Students from shunned San community make history

Three members of Zimbabwe’s San community, which has for centuries lived as hunter-gatherers, have made history by being the first to enrol in a university.

Nkosiyazi Brian Ncube (20), Victor Moyo (21) and Obvious Ndlovu (26) enrolled for the bachelor of arts in education degree at Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University (MSU) earlier this year. The pioneering students pay their own tuition fees by working in construction at the university.

A fourth San student dropped out due to difficulties associated with the learning and working requirements.

Davy Ndlovu, the director of the Tsoro-o-tso San Development Trust that has been fighting for the rights of the community members, told University World News that the three students’ access to university education was a “rare opportunity” for the San.

There are no other San students at colleges or polytechnics in Zimbabwe, Ndlovu said, adding that there is a need for affirmative action for more members of his community to enter the higher education environment.

“Many grew up thinking that education was out of reach for the San child. The three young men currently studying at MSU are an inspiration to the whole San community. This is a rare opportunity for many young San children who have in the past been socialised to think that poverty was a way of life for many in their community,” he said.

“The prisons service has recently recruited 20 young San girls and boys to train as prison warders. National Parks has also recruited about 10 to train as game rangers.”

Ndlovu said for more members of his community to reach university, awareness on the importance of education from primary to secondary education should be raised.

“Opportunities should also be given to previously disadvantaged communities like the San, taking into consideration that the San’s level of participation in the past has been zero,” he said.

“The three students work for their tuition, boarding fees and food. They don’t have scholarships. The arrangement is that the university gives them some work around campus to cover their fees.”

Speaking on behalf of the trio, Moyo told University World News they were not granting interviews to the media.

A representative of MSU said the institution could not comment now as the history-making students feel that they are being discriminated against because of the media hype, distracting them from their studies.

However, in an interview with the state-run The Chronicle in June 2021, Obvious Ndlovu said that, due to poverty, he enrolled in university almost five years after completing school.

“When we enrolled at MSU we were four, all coming from the San community. But one of us has since left and we understand his reasons. We are also facing the same predicament, but we have told ourselves that we cannot quit. We enrolled at the university under a sponsorship programme where we must work at the university to pay fees.

“So, we are employed as assistant builders (mixing cement, water, and other materials for building purposes). This is really demanding. There is a lot of work and when we are tired from the job, we have to start studying, and it’s never easy,” Ndlovu said.

Ncube told The Chronicle that he was struggling to balance the demanding job and studies and sometimes he even misses assignment deadlines.

Ndlovu said there are fewer than five adults who know the San language, which is facing extinction in their community.

The San community previously complained about the death of their mother tongue, Tshwao, and its exclusion from the country’s school curriculum, The Chronicle reported in 2014. They want the language to be documented and included in the school curriculum to preserve it for posterity.

The Zimbabwean government launched a drive to empower the San community, first by issuing members with national identity documents to end their statelessness. The documents are the first step to ensuring that they are legally recognised in Zimbabwe.

The United Nations 1954 Convention defines a stateless person as someone who is not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its laws.

However, stateless persons should be treated the same as nationals with respect to, among others, elementary education, access to studies, the recognition of foreign school certificates, diplomas and degrees as well as “the remission of fees and charges and the award of scholarships”. It also says they must not be discriminated against in any way.

During a recent media briefing, Zimbabwe’s Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Minister, Monica Mutsvangwa, confirmed that the registrar-general’s office has issued national identity documents to the San community.

She said the government is also building schools. “Treasury will fund the construction of two primary and secondary schools for the Tjawo [San community], out of the 50 schools which it has undertaken to finance,” she said.

During a meeting with the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission in 2019, members of the San community said the lack of education increased their vulnerability, The Chronicle reported.

They also claimed that they were being exploited and used as cheap labour by surrounding communities, whose members impregnate their children and refuse to take responsibility.

Zimbabwe’s cabinet has also ordered the Zimbabwe Republic Police and Zimbabwe Defence Forces to recruit members of the San communities in the forthcoming recruitment cycle.