Placard-waving students face disciplinary action

The University of Zimbabwe, or UZ, has summoned three students to a disciplinary hearing after they held aloft protest placards during the university’s graduation ceremony last month at which Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was officiating. The students have reportedly also been denied access to their degree certificates.

The students, Tonderai Dombo, Thembinkosi Rushwaya and Alexander Mukamba have been charged with breaching the rules of student conduct and discipline, commonly referred to as Ordinance 30, thereby “putting the name of the institution into disrepute”.

The three waved placards protesting the lack of employment opportunities and demanding jobs during last month’s graduation ceremony which Mugabe attended in his capacity as chancellor of all the country’s universities.

Two other UZ students, Hlalanilathi Khosa and Tinotenda Mhungu, also face disciplinary action under the same ordinance for their alleged participation in an anti-government protest held on 24 August in central Harare, which the university authorities claim to have been an illegal demonstration. The duo, who were reportedly detained in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, also face charges of public violence.

Wave of protest

Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate is estimated at 90%, with more companies shutting down and others retrenching workers in recent months, a trend blamed on mismanagement of the economy, the government’s policy failures and general repression.

The demonstrations by the five students coincided with a wave of protests against Mugabe, who is the world’s oldest president at 92 years and has ruled the country for 36 years, overseeing its economic collapse.

In letters charging the five students, UZ authorities said the students’ actions violated Ordinance 30 as it says no student of the university shall engage in any conduct whether on or off campus which is or is reasonably likely to be harmful to the interests of the university, members of the university staff or students.

A spokesperson for the country’s biggest student union, the Zimbabwe National Students Union, or ZINASU, said it had noted with utter disdain the move by the university to charge five students with unconstitutional regulations reminiscent of oppressive colonial laws.

‘Factories of unemployment’

“The university administration has not only stooped so low as to deny Tonderai Dombo, Thembinkosi Rushwaya, Alexander Mukamba their certificates over staging a demonstration against Robert Mugabe for virtually turning Zimbabwean universities and colleges into 'factories of unemployment'. For merely raising placards in demand of jobs after graduating they are now being denied their certificates and are summoned to a persecutory disciplinary hearing,” said ZINASU Secretary-General Makomborero Haruzivishe.

“The University of Zimbabwe administration further went on to complete the vicious circuit of oppression by summoning Hlalanilathi Khosa and Tinotenda Mhungu to a hearing over vague charges of 'putting the name of the institution into disrepute'. These students are victims of abductions by ZANU PF youths, torture at ZANU PF headquarters, before being handed over to the police. They were then denied bail and spent a month in Chikurubi Maximum Prison. It is a folly that the whole University of Zimbabwe is furthering the torture,” he said.

Haruzivishe said students are no longer allowed to air their views, or make objective contributions whether academic, social, economic or political.

“We demand that [these] charges be dropped immediately and unconditionally. Failure to do so will only further agitate the looming campus shutdowns,” he said.

The student leader said assaults and wanton arrests by police and campus security personnel have virtually turned campuses into police institutions.

Student victimisation

He said the victimisation of students in Zimbabwe was at an all-time high, characterised by illegal suspensions and expulsions based on the unconstitutional Ordinance 30.

A prominent Zimbabwean lawyer, Alex Magaisa, currently based at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, wrote last year in a blog post titled, “How Mugabe strangled the Zimbabwean student movement (Part 2)”, that the so-called Ordinance 30 of 1984 was a set of regulations that formed part of an array of tools used by the government to control students and keep them in check.

“This became a potent tool against students, who were required to sign an undertaking upon registration that they would observe Ordinance 30 during their tenure at the university. The Student Disciplinary Committee and officers authorised under Ordinance 30 had investigatory and disciplinary powers, including penalising students found guilty of misconduct,” he wrote.

“As most students came from poor backgrounds, the threat of suspension and expulsion under Ordinance 30 always hung over their heads like the sword of Damocles. This cocktail bred passive behaviour among many students, exactly as intended by the government,” he wrote.

Magaisa said the situation got worse in the post-2000 period with student leaders being expelled and banished from the university. Many were rescued by scholarships which took them to countries like South Africa and the Netherlands in order to complete their studies.

“Needless to say, these extreme penalties increased the levels of fear among students that came after them,” he said.