AUSTRALIA: Monash denies Mugabe invitation

Monash University Vice-chancellor Professor Ed Byrne was forced to deny a Melbourne newspaper report last week that one of his senior executives at the university's South African campus had extended an invitation to Zimbabwe's notorious president, Robert Mugabe, to give a lecture to students at Monash's Johannesburg campus.

A report in The Age newspaper said Deputy Pro-vice-chancellor Professor Dina Burger had extended the invitation when she and two other senior Monash staff met Mugabe in his presidential office in the Zimbabwean capital Harare.

"The meeting appears to have been part of a marketing exercise to encourage Zimbabwean students to attend the Monash South Africa campus and to thank Mugabe's regime for paying for several student scholarships as part of his presidential scholarship programme," the newspaper's reporters said.

Their article said that after the meeting between the Monash delegation and Mugabe, the state-owned Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation reported that Burger had "commended Commander Mugabe's humility".

"We invited the President to come to our university to give a public lecture, which he gladly accepted and would visit in the near future," Burger is supposed to have said.

But Byrne told University World News that no formal invitation to give a lecture had been issued and that Mugabe would not visit the Johannesburg campus. He said Burger had been surprised to be introduced to Mugabe and was "polite as one would be".

"We've always had several hundred Zimbabwe students in each year [in the South African university] for several years and they are a very positive and productive part of the student body there," Byrne said.

"We take students from across Africa and have had many Zimbabwean students for many years through that country's Presidential Government Scholarship scheme. When our recruitment team had the opportunity to meet with Mugabe, Dina Burger, who was heading the team, said that if the President was in South Africa and wished to meet the students, she would welcome that."

As soon as the president of the Johannesburg campus, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, learned of the conversation that had taken place with Mugabe, he called Byrne in Melbourne to explain.

"It was made very clear that no official invitation or any type of invitation would be extended to Mugabe to visit the campus," Byrne said. "Monash, like other universities across the world, takes students from countries that do not accord with the democratic principles we hold to in Australia. One of the reasons we do that is because when those students return home they take those liberal democratic values back and thereby play some role in their own country."

Byrne said South Africa had "full relationships" with Zimbabwe and was trying to help by maintaining that engagement so as to make the post-Mugabe country as strong as possible. Monash's Johannesburg campus was operating "in that context".