Desperate students look to campus politics for solutions

Higher education students, tired of enduring high levels of economic stress and desperate for political change, are joining campus-based student unions in their numbers despite concerns around the strong alignment of such groups to national political parties.

Earlier this month the Zimbabwe National Students’ Union or ZINASU – arguably the biggest union of tertiary students – blatantly threw its weight behind a coalition of opposition parties which it says should be led by Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai, confirming long-held beliefs that it is a protégé for the MDC-T.

At a press briefing on 9 May the student union launched an attack on the ruling ZANU-PF government for failing to manage the economy, arguing that its mismanagement was affecting tertiary education students the most.

The union’s scathing critique of ZANU-PF and its blatant support for a Tsvangirai-led coalition has lent credence to long-existing allegations that it is an appendage of the MDC-T in a country in which student politics is increasingly polarised along party lines.

ZINASU told journalists the country was teeming with unemployed graduates because the government had failed to deliver on its 2013 election promise of 2.2 million jobs.

Economic failure

“Our position is that ZANU-PF has failed the students and the nation at large. Tertiary students are dropping out en masse because they don’t have money to pay fees. Those fortunate enough to be in school are joining the ranks of the unemployed upon graduation. Evidence of economic failure is everywhere – graduates are selling airtime, and there are cash shortages,” ZINASU spokesperson Zivai Mhetu said.

Mhetu said his union supported progressive opposition forces that had coalesced their efforts to form a grand coalition poised to challenge ZANU-PF’s 37-year hold on power in the upcoming 2018 elections.

“While we understand that various leaders of parties involved in coalition talks have something to bring to the table, we strongly believe that the Movement for Democratic Change [MDC-T] President Morgan Tsvangirai has the best credentials to lead the coalition, not only because he is the only opposition leader who has garnered more votes than President Robert Mugabe in the past, but also because currently he has more national appeal than all other opposition leaders,” said Mhetu.

ZINASU believed that a new government led by the coalition held the keys to a better life for Zimbabweans, particularly tertiary students, said Mhetu.

“One of the major reasons the economy is faltering is because investors, both foreign and local, have no confidence to invest under a ZANU-PF government due to its history of violation of property rights and promulgation of unfriendly investment laws."

Calls for a new government

“A new government with a clean track record will go a long way towards restoring investor confidence in the country, which will result in the opening of industries and the creation of jobs, and therefore fewer tertiary education dropouts.”

Student unionism in Zimbabwe – where students perennially fight high fees, suspensions, expulsions, abductions by security agents, service delivery inertia and graduate unemployment – is largely pursued along partisan political lines, affecting the ability of the unions to deliver effectively on their mandates to serve students.

Since the adoption of a multi-currency system dominated by the US dollar in 2009, many tertiary education students have struggled to pay fees, forcing at least 42,000 students to drop out. Accommodation shortages have become endemic as colleges and universities fail to cope with surging enrolments.

The high levels of economic stress endured by higher education students has created a growing belief among most of the students that an end to their challenges lies in solving the national question, hence the affiliation to national politics. However, the result is that students become more vulnerable to both polarisation and political exploitation.

Rights of students

Political scientist Professor Eldred Masunungure said the penetration of student unions into partisan politics and their public alliance with specific political parties was worrisome.

“Their duty is to promote and defend rights of students, and to advance student welfare and not to foray into partisan politics. That needs to be addressed. Their motto should be 'Students first'. As individual leaders they are allowed affiliation but not as associations: that tends to divide and polarise students,” said Masunungure.

Tatenda Zambara, chapter president of Zimbabwe Congress of Student Unions, ZICOSU, arguably the second largest student union and which is known to be aligned to ZANU-PF, agreed that the split of student unions along political lines was distracting.

“It’s a problem for students because they are pressured by politicians. Student leaders often get carried away, and end up doing errands for political individuals at the expense of student issues,” he said.

ZICOSU claims that its domination of the recent student council elections at the University of Zimbabwe – where it landed the top posts of president and secretary general – and at other universities where it leads student representative councils or SRCs, shows that the union is now preferred among the majority of students.

Indeed, some students said that the emergence of ZICOSU had given them an alternative expression to ZINASU, and a wider pool from which to choose student leaders.

Student issues

Zambara said students liked ZICOSU because it is a peace-loving and united front and dealt with student issues.

“Accommodation is a major problem for tertiary students. Many students are lodging outside of campuses. Universities should rent halls of residence for students,” he said. “On the issue of fees, particularly exam fees, students must be allowed to sit for exams even when they have not paid, and then pay upon collection of results, as opposed to the current ‘30% down’ policy.”

However, last year, disgruntled students, tired of both ZINASU and ZICOSU, formed a new, apolitical union called Student Voice.

Secretary General Shingirai Chabata said the union was created to fill the void left by the two unions who were dabbling in party politics, leaving student issues unattended.

“We formed Student Voice to address the issue of high fees and attachment fees. Students were being made to pay full fees while on attachment, when they are not using facilities. Other issues relate to the lack of disability policies at tertiary education institutions, and the failure by government to address the plight of disadvantaged students – most of whom can’t afford fees,” said Chabata.

Chabata said it was not healthy for student union bodies to engage in national politics or support particular political parties although members or students in their individual capacities can vote for political parties of their choice.

Compromised mandates

“ZICOSU is funded by ZANU-PF so it becomes difficult for ZICOSU to confront ZANU-PF on issues affecting students because they cannot bite the hand that is feeding them, and the same applies to the MDC-T backed ZINASU. That compromises their mandates,” added Chabata.

Chabata claimed that Student Voice presently commanded more members than ZICOSU and ZINASU, through leadership of student councils at Bindura University, Madziwa Teachers College, Morgan Zintec College, Hillside Teachers College and Solusi University.

“If we had won all the elections at all colleges and universities, our call for the 'Fees must fall' campaign would have been a huge success. We would be controlling all SRCs,” he said.

While the Student Voice aims to be apolitical, it nevertheless said it would back any forces that can cause the change students want, including a change of government as a solution to student challenges.

The union is perturbed that government has failed to respond to the issue of high fees, and graduate employment, and believes that the solution to challenges facing students may reside in a change of government, its spokesperson said.