Mugabe’s study abroad scholarship scheme slashed

In the face of Zimbabwe’s new economic crisis, the Treasury has resolved to slash the number of student beneficiaries of Robert Mugabe’s controversial presidential scholarship programme.

The country has entered into its worst economic crisis since 2009, when adoption of the United States dollar and South African rand as legal tender wiped out record inflation that had reached 2.3 million percent when the Zimbabwe dollar was in use.

The current cash crisis has seen the government sometimes failing to pay workers, which prompted a lecturer strike last month. The government has also announced that it will be retrenching some workers and an audit of its workforce is underway.

The presidential scholarship fund, which started operating in 1995, uses state funds to finance talented but disadvantaged students to attend foreign universities.

South African institutions have featured strongly in the scheme, with the University of Fort Hare – Mugabe's alma mater – being the first to participate. In recent years the scheme has expanded to cover 14 other universities in South Africa.

During a campaign rally for a by-election held late last month, Vice-president Emmerson Mnangagwa said the government would scale down the scholarships and concentrate on setting up training centres.

“The government is going to start reducing the number of students to be funded under the Presidential Scholarship Programme. So far over 5,000 students have graduated under the programme,” said Mnangagwa.

“Now we have over 10 universities in the country and they can enrol many students. The government will now channel resources towards setting up more vocational training centres across the country with an emphasis on skills development.”

Backdrop and criticism

The scholarship scheme has had ups and downs in the past decade.

Last year, the presidential fund incurred unauthorised expenditure amounting to nearly US$6 million. The fund was allocated US$1.3 million in the national budget, but Mugabe used US$5.8 million in unbudgeted expenditure.

In March 2014 the scholarship scheme was suspended when, the programme’s director Chris Mushowe said, it failed to obtain funding from the Treasury.

At the time, the scheme reportedly owed South African universities around US$1 million in student fees. Three months later the programme was revived, presumably after receiving Treasury funding although this was apparently not specified.

In 2011, Zimbabwe's former finance minister Tendai Biti attempted but failed to block state funding of the scholarship scheme on the grounds that it was a personal initiative of Mugabe. The long-time autocrat obtained a law degree from the University of Fort Hare in the 1950s.

Biti said at the time: “It is a fund created for sentimental reasons to take students to Fort Hare, so we cannot fund it. Besides, we don’t have the money. The president wanted us to fund it to the tune of US$54 million yet it's private, just like the Reagan Foundation and the Thabo Mbeki Foundation.”

The Zimbabwe National Students Union, the country's largest student association, has long opposed the scholarship fund, saying that it has been abused to benefit children of the president’s cronies.

Critics have also argued that the fund should fall under the Ministry of Higher Education rather than being run by a committee handpicked by Mugabe, which means it is not a national programme.

Students who receive scholarships must commit to work for the government for a period after graduation. But most beneficiaries have been reluctant to return home to a country with a nearly 90% unemployment rate and political as well as economic uncertainty.