education institutions in general, and also the state of decline in the students’ movement in Zimbabwe.

October 4

In the two years leading to his departure, the UZ had been gone through significant upheaval. It had been shut down in controversial circumstances in October 1989, the first time this had happened in the country’s history. The cause of the shutdown was unrest arising from clashes between the State and the students.

The students had attempted to hold a public seminar on 29th September 1989, to commemorate an anti-corruption demonstration they had tried to hold the year before, in 1988, in the wake of the “Willowgate” scandal.

Willowgate was the name given to a scheme of grand corruption which involved the corrupt purchase of motor vehicles at subsidised prices, which were then re-sold at inflated prices by Government Ministers, senior politicians and politically-connected businessmen. That 1988 demonstration had ironically been thwarted by Government, using anti-riot police.

The attempt to hold a commemorative public seminar on 29th September 1989 was thwarted when Government issued a ban on the public seminar and sent anti-riot police to occupy the campus overnight.

In a terse response, Arthur Mutambara, who was the President of the Students’ Union, said the police had “harassed and terrorised students indiscriminately throughout the campus, randomly teargassing halls of residence, wantonly clobbering and brutalising students and threatening to use gunfire when necessary”. The Government was described as the“running dogs of imperialism”, which infuriated the establishment.

In the early hours of October 4 1989, armed police broke into Mutambara’s room at his university residence. He escaped by jumping from the fourth floor of the residence but he was eventually arrested. Together with his Secretary-General, Enock Chikweche (now, Munyaradzi Gwisai), they were arrested and spent weeks in detention.

In response, students embarked on a lecture-boycott, leading to a stand-off which resulted in the shutting down of the university. It is from the events of that day that a bar on the lower level of the Students’ Union building at the UZ was named “October 4”.

A popular bar, it would forever carry the spirit of rebellion, which inspired future generations of students.

When the Secretary-General of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), Morgan Tsvangirai (now the leader of the opposition MDC-T) expressed solidarity with the students, and accused Government of lacking “rationality and tolerance”, he too, was arrested and detained for more than 4 weeks.

The acting Dean of the Faculty of Law, Kempton Makamure, himself a tough critic of the Government, supported the students and he too, was thrown in jail. A Kenyan law academic Shadreck Gutto, who was living in exile, was thrown out of the country, allegedly for having helped students draft the anti-corruption pamphlet.

The irony is that all these arrests and detentions were done under emergency legislation which the Mugabe Government had inherited from colonial Government in 1980, a clear demonstration of the fact that while the human agents in Government had changed at independence, the State machinery had remained intact, confirming that in the battle between continuities and change, the former retained an edge.

Warm Relations

It is important to remember that the relationship between Government and the students’ movement had not always been characterised by friction. Indeed, since independence and until about 1986, relations had largely been cordial, with university students being seen as an important constituency in the nation-building project.

This was reflected by the generous funding to higher education and the students in particular. In her 2001 study of civil society in Zimbabwe, Sara Rich Dorman refers to accounts describing how even candidates for the students’ union were vetted by the party structures on campus.

Those accounts also show that back in 1981, a group of students had marched in support of Government’s clampdown in Matabeleland in its Operation Gukurahundi, with some volunteering to go and fight ‘dissidents’ in the region.

A former student in the early 80s recounts how UZ students ululated when Edgar Tekere, then a senior Zanu PF leader declared at a UZ public lecture that the “problem in Matabeleland needs a military solution”. “It was the last time I attended those poisonous and intoxicating lectures,” he writes.

When the President of Mozambique, Samora Machel was assassinated in a plane-crash on October 19 1986, and blame was placed on the Apartheid regime of South Africa, UZ students had marched and protested in solidarity with the Mozambicans, allies from the liberation war.

They stood with Government in condemning the Apartheid regime for killing a revered icon of the struggle. Even the preamble of UZ students’ union constitution carried the hallmarks of the same Marxist-Leninist ideology that the Zanu PF Government purported to pursue.

Thanks to the euphoria of independence, as with the trade unions, the years immediately after independence were marked by harmonious alliances between Government and various stakeholders, including the students’ unions. But, as events turned out, this honeymoon would be short-lived.

End of the Honeymoon

These warm relations between Government and students began to cool down as the ruling party, Zanu PF intensified its intention to introduce a One-Party State, as mandated by its Congress of 1984. UZ students and academics played a key role in opposing this One-Party State project.

