Professor Walter Kamba: A man of conscience

This year, 2021, marks the 90th birth anniversary of the late Professor Walter Kamba, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe.

He was a remarkable academic who has left his imprint, not just in Africa, but also globally, when he became president of the International Association of Universities (IAU) for the period 1990-1995 – the first president from an African university since the creation of the association in 1950.

Early years and exile

Walter Kamba was born in 1931 in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. He went to study law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and then returned to Southern Rhodesia where he was one of the few black legal practitioners to the High Court.

However, when a Unilateral Declaration of Independence was issued in 1965 in Southern Rhodesia, he fled the country with his family and went to the United Kingdom.

He subsequently joined the faculty of law at the University of Dundee, Scotland, as lecturer and spent more than 11 years there as an academic, eventually even serving as the dean.

It was no doubt at the University of Dundee that he developed an appreciation of institutional autonomy and academic freedom in universities, values which guided him throughout the rest of his academic career.

In 1982, in recognition of his outstanding contributions, the University of Dundee awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Return to Zimbabwe

Although he had a successful academic career at the University of Dundee, his heart was in Southern Rhodesia and, from the UK, he constantly followed the political developments there.

Subsequently, he was closely involved as a legal adviser to the black nationalist movements in the preparations for his country’s independence.

In 1980, Southern Rhodesia became independent and was named Zimbabwe, and Robert Mugabe was elected its prime minister.

Walter Kamba then returned to Zimbabwe in 1980 and took up the position of professor of law at the renamed University of Zimbabwe, formerly University of Rhodesia.

The following year, he was appointed vice-chancellor of the university, the first black academic to take up such a position at that institution.


By all accounts, the first five years of Walter Kamba’s tenure as vice-chancellor were successful.

He managed to expand the university significantly, both in terms of increasing student enrolment, especially black Zimbabweans, and the range of courses offered, and bring about positive transformation.

He was fair and consultative, and his leadership was appreciated by staff, students and also the government.

He realised that the success of a developmental university in the context of a nascent, independent African country needed understanding and close communication between university and government.

In a paper he wrote in 1985 for the National University of Lesotho, he expounded his views on the need for compromise between university and government with regard to institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Here are some excerpts:

“The development of the university is dependent on the support of those who work in it and on the availability of resources from the government.

“If the university accepts that university autonomy and academic freedom can only be perceived in the socio-economic context in which it operates, and that it depends on the goodwill of the nation and the sense of responsibility of the academic staff; if the government accepts that the university needs a certain amount of autonomy to carry out its mission effectively and efficiently, then there need not be a conflict between national aspirations and academic integrity.

“Any unbridled provincialism on the part of the university is as threatening to public and national interest, as is the desire of the state to police the university for the sake of control itself.

“Put differently, some state control is inescapable just as some substantial degree of institutional autonomy is indispensable. This is a balance which needs to be worked at, all the time. The task is to develop consultative relationships that bring the legitimate concerns of the university and the legitimate concerns of government into shared perspectives.”

These words of wisdom and guidance are remarkable and relevant to public universities in Africa even today.

However, by his reference to ‘unbridled provincialism on the part of the university’, and the ‘desire of the state to police the university’, one can sense his uneasiness and his intuition that a storm was gathering on his campus.

University autonomy threatened

Indeed, soon after, the situation at the University of Zimbabwe started to deteriorate, to a large extent resulting from the ethnic strife, economic decline, dividing politics and corruption in the country.

Walter Kamba himself openly acknowledged in a speech that there had been serious problems during the last few years of his tenure.

In 1988, the students of the University of Zimbabwe decided to hold a demonstration on campus to protest against an alleged corruption scandal involving government officials.

The government sent in anti-riot police to the campus to block that demonstration. A year later, in 1989, the students planned to hold a public seminar to commemorate the events of 1988.

The government issued a ban on the seminar and sent in the police to the campus, which led to the arrest of some student leaders and even those who openly supported the students.

The students retaliated and decided to boycott lectures, and this eventually resulted in the closure of the university.

The worst was to come in the following year. In order to have greater control over the university, in 1990 the government legislated to amend the 1982 University of Zimbabwe Act.

The main amendments aimed at authorising the president (Mugabe at the time), instead of the university council, to appoint the vice-chancellor; at significantly increasing the number of government-appointed members on the university council; and at assigning powers to the vice-chancellor to expel or suspend students, dissolve or suspend the students’ union and prohibit or suspend any of the union’s activities.

Both students and academics, including Walter Kamba, vehemently protested against the amendments which were clearly meant to undermine the university’s autonomy, but their voices went unheeded.

It was in that same year that Walter Kamba was elected President of IAU.

Graduation ceremony speech

Walter Kamba now faced a dilemma. He was President of IAU, an international organisation that had a strong commitment to university autonomy and academic freedom, in which he staunchly believed, and, yet, the university he headed was taking steps to flout the very same principles.

