Will the multimillion-dollar Mugabe University be built?
A rift between the Mugabe family and the country’s new leaders, who engineered the coup that brought his 37-year rule to an end in November 2017, has apparently made coordination of the project impossible.
Some academics described the project as “absurd” and said, realistically speaking, the Robert Mugabe university project was unlikely to see the light of day.
Mugabe’s education legacy, in particular in higher education, has been more institutions and greater access, but which could not be sustained financially.
Academic freedom has also been left in tatters. The ongoing crackdown on student activists in Zimbabwe could be seen as one of the lasting consequences of the lack of academic freedom.
Early in 2017, the Zimbabwean government announced plans to build a US$1 billion science and technology university named after Mugabe who, during his lifetime, read for seven degrees and received honorary degrees from countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and the United States. Some were, however, removed as a result of his authoritarian rule.
At the time, Zimbabwe’s cabinet approved the plan for the university to be located in the scenic Mazowe district in Mashonaland Central province where Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, had already built a school and an orphanage, both of which are named after her.
Cabinet also approved grants of US$800 million towards the construction of the university and US$200 million towards the university’s endowment fund for research and innovation.
Mugabe and his wife, Grace, were to be the founding trustees of the university to be managed by the Robert Gabriel Mugabe Foundation.
After Mugabe was toppled in a coup in November 2017 by his former comrades, and his subsequent death in 2019, the project has not featured among projects of the Zimbabwe Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development.
Instead, the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has focused on the establishment of innovation hubs and industrial parks at existing institutions of higher learning.
No project champions left
Since the cabinet’s approval of the grant to build the Mugabe university, no money has been released by those who succeeded Mugabe.
Some of the proponents of the planned Mugabe university project, such as Professor Jonathan Moyo, the late president’s former minister of higher education, his deputy, Godfrey Gandawa, as well as Mugabe’s nephew Patrick Zhuwao, who is also a former minister in his government, now all live in exile, having fled the country after Mugabe was toppled.
Mugabe’s wife, Grace, who is also believed to be outside Zimbabwe, may not return after the state media reported that she and some of her associates were under investigation after they allegedly “grabbed residential stands worth US$10 million without paying from an upmarket development on state land in Borrowdale”, in Harare.
Silence from government
Raymore Machingura, the deputy minister of higher and tertiary education, innovation, science and technology development, declined to state why the government has shelved the project.
A spokesperson for the Mugabe family did not respond to questions that were sent to him.
However, academics said it was unlikely that the Robert Mugabe University project would ever see the light of day.
Dr Ricky Mukonza, a Zimbabwe-born academic based at South Africa’s Tshwane University of Technology, said the idea of building a Robert Mugabe university was “absurd”.
He wondered what special purpose that university was going to serve in a country which had so many universities that are struggling to operate optimally. He said the money earmarked to construct the university would have been better deployed to support existing institutions.
“Of course, the construction of that university was to satisfy the ego of the late former president. Now that he is out of the picture, I do not see the plan going ahead. The current administration and its leadership have their priorities and this does not appear to be one,” said Mukonza.
A ‘dead project’
Another academic, Dr Takavafira Zhou, said the Robert Mugabe university was a dead project, in particular since the late former president was removed in the coup and has been blamed as a reason for Zimbabwe’s ongoing misfortunes.
Zhou is a former lecturer of the Great Zimbabwe University. He runs an environmental impact assessment consultancy and is involved in the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe.
He said Mugabe’s will, not to be buried at the country’s Heroes Acre, as Mnangagwa wanted, widened the rift between the new leaders of the country and the late president’s family.
Zhou said his higher education legacy was contested.
“While he surely must be credited with the increased enrolment at the University of Zimbabwe and the establishment of other universities and polytechnics in almost every province, ‘RG’ must also be known for restricting academic freedom,” he said.
“The University of Zimbabwe student movement is known for protests against corruption and human rights abuses since the mid-1980s, and against the one party state by ZANU-PF.”
