Towards Academic freedom in Zimbabwe: The Trials and Tribulations
By Takudzwa Ngadziore
In a bid to quench the thirst for affordable and accessible education, without also neglecting the fundamental and moral obligation of addressing the socio-economic welfare question of students, academic freedom remains a key fight.
Whereas the journey towards its realization might never be flowery in contemporary society, academic freedom remains one of the essential values of higher and tertiary education in Zimbabwe- among pillars such as equitable access, social responsibility, accountability and institutional autonomy.
Since time immemorial, the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) has been fighting tooth and nail towards the realization of academic freedoms thus revealing resilience in the face of adversity.
Historically, institutions of higher learning in Zimbabwe have been viewed by the government as zones to inflict state capture and consolidate power.
Post-independence, in pursuit of a totalitarianism agenda, the ruling party, Zanu PF formed the Zimbabwe Congress of Students Union (ZICOSU) as a mechanism to supplant and silence ZINASU. However, the Zimbabwe National Students Union has passed a blind eye to the trials and tribulations.
The criminalization of the Students’ Movement has derailed the fight towards academic freedom. The supreme document of the land, the constitution, refers to political and civil rights which must be observed.
Importantly, one can never ignore the essentiality of constitutionalism in creating an environment that promotes the respect of human rights.
An escalation of cases of human rights abuses within the students’ movement due to unjust arrests, torture, abductions and threats is evidence of the regime’s intention to thwart the democratic space. In two years, over forty student leaders have been arrested trying to voice out their concerns.
In addition, during peaceful demonstrations aimed at registering discontent, the deployment of security forces has been witnessed myriad times. Therefore, one can never ignore the need for security sector reform and judicial independence for academic freedom to thrive.
The weaponization of COVID-19 during the lockdown period is a reflection of how the journey towards academic freedom is between a rock and a hard place. While the lockdown was a preventative measure by the government to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it also came as a means to abuse the students. Academic freedom without sharing or generating ideas loses its mandate of providing alternative solutions. The students kept facing unjust arrests during the lockdown when attention was supposed to be on the global pandemic threatening the lives of many.
Judicial capture has contributed much to the pretrial detention of student leaders in Zimbabwe. The right to trial within a reasonable period has been violated in attempts to persecute activists.
While demanding justice for Tawanda Muchehiwa, a 22-year-old Journalism student who was abducted and tortured ahead of the July 31 protests in 2020, many student leaders were made jailbirds by the state.
The Bulawayo High Court judge, Evangilista Kabasa, gave a court order that Impala Car Rental should unravel the identities of those who abducted Muchehiwa since their vehicles had been used to commit this crime against humanity.
In respect of academic freedom which recognizes and respects existence, ZINASU had to act in the best interest of justice. However, the repressive environment contributed to the persecution of student activists like myself, Prince Gora, Nancy Njenge and Donald Marevanhema.
The repressive and oppressive legal environment has made the journey towards academic freedom painful.
Judicial institutions are used to further political agendas. This can also be denoted within institutions of higher learning. Members of ZINASU have always been victims of unjust expulsions, suspensions and unnecessary surveillance. The existence of oppressive ordinances targeting student activists is a result of how institutions are afraid of genuine voices.
Closure to the engagement window has affected the journey towards academic freedom.
Many times, the students' movement seeks to engage responsible authorities either institutionally or under the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education for them to address concerns. The introduction of e-learning saw ZINASU trying to engage the Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education Professor Amon Murwira.
Due to the disenfranchisement of the poor, the students' movement felt that the initiative made education a privilege. Issues like exorbitant data charges, inaccessibility of digital devices, unavailability of an online curriculum and network issues were among the concerns leading to the violation of the Section 75 Right to Education. However, the language of dialogue to resolve issues has never been tolerated. In some cases, it can be tolerated with an attitude or without implementation of the demands.
In attempts to delegitimize genuine voices, the toxic political terrain has tried hard to resort to labelling. Student activists have often been labelled while in pursuit of academic freedom. They have been called puppets of the opposition or west, scholarship beneficiaries, regime change agents among other filthy indecent names.
One can never ignore how this has contributed to the identity crisis particularly of those who are fighting for genuine issues. On the Internet, issues of cyberbullying are a means to hinder the genuine cause. The regime invests in establishing ghost accounts that instigate conflict, peddle falsehoods and come with hostility.
The journey towards academic freedom is never easy. While it remains important to fight for education and make it a right, to represent the interests of the students and speak truth to power, the state and its apparatus offer no room for such.
The above is evidence of how the regime seeks to destroy the Students Movement and its genuine cause.
Takudzwa Ngadziore is the President of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU)