ZIMBABWE: Cholera greater threat than police

"Police stop beating students" demands a sign across one of the main gates of the University of Zimbabwe, the country's oldest university. The sign has been there for close to five years, says Wadzanai Rugare, a vendor who sells fruit and sweets to students outside the gate. It is a plea from students who are routinely harassed, arrested and tortured by a notorious police force determined to subdue a restive population fed up with President Robert Mugabe's 28-year-old autocratic rule. But the greatest threat they currently face is cholera.

"We started our lessons last month. We have heard about the police, but since we arrived at this institution I think the greatest threat to our well-being has been cholera. There is no water and the toilets are not functioning. In a month I have never used the university's toilets," said a first year political science who student declined to be named for fear of reprisals.

As the student spoke last week, a cholera epidemic had hit Zimbabwe, killing more than 500 people, with 10,000 more being treated for the disease. The epidemic is the result of the government's failure to provide clean water. But at the University of Zimbabwe, students and staff do not even have dirty water in ablution facilities, because they are not functioning.

Clever Bere, president of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu), said authorities at the university had close a number of buildings, citing a health hazard due to lack of water. "All the halls of residence are closed. The student union office was also closed," said Bere, describing the situation as "pathetic. The library is closed. The windows are in tatters."

Profesor Eldred Masunungure, a political science lecturer, has taught at the University of Zimbabwe since 1987. Comparing standards and infrastructure then and now, 21 years down the line, he said the university is "a pale shadow of its former self".

"In terms of the buildings, in terms of the facilities, in terms of the environment - everything has deteriorated markedly...There has been comprehensive deterioration across the board." Masunungure added that the institution no longer had adequate teaching resources and relied on outdated materials, with the natural sciences being the worst hit.

Asked by University World News about the causes of the decline, the political scientist said that the University of Zimbabwe was a state university that was not self-sufficient. "When you have a fiscal crisis of the state, it affects all institutions dependent on the state and that includes the university." There were also other management crises, he added.

Masunungure said Mugabe and the rival Movement for Democratic Change might delay implementing a power sharing deal signed in September following talks led by former South African President Thabo Mbeki, but would have to reach a compromise as they had no other option. He believes a government of national unity will be put in place during the first quarter of 2009.

But University of Zimbabwe law lecturer, Douiglas Mwonzora, disagrees. In a statement titled "Mugabe's 18 tactics of destruction", released to the press recently, he said the only way total collapse - including in education - could be averted was for the international community to intervene.

Mwonzora, who is also a Movement for Democratic Change legislator, added: "Mugabe and his henchmen...are on a warpath with the people. If the international community does not intervene with responsible haste then Zimbabwe will slide into anarchy. The solution lies with all right thinking members of the international community to avert disaster."