ZIMBABWE: lecturer suspended, 'bonding' scrapped

A Zimbabwean lecturer has been suspended for allegedly inciting students and fellow academics to stage protests and boycotts over poor conditions in higher education. This has added pressure on a government that has been forced to abandon a 'bonding' system students described as forced labour. Meanwhile, the United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) has pledged US$653 million to assist in resuscitating the higher and primary education sectors in 2010-11.

Earlier this year, UN agency staff dug boreholes at the University of Zimbabwe in the capital Harare to prepare for its reopening following an eight month delay due to a lecturer strike and lack of clean water. The latter is a countrywide problem that led to an outbreak of cholera and killed more than 5,000 people from August 2008 to June this year.

The suspended lecturer is Wilbed Chagwiza of Bindura University of Science Education. News of his indefinite suspension last month was published in the monthly education watch of the Zimbabwe National Students Union. Zinasu described it as "a new twist of abuse of freedom of association, expression and assembly on civil servants".

Quoting a letter issued by the university, Zinasu reported that Chagwiza had been accused of spearheading student demonstrations against high tuition fees and influencing lecturers to boycott classes because of insufficient remuneration. "He was called before a disciplinary hearing and was issued with a suspension letter."

Chagwiza's suspension was seen by analysts as exposing President Robert Mugabe's continuing dictatorial tendencies, despite forming a unity government earlier this year with the former opposition Movement for Democratic Change. Its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai, is now Zimbabwe's Prime Minister.

Last month, a Harare magistrate resigned citing victimisation by the state. Three student leaders at Mushagashi Agricultural College were recently arrested for distributing Zinasu information leaflets, and leaders of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions - the country's largest trade union - were also detained.

To cover up its appalling human rights excesses, including students being tortured and receiving death threats, the government late last month detained and subsequently deported the UN Human Rights Commission special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Neighbouring South Africa's Congress of South African Trade Unions said the new developments confirmed that "state forces in Zimbabwe, regardless of the existence of a 'government of national unity', are still brutally imposing their dictatorship over those who are struggling for democracy and workers' rights".

Despite the recent crackdown on dissenting forces, the government has in a few instances been forced to give in to student demands. This includes the issue of 'bonding', a system that involved withholding graduation certificates of state-funded students until they repaid their dues by working for the government for as long as their studies took.

The student union said it was pleased the Higher Education Ministry had removed the restrictive conditions of bonding under the cadetship programme. It hoped the good rapport it was building with college authorities and the government in particular would "go a long way in assisting students to attain affordable and quality education in Zimbabwe".

Statistics showed that of 18,789 students who applied to have their fees paid by the government under the scheme, only 1,970 benefited across all tertiary institutions in Zimbabwe because the cash-strapped government had failed to raise adequate resources.

Last week, students launched an initiative dubbed the "10,000 Signatures Higher Education Budget Campaign" to put pressure on Minister of Finance Tendai Biti to increase the budget allocation to higher and tertiary education in the national budget, due to be unveiled this month. They described previous allocations to the sector as a drop in the ocean.