As a lawyer, he knew that he would, sooner or later, be forced to implement the amended legislation of his university. He must have realised that he had no option but to leave.

At the 1991 graduation ceremony of the university, in the presence of President Robert Mugabe, the university’s chancellor, Walter Kamba made the following audacious remarks in his welcome address and announced his departure.

“Your Excellency and Chancellor, there are too many fingers in the affairs of the university – non-professional fingers with a wide range of agenda. I accept that we live in times in which the only constant variable is change.

“But, for me, professionalism is at the heart of academia. I was appointed purely and entirely for my professionalism. I am a professional at heart, I am a professional by experience, dedication and commitment. I have never and will never play games … In September this year, I will be submitting my notice of retirement as vice-chancellor of the University of Zimbabwe.”

Kamba’s message to President Mugabe was clear: he was not prepared to accept political interference which would undermine the university’s autonomy.

Earlier in the same speech, he also hinted at the threat to academic freedom on campus: “I am convinced that intellectual enquiry and excellence will flourish in an environment that encourages dialogue, tolerance and humility.

“Fear to criticise is not only inimical to free scientific inquiry but also to creativity. For this reason, it is the obligation of the university to restore faith in rational and informed disputation.”

There had been reports that there were political spies lurking on campus and present even during lectures, and they would report to authorities what was being discussed, by whom and what events were being planned.

Staff and students were, therefore, afraid to openly discuss issues on campus. No doubt this was the reason why Walter Kamba made reference to ‘fear to criticise’ in his speech.

One could argue that Walter Kamba should have stayed on and, using his influence in Zimbabwe and elsewhere, especially as he then held the distinguished position of IAU president, try to improve the university’s situation.

But Kamba must have known that his efforts would be futile. He was undoubtedly aware that Mugabe had become very powerful in Zimbabwe and was utilising his notorious infantry ‘Fifth Brigade’ to crush any insurgency. As a man of conscience, he could not continue.

At the end of his graduation ceremony speech, he made the following iconic statement: “Whatever I do, my conscience is my master. When my epitaph comes to be written, I will be satisfied if the inscription reads: ‘Here lies a man whose master was his own conscience’.”

University of Zimbabwe post-Kamba

During most of the 1990s, following Walter Kamba’s departure, student protests increased at the University of Zimbabwe, resulting in student arrests, campus closures and mass expulsions. The situation became worse after 2000 with the approach of presidential elections in 2002.

Perhaps the most extreme example of loss of institutional autonomy at the University of Zimbabwe was the award in 2014 of a doctorate degree in sociology to Grace Mugabe, the president’s wife, only two months after she had registered on the programme.

Other senior members of Robert Mugabe’s regime were also believed to have been awarded doctorate degrees without the submission of any dissertation.

This became the rallying cause of campus protests in 2017 when the students refused to sit for their examinations until Grace Mugabe’s PhD had been revoked, and Robert Mugabe had resigned as president.

The protests had, for once, a direct impact and soon led to the resignation of Mugabe in November 2017. The students of the University of Zimbabwe have been hailed as being the ones who finally succeeded in pushing Mugabe to resign, thus ending his reign of 37 years. He died two years later at the age of 95.

Later years

After leaving the University of Zimbabwe, Walter Kamba moved to the University of Namibia where he set up the faculty of law and was professor of human rights and the founding dean of the faculty.

But he continued to be of service to the University of Zimbabwe. Until his death, he was the Herbert Chitepo UNESCO Professor of Human Rights, Democracy, Peace and Governance at the University of Zimbabwe. He passed away in 2007 at the age of 75 after a long illness.

University autonomy remains threatened in Africa today and this, no doubt, is a consequence of the state of democracy in Africa.

According to the 2019 democratic index of the Economist Intelligence Unit, 50% of African countries have an authoritarian regime and, generally, democracy has been declining on the African continent.

African universities have a role to play in promoting democracy in Africa and in helping to achieve university autonomy. However, for this to happen, both the countries and the universities need to have committed and honest leaders who have a conscience, men and women of the mettle of Walter Kamba.

This tribute is based on a contribution by Professor Goolam Mohamedbhai to The Promise of Higher Education, an open access book of the International Association of Universities to celebrate its 70 years. The book is a collection of 65 essays from 82 authors. The book is divided into six parts: 70 years of Higher Education Cooperation and Advocacy; Facilitating International Cooperation; Coding the Values; The Changing Landscape; The Promise of Education; Opening up – The Future of Higher Education.

Goolam Mohamedbhai is the former secretary general of the Association of African Universities, former president of the International Association of Universities and former vice-chancellor of the University of Mauritius. He is a former member of the governing council of the United Nations University and is a board member of University World News – Africa.

This commentary was updated on 17 September.