The fact that there were apparent alliances between students and the new party, the Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM), formed in 1989 by former Zanu PF stalwart, Edgar Tekere, only served to add to the Government’s paranoia and mistrust towards students.

In this period, concerned by the autonomy of the university and desirous of asserting greater political control, the Government had introduced new controversial legislation, the notorious University of Zimbabwe (Amendment) Act, 1990, which critics described as politicising the university and severely undermining academic freedom.

Its main object was to enhance the authority of the State over the UZ. Among other things, it gave the President enhanced powers to appoint the Vice Chancellor, taking the power from the hands of the University Council.

It also expanded the University Council, raising the power of the Higher Education Minister in the appointment of council members by more than 100% from 12 to 25, giving scope for more political appointments.

Concerns over the new law and protests from students and academics were ignored. Instead, the Bill was rushed through Parliament, circumventing parliamentary practice which required Bills to be published. When students went on a three-week long lecture boycott in protest, the Government threatened to close the university.

It was in this context that Professor Walter Kamba, the highly respected academic and administrator, made the famous remark about “too many unprofessional fingers interfering in the running of the university”. He chose the very public event of a graduation ceremony to issue this scathing criticism, when all the politicians and media were present.

It turned out to be valedictory speech. Although the new legislation gave him as Vice-Chancellor, the power to suspend students and even dissolve the students’ union, Kamba publicly opposed it. But this was just the beginning of the problems that would later bring both the university and the students’ movement to its knees.

By the time I joined the UZ in 1994, to read law, standards were in decline mode and by the time I left in 1997, the deterioration was palpable. But it was the generation that came later, in the post-2000 era, that saw the worst of it, the effects of which have not dissipated.

In light of this background, let’s explore the ways in which the Mugabe Government successfully strangled the students’ movement in Zimbabwe.

Diluting the power of the students’ movement

Government knew from precedents in other countries across Africa, and around the world, that the students’ movement was a potent force which could threaten the establishment and sometimes, even bring down governments. It was therefore important to dilute the power of the students’ movement. This was achieved in several ways:

Use of Coercive Apparatus of the State

Government used the coercive machinery of the State to thwart the students’ movement, often in harsh and brutal fashion.

Student demonstrations were seen as a security threat and Government deployed its security apparatus to harass, humiliate and batter the students’ movement into submission, an outcome that by and large has been accomplished.

Intelligence operatives and agents were carefully planted within the academic faculties, among staff and students, to ensure effective intelligence and information gathering in order to more effectively control the students’ movement and to pre-empt any uprisings.

While the presence of such operatives may have been exaggerated, the mere suspicion of their presence on campus, was an intimidating factor designed to keep the students quiet. To be in a situation where you do not trust the next person is a mentally excruciating experience. Any hint of a demonstration was quickly relayed to the State authorities and in no time the campus would be surrounded and cordoned off by heavily-armed riot police.

Many times, there were running battles between police and students, with police often using heavy-handed tactics. “Tear-smoke is tear-smoke, it is not perfume,” the Police Commissioner-General, Augustine Chihuri once infamously remarked in a nonchalant response to allegations of the police’s heavy-handed tactics after they fired tear-gas into student residence in 1995.

The arrest and detention of Mutambara and Gwisai in 1989 was only the beginning of a pattern that would increase in intensity in the following years, particularly post-2000 period when the political heat increased in intensity.

Discipline & Punishment

Among the array of tools used by the Government to control students and keep them in check, was a set of regulations on the conduct of students and discipline, more commonly referred to as Ordinance 30 of 1984.

This became a potent tool against students, who were required to sign an undertaking upon registration that they have received and would observe Ordinance 30 during their tenure at the university. The Student Disciplinary Committee (SDC) and officers authorised under Ordinance 30 had investigatory and disciplinary powers, including penalising students found guilty of misconduct.

Ordinance 30 became the main instrument under which student leaders were often charged, tried and penalised by the SDC, often for leading demonstrations. The whole apparatus of Ordinance 30 was highly unpopular and loathed by the students.

Student leaders who led demonstrations were often suspended or expelled on the basis of breaching Ordinance 30. As most students came from poor backgrounds, the threat of suspension and expulsion under Ordinance 30 always hung over their heads like the sword of Damocles. This cocktail bred passive behaviour among many students, exactly as intended by the Government.

The situation got worse in post-2000 period with student leaders being expelled and banished from the university. Many were rescued by scholarships which took them to countries like South Africa and The Netherlands, in order to complete their studies.

