Student interests suffer as unions pursue party agendas

Student unionism in Zimbabwe has become synonymous with party politics, compromising the unions’ ability to represent students and causing a great number of tertiary students who want nothing to do with party politics to actually shun national unions.

The Zimbabwe National Students’ Union or ZINASU – the biggest students’ body in the country – is linked to the Movement for Democratic Change or MDC, the country’s largest opposition party. The second biggest students’ union, Zimbabwe Congress of Student Unions or ZICOSU, is linked to the ruling party ZANU-PF. Smaller unions, many of which purport to be independent, are curiously the least autonomous and work directly to fulfil the agendas of political parties.

But this has not always been the case.

The first national students’ union to ever exist in Zimbabwe, ZINASU, was totally divorced from party politics when it was re-launched in 1997 after a long period of latency. Even in its formative stages in the late 1980s, ZINASU had nothing to do with political parties in as far as its internal workings and politics were concerned. The same applied to ZICOSU which was formed by students disgruntled with ZINASU.

Love-hate relationship

The involvement of ZINASU in the formation of the MDC in 1999 officially marked the beginning of its long and complicated love-hate relationship with that party. ZICOSU on the other hand was hijacked by the ruling party after its formation in the late 1990s.

Other student unions that have been formed since then, such as the now defunct Amalgamated Students’ Association of Zimbabwe or ASAZ, were created because of one widely held belief among political players in Zimbabwe – that it was prudent for a party to have a students’ body which it can use to mobilise tertiary students to support it.

It is because of this belief that the formation of a new political party in Zimbabwe is now always accompanied by the creation of a new students’ union. Shortly after Mavambo Kusile Dawn was formed in 2008, a students’ union linked to it called Amalgamated Student’s Union of Zimbabwe, or ASUZ, came into existence.

Last year when a political party called Zimbabwe People First was launched, an organisation called the Student Voice, alleged to be its appendage, was formed. ASAZ (not to be confused with ASUZ) was created after the first split of the MDC and was linked to a break-away faction of that party.


Simply put, assuming they weren’t already extensions of parties at formation, many student unions in Zimbabwe have become conduits of party interests in tertiary institutions. This has greatly compromised their ability to represent students.

Political party control of student unions simply means the latter will pursue the interests of the former at the expense of student interests. For instance, it is highly unlikely that the leadership of a students’ union that is in bed with the party in government will ever question that government if it tramples on the rights of students or neglects the education sector.

Because they have chosen to connect themselves to political parties, student unions in Zimbabwe go through the political upheavals experienced in those entities.

When the Movement for Democratic Change split for the second time in 2014, ZINASU almost followed suit with its national executive divided among warring MDC leaders.

Similarly, ZICOSU almost split over factional wars in ZANU-PF in 2016, with one camp siding with a ZANU-PF faction linked to Zimbabwe’s Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, while the other was sympathetic to another faction that goes by the moniker G40.

When they are engaged in party factional wars, union leaders totally neglect their core business, which is to represent students. Most of their energy is spent on fighting each other while the plight of students worsens by the day.

Stepping stone

While the motive of political parties that seek to control student unions has already been established here, it is also important to understand why student unions allow themselves to be used by parties.

Because countless leaders in the opposition and the ruling party are former student leaders, student union leaders in Zimbabwe view student unionism as a stepping stone into national politics. In a bid to secure their future with mainstream political parties, selfish student leaders bend to the whims and caprices of party leaders who seek to control the student unions, in the hope that they will be given posts in such parties when they eventually move on from student politics.

But this is not the only reason student union leaders allow their organisations to be used by parties; there are other reasons such as outright bribery.

Financial incentives

Students in Zimbabwe are among the most impoverished demographic group in the country. Political party leaders take advantage of this fact and use financial incentives to lure student leaders into making decisions that are beneficial to such parties but detrimental to the interests of their unions.

In the run-up to the 2013 elections in Zimbabwe some top-level ZINASU officials were enticed, allegedly by MDC proxies, into issuing a statement to the effect that their union was supporting that party in the elections. The effect of that statement was to disenfranchise students within ZINASU who did not support that party nor wish to belong to a union that subscribed to it in any way.

On more than one occasion, there have been reports that the MDC has sponsored its party activists to run for office in ZINASU. Its activists however, have never filled all posts in the union’s national executive. This has resulted in a love-hate relationship between the MDC and ZINASU because while some union leaders have either permitted or invited MDC involvement in their organisation, others have distanced themselves from it and warned the party to stay away from the student mother body.


I would be remiss if I ended without mentioning the countless frantic efforts that have been made by some national union leaders to rid their unions of party involvement. As already alluded to, ZINASU has warned the MDC several times to stop interfering in its internal politics. ZICOSU made its first effort to cut ties with ZANU-PF in 2016 when it distanced itself from that party and asserted its independence at a press conference.

However, in the long run such efforts always prove to be futile because political parties usually manage to regain control of student unions by enticing their leaders with money or by planting their activists in national union executives. Sometimes they do not even have to go to this effort because ambitious union leaders may decide to offer up their unions to parties they wish to join upon leaving student politics in order to receive political recognition.

Students are not a homogenous group; their political preferences are diverse. As such, it is crucial that student unions be non-partisan in order to accommodate students of various political backgrounds.

Zachariah Mushawatu is a former Zimbabwe National Students’ Union or ZINASU spokesperson working as a media consultant and freelance journalist.