But, added Zhou, academic freedom was restricted from the late 1980s to the early 1990s, and this became worse in 2003 with the introduction of national strategic studies in colleges and polytechnics to produce pro ZANU-PF oriented students, or the so called ‘patriotic students’.
“Mugabe would, therefore, be remembered for restricting academic freedom and his futile attempts to produce patriotic universities and not centres of academic excellence.
“Ultimately, Mugabe stifled the role of universities in national development by Zanu-ising institutions of learning, dismissing lecturers like us perceived to be ‘pro-Movement for Democratic Change, and radicals’, appointing vice-chancellors who could walk his warped ZANU-PF policies,” he said.
Academic freedom limited
Zhou said he was dismissed in 2008 from the Great Zimbabwe University for saying Mugabe was now old and would have been a great man had he resigned in 1987 after the signing of the Unity Accord to end political killings in the 1980s or after the 2000 no vote in a constitutional referendum.
The academic said he was punished for stating that, by overstaying in power, Mugabe was reversing some of his educational and health achievements.
“I was deemed an ‘academic terrorist’ and dismissed without a hearing for insulting the chancellor of all universities (Mugabe). But history absolved me in 2017, when ZANU-PF removed Mugabe through a coup,” he added.
Mukonza concurred on the issue of academic freedom, saying there is little doubt that Mugabe’s regime worked hard to curtail freedoms in institutions of higher education.
He said academics and students who expressed views that were not palatable to the regime were persecuted through various means, including suspensions and incarceration.
He also said the deployment of Central Intelligence Organisation agents at institutions of higher education also worked to curtail academic freedom, as they instilled fear among both university staff and students.
“In the higher education sector, Mugabe will be remembered for increasing the number of universities, thus increasing access to higher education.
“What is questionable is his government’s [subsequent] support made available to these many universities that they made available.
“This lack of support to the sector under Mugabe and even [under] the current administration has led to questions around the quality of graduates being churned out by institutions of higher education in Zimbabwe,” added Mukonza.
Funding could not sustain expansion
Innocent Chofamba-Sithole, a Zimbabwean journalist, said Mugabe invested in the expansion of higher education, beginning with the establishment of a science and technology university in the second city of Bulawayo in the 1990s to add to the University of Zimbabwe, which had been the country’s sole university since the 1950s.
He said this was quickly followed by new state universities in most provinces across the country, and private organisations, including churches, were also licensed to establish universities.
“However, by the mid-1990s, funding for higher education had begun to place a heavy toll on dwindling government coffers. This was also due to pressure from the International Monetary Fund, which insisted on the introduction of user-charges for public services such as education and health as part of the Economic Structural Adjustment Programme,” he said.
By the late 1990s, the government had introduced a fees policy and provided financial support to students only on a means-tested basis.
“This caused massive upheavals as the student movement launched demonstrations across the country against the new measures,” said Chofamba-Sithole.
“Accommodation provision on campuses fell short of capacity and library resources were dated, with no access at all to computers or online resources such as academic journals,” he added.
Chofamba-Sithole said academics operated fairly freely, hence leading political scientists and law professors at the University of Zimbabwe during the Mugabe era became prominent critics of the government and functioned as effective public intellectuals in the country’s independent newspapers.
They included Masipula Sithole, John Makumbe, Kempton Makamure and Lovemore Madhuku.
‘Started well … ended badly’
In an earlier interview with University World News following Mugabe’s death in 2019, Daniel Molokele, the chairperson of the Zimbabwe Parliamentary Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology, who is a member of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change national executive committee, described Mugabe’s legacy in higher education as a mixed bag: “He started well and ended badly,” he said.
“The higher education landscape was changed under his leadership. It was expanded. Remember, at independence there was one university, but now there are more than 10 state universities.
“Also, over these years, there were opportunities for people to go to university through government grants.
“But there are negatives, like the fact that academic freedoms were reduced, especially after 1989 through the University of Zimbabwe Amendment Act of 1990, which reduced the vice-chancellor from being the chief academic to the chief disciplinarian. A lot of student leaders and outspoken academics have been victimised since then across campuses.”