ZIMBABWE: Students support opposition ahead of poll

The Zimbabwe National Students Union, which represents students at 40 tertiary institutions across the country, has passed a resolution supporting Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai against 28-year ruler President Robert Mugabe in the country's fraught 27 June presidential election run-off. The resolution continues a tradition of student opposition to Mugabe's rule since 1990 - and many senior opposition figures are former student leaders or academics.

Morgan Tsvangirai, President of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), defeated Mugabe in the first round of voting on 29 March but failed to secure the more than 50% of the vote needed under the country's Electoral Act to avoid a second round of voting. The MDC also won the most seats in parliament.

But political arrests and large-scale violence against Opposition leaders and supporters, mostly perpetrated by Zimbabwe's security forces and paramilitary units loyal to Mugabe, have escalated sharply since the March poll and there is no longer any prospect of a free and fair election. There have been more than 60 politically motivated murders.

It was against this disturbing backdrop that the students union, Zinasu, adopted a resolution at a general council meeting on 17 June reaffirming support for Morgan Tsvangirai. The meeting also called on pro-democracy institutions "to combine efforts" in campaigning ahead of the election. Aside from actively supporting Tsvangirai, the union has been mobilising other youth organisations to back his candidature, and launched a campaign against voter apathy.

Zinasu president Clever Bere told University World News that students had no option but to support the Opposition in the impending poll because Mugabe's policies were devastating the country.

He brushed aside concern about bias: "As we are going into the election there are people who are killing our compatriots and destroying the economy. We have an oppressor and we have someone who is on the side of the people. It is only natural that we side with Tsvangirai."

Bere added that a comparison of the election manifestos of the MDC and Mugabe's Zanu-PF party revealed that Opposition policies on education, if implemented, would be in the best interests of students.

Student leaders have for years been harassed and arrested by security forces, including the shadowy Central Intelligence Organisation. In the run-up to the 29 March poll, 15 students were tortured, 10 were expelled and two received death threats, according to the non-profit Students Solidarity Trust.

Bere said student leaders were aware of the dangers of opposing Mugabe, but circumstances demanded that they make a stand: "After someone is murdered the question that comes to the mind of every pro-democracy activist is 'Who is next?' However, the sentiment among people on the ground is that Mugabe can kill revolutionaries but he cannot kill the revolution."

Many former student leaders have gone on to lead the Opposition movement, in politics and civil society, in Zimbabwe. Arthur Mutambara, President of a rival MDC faction, was a student leader at the University of Zimbabwe and in 1989 organised nationwide protests to oppose Mugabe's attempt to turn the country into a one-party state - a role that led to Mutambara being arrested and imprisoned.

He subsequently became a Rhodes Scholar, obtained a PhD in robotics and mechatronics from Oxford University and held professorships in the US.

Another former student leader who went into Opposition politics is MDC Secretary-General Tendai Biti, who was arrested last week and is being held in prison. According to police, Biti will be charged with treason for announcing the 29 March election results before they were official.

There are also academics actively involved in the Opposition movement. Constitutional law expert Welshman Ncube is secretary-general of the rival MDC faction, and law lecturer Dr Lovemore Madhuku heads the National Constitutional Assembly, a pressure group agitating for a new democratic constitution to replace the current restrictive one authored in 1979 as a compromise document to end the country's war of independence.

In 2006, the ruling Zanu PF party called on the government to expel all critical lecturers from higher education institutions, accusing them of influencing students against Mugabe. But Madhuku contends that academics only teach students to have independent and critical minds to challenge what is wrong.

"The unfortunate thing is that Zanu PF does what is wrong," he said.