Needless to say, these extreme penalties increased the levels of fear among students that came after them.

Restricting Academic Freedom

The effect of legislation such as the UZ Amendment Act was to severely restrict academic freedom. However, with the new Constitution now specifically protecting academic freedom, there are grounds to challenge the constitutionality of such legislation.

But when it was introduced in 1990, amid serious opposition from students and academics, it was a severe blow to academic freedom. It allowed non-academic appointees, most of them political appointees, into the university administration, and this seriously undermined the autonomy of the university. The Government wanted to assume greater control of the university and to monitor activities on campus. With the increase in political appointees, the power and freedom of the academy was diluted.

It was this interference from “unprofessional fingers” that was the target of Kamba’s famous remarks. As the years passed, those fears expressed by Kamba were confirmed. Mugabe is the Chancellor of all state universities, a title his lieutenants and State media are always keen to emphasise.

When his wife, Grace Mugabe, was awarded a doctoral degree in 2014 by the UZ, many eyebrows were raised within and beyond the academic community, with critics doubting the credibility of the award, suggesting it was indicative of how the university has become corrupted. But the fact that academic community could only watch and whisper their concerns indicated the depth of the emasculation.

The atmosphere among staff and students was summed up by a senior UZ academic,

“It’s not like it was before” he said wistfully, shaking his head in disapproval.“It’s not like before when there was vigorous debate and ideation among staff and students. Most people are timid now. We are just like school-teachers now. We teach, they write notes and they go home. Then they come back and regurgitate what we taught them. The lecturers are scared and the students are scared. Everyone thinks the system is watching …”

“Scorched Earth” Policy

The strategy used by Government against students can best be described as a “Scorched Earth” policy” by which a protagonist slashes and burns everything in his wake, in order to starve off the enemy. Without resources and supplies, the enemy eventually tires and starves to death. Using this strategy, Government reasoned that the best way to weaken the students was to make them financially vulnerable and weak.

In the mind of the Government, giving financial support to university and college students was like subsidising the enemy. One of the punishments meted out to the student leaders who led the student demonstrations in October 1989 was to withdraw their financial support.

Thus, beginning in the early 1990s, Government progressively eroded the facility for students’ financial support and welfare. Up until then, all students were given grants to study at the university. Then in the mid-1990s, the Government proposed a new system financial support was divided into 50% grants, with the other half as a loan, to be paid back into a revolving fund.

In doing this, the Government pleaded ESAP, the IMF-promoted economic restructuring policy in terms of which the State was encouraged to reduce social spending, which included cuts to the education sector. The economic rationale was used but for Government it served a more useful political purpose as it left students weaker.

I experienced these changes as they were happening during my time at university, in the mid-1990s, but we were at the tail-end of the more fortunate generations. Even then, the Government’s intentions were quite clear: the aim was to eventually remove financial support to students altogether.

Indeed, not long afterwards, the grant portion was wiped out and eventually, as the economy declined further, students were left to fend for themselves. Sensing what was coming we had a series of demonstrations to protect student funding. Almost all these demonstrations were thwarted by the police, who used brutal force to put down students.

But demonstrations were not simply for students funding, but on issues around civil liberties, too. In 1995, for example, students joined human rights activists in a march against police brutality, after armed police patrolling in the city centre had shot and killed innocent by-standers while in pursuit of an alleged criminal. Afterwards, the decision to have armed police in the city centre was withdrawn.

At the time, the general population was less understanding of the plight and demands of the students. There was very little appreciation in general society of the implications of the decimation of the students’ movement. Instead, they thought students were a nuisance and that Government was right to thwart them.

Unlike the rest of the population, the students had seen the long game that the Government was playing – with a weak students’ movement, Government would have one less demanding and scrutinising force to deal with. This is why, even as things have gotten worse, students are hardly the force they were 20 years ago, a situation that gives comfort to the Government.

Now, even though there are more universities and more students across the country than in the mid-nineties, the average student is weak, thoroughly beaten into submission by a State that has no restraint in the use of its coercive machinery.

Needless to say, the situation has forced students into a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, literally living from hand to mouth, in deprived conditions. Female students are especially vulnerable, with a number exposed to sexual exploitation and the risks that come with it.

Pre-occupied with survival, students have little time to engage in matters of general interest. In those conditions, even issues around academic freedom are regarded as a luxury. The sole focus is to complete their studies and go home, even though most know they will not be employed, courtesy of an inept Government that has failed to grow opportunities.

The university student of 1995 had the energy and incentive to fight for his interest and the interests of others in general. His 2015 counterpart, 20 years later, is impoverished, weak and without the energy to engage in battles with the State, whose coercive machinery does not hesitate to deploy the most brutal force.

Cutting the Unions’ Lifeblood

The students’ movement was traditionally sustained by subscriptions drawn from the members and from the commercial activities of the unions. In any university, there is nearly always a space that is allocated to the students’ union.

It is their jurisdiction – their zone of autonomy in which they conduct their affairs without interference from the authorities. At the UZ, the Students’ Union Building was this little zone of autonomy for students.

The students’ union ran a number of commercial activities, including pubs and entertainment events. These commercial activities were a source of income that sustained the union. However, at some point, the Vice-Chancellor Levy Nyagura decided to shut down this building and by doing so removed the students’ zone of autonomy.

Students’ petitions to Mugabe, as Chancellor produced no result. Without their space from which to operate and run their commercial activities which gave them some income, the union was financially exposed and weakened. They had to rely on donor funding, with all the caveats and challenges that come with it.

Closure of Residences & Dispersal

At the height of the political and economic crisis, the Government decided that the best way to remove the potential threat posed by students’ movement at the UZ was to dilute the concentration of large numbers of young people at the campus. This, they achieved by shutting down the students’ halls of residence.

These closures were justified on the grounds that the halls of residence had become unsafe and uninhabitable. Instead of fixing the problem, the Government happily moved the students out and in that way, removed the concentration of young people who were regarded as a continuing threat to power.

The closure of residences dealt a severe blow on an already weakened students’ movement. It led to the mass dispersal of students across the city. The unions no longer had a rallying point from which to mobilise their members.

We have already seen how the closure of the Students’ Union building cut off the financial lifeblood of the UZ students’ union. The closure of residences took away an easy pint of mobilisation and weakened the students’ movement.

“Securitisation” of the Campus

One of the new developments at the UZ in the 1990s was the increase in the securitisation of the campus. By “securitisation” here I use it not in the usual sense by which it is known in financial circles, but in regard to the enhancement of the security apparatus in a given area. In this case, it involved the increase in the role and power of the university’s internal security establishment.

The “Green Bombers”, as they were notoriously called on account of the colour of their apparel and their despised role, which students likened to the large green flies that prey on waste, were always a highly unpopular species on campus.

The numbers and powers of arrest were substantially increased over the years and they became an intimidating and highly despised force. Together with the police they were often deployed to thwart student demonstrations.

Like intelligence operatives and informers they also joined the student body, in plain clothes, attending lectures and seminars, gathering and transmitting information to the authorities. It was not quite like the Uganda of Idi Amin, where bodies of academics and critics would be found floating in rivers and in Lake Victoria but the securitisation of the campus was an important factor in crippling the students’ movement.

Sponsoring Rival Unions

Government figured out that one strategy to dilute the power of the students’ movement was to sponsor rival institutions and to use “divide and rule” tactics.

Thus, there were allegations that in order to counter the mainstream national students union, Zinasu (Zimbabwe National Association of Students’ Unions), Government allegedly hijacked a rival union, Zicosu (Zimbabwe Congress of Students Unions), which had been formed by students who were allegedly disgruntled with Zinasu, a sign of the factionalism that had also engulfed the students’ movement.

Zinasu had undergone renewal and revival in the late 1990s, under the leadership of the late Learnmore Jongwe. It was this union that brought together unions from all universities and colleagues across the country, creating the critical mass that had been missing in previous years when the UZ students’ union was the dominant force.

The fact that the students’ unions and Zinasu had a strong relationship with civil society organisations and the new opposition party, the MDC, was a cause for concern for the ruling party. This enhanced power and influence did not escape Government’s notice.

The alleged hijacking and sponsorship of a rival students’ union mirrored what had similarly happened in the trade unions where, in order to dilute the effect of the mainstream Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), a new rival organisation led by Joseph Chinotimba, the Zimbabwe Federation of Trade Unions (ZFTU), had also emerged in the same period.

These rival organisations had the role of countering the mainstream students’ and workers’ unions which the ruling party believed had taken sides with their political nemesis at the MDC.

These fears by the ruling party were not unfounded. The leadership of the new party, the MDC was drawn from the trade unions, with Morgan Tsvangirai and his deputy Gibson Sibanda having been drawn from the ZCTU and the students’ unions, with the likes of Learnmore Jongwe, Job Sikhala, Charlton Hwende, Nelson Chamisa, Tafadzwa Musekiwa and others all having come from Zinasu.

The fact of the matter is that the students’ union movement in Zimbabwe had played a critical part in the formation of the MDC, a point that is all too often forgotten by those who criticise the Zimbabwean students’ movement for not doing enough to challenge the establishment.

In civil society, the likes of Tawanda Mutasa, Brian Kagoro, Takura Zhangazha, Deprose Muchena, and others, many of whom had played important roles in the students’ union movement had been or would be critical driving forces in the growth of important civil society organisations such as the National Constitutional Assembly, Media Institute of Southern Africa and others.

Many of the post-2000 generation of students also played a supportive role as their interests were aligned to the demands that were being made by the opposition and civil society. This was worsened by the fact that the political divide at the national level was also reflected at the level of the students’ unions, with candidates for elections being sponsored by the rival political parties.

This political contribution of the Zimbabwean students’ movement is easy to underestimate, or even forget. I must add that if anything, in this regard, the South African students’ movement is yet to walk this path, with all its challenges.


Apart from creating rival unions, another common tactic was infiltration of the students’ movement leadership. One example cited was when a candidate was elected as President of the UZ students’ union on an MDC ticket but performed a shocking somersault immediately afterwards when he declared his support for Zanu PF.

Although officially there was no party politics, in real terms, candidates often campaigned on the basis of their political credentials, reflecting the divide at the national level.

Infiltration was problematic in that it meant there was a lack of trust within the leadership, even if there were no infiltrators. If they did exist, they were the ones who often relayed information to the authorities about what the students were planning. This helped the authorities to pre-empt any moves by the students’ movement.

Nevertheless, although there was infiltration and while some students’ leaders succumbed to the lure of money and benefits that came with being an informant, in interviews some former student leaders also cautioned against overplaying this card.

The reason is that the branding of rival candidates as “Zanu PF” or “intelligence informers/operatives” was a common tool deployed to discredit rivals in students’ union elections. You only needed to declare that one was a CIO and his stock would fall heavily in the market of voters.


At the start of this article, I wrote about the use of legislation and the coercive apparatus of the state. That was specifically in relation to the higher education sector. I also made reference to the emergency legislation that was used to arrest and detain Arthur Mutambara, Munyaradzi Gwisai, Morgan Tsvangirai and Kempton Makamure in 1989.

This was the same emergency legislation that was used against Mugabe and fellow members of his Government as well as many other nationalists by the regime of Ian Douglas Smith before independence. But use of those laws showed there had been continuities between the colonial State and the independent State.

In fact, for many years, the new Government retained the Law and Order (Maintenance) Act (LAMA), one of the primary instruments of coercion and repression that was used against nationalists by the colonial regime.

When it was eventually repealed, after its provisions were declared unconstitutional on several occasions, the Government simply replaced it with legislation of a similar character.

Named the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), only major difference with LAMA is in the name. It restricts freedom of assembly and is unlikely to survive a challenge under the new constitution. But the existence of these repressive laws, which restrict civil and political liberties, has also impacted negatively on the students’ movement.

Yet, when all is said and done, it is the sad matter of journalist and democracy activist, Itai Dzamara, that encapsulates the problem in Zimbabwe, which at present is unmatched in South Africa. Dzamara’s case is now well-known.

On March 9 2015, he was abducted and has not been seen since. He had been staging demonstrations against Government, calling for President Mugabe to step down. The State has shown little interest in the matter of his disappearance.

Senior officials and State media have been conspicuous by their nonchalance and rude dismissal of the plight of Dzamara and his family.

Zimbabwean students, like most ordinary Zimbabweans look at that case and wonder whether it is worth the trouble. No-one seems to be doing anything about it. And so they look away and choose to focus on the daily grind. At the end of the day, when analysing the situation in Zimbabwe, vis-à-vis the apparent successes of the South African students’ movement, it is important to appreciate the gravity of history. And context.


I am grateful to former student leaders and academics who have been generous with their thoughts and views, which I have relied on in compiling this article. I remain responsible for everything contained in this article. Any feedback to correct or add to the content of the article would be most welcome: [email protected]

This article was first published on www.alexmagaisa.com Follow on Twitter @wamagaisa  Contact at [email protected]