By Malvern Mkudu
Many have been joking that if this happened in Zimbabwe, the state would respond with a heavy hand and there would be casualties.
I believe this is the basis of Mr Alex Magaisa’s argument that Mugabe has strangled the student movement. He is yet to give the second instalment of his article but from the headline I thought it was befitting to respond forthwith.
He says that a cocktail of legislation was crafted to criminalise student politics and also restrict their activities. He is right. Yes the Mugabe government has deployed state machinery ruthlessly to deal with student dissent.
Students were beaten up, expelled and arrested. Is this what has strangled student politics? This is a simplistic view at best as we have seen students protesting in more harsh environments.
We have already seen that the South African government can react ruthlessly to dissent when police opened fired and killed miners in the Marikana incident. All governments normally react ruthlessly when faced with a formidable challenge. Zimbabwe is no exception. With the Marikana example, South African students could have thought twice about any protests and yet they came out in their numbers to confront the system.
What this shows is that no amount of state machinery can intimidate or stop a well drilled conscious student movement. Students can still come out to protest if there is a cause and if they are organised.
Much of the legislation that was invoked by the state in Zimbabwe to suppress student politics existed in the colonial state and yet students during the late 1980s and 1990s successfully took on the Mugabe government on many issues. These students confronted the state despite facing genuine threats from the state then.
The likes of Arthur Mutambara, Tendai Biti and Takura Zhangazha operated under equally dangerous conditions with the state determined to silence its opponents. I remember my own brother would always come back home and narrate ordeals of police brutality during student demonstrations. The state has always been heavy handed on dissent but students defied these restrictions and went toe to toe with the government.
I remember vividly hearing stories of helicopters being deployed at the University of Zimbabwe to quell disturbances there. Dumiso Dabengwa then Home Affairs Minister would deploy armed police to deal with students at the University of Zimbabwe.
So what changed? We have often not spoken about the disempowering effect of donor money and the meddlesome opposition politicians who sought to make civil society subservient to them in their quest for political power.
The emergence of the Movement for Democratic Change and its ‘annexation’ of the student movement and labour movement through the help of donor money was the beginning of the end for student politics.
What started as a political alliance ended up as a relationship of ‘master and servant ‘with the opposition MDC completely dominating civic groups and controlling the political agenda.
Once the student leaders aligned themselves openly with the opposition MDC, it gave the ruling party the perfect excuse to curtail student politics.
Of course in any democratic country, people are free to align themselves with political parties of their choice without fear of retribution but once the students took sides they were treated as political opponents rather than a civic society grouping.
South African students on the other hand asked Democratic Alliance president, Mmusi Maimane to respectfully leave when they were conducting their demonstrations.
This was an unequivocal message to political parties that student protests were non-partisan and students did not appreciate their struggle being hijacked by political parties for political expediency.
But in Zimbabwe students openly took political sides and participated in the ‘Mugabe must go’ political agenda. Now in South Africa president Zuma stands accused of corruption and many other things but students have stayed out of this debate and allowed politicians to fight it out themselves. Once the Mugabe must go discourse had fizzled out so did the student movements.
Many student leaders sold the soul of the student movement to politicians particularly those in opposition politics. What followed is that student politics lost its credibility and therefore ability to mobilise students of different political persuasions on common matters.
Now Zimbabwean students have been reduced to rebels without a cause save for a successful demonstration they conducted early this year when students had been evicted from University accommodation.
At some point the Tsvangirai led MDC stood accused of sponsoring division in the Zimbabwe National Association of Students Unions (ZINASU). Even up to now there are two ZINASU’s with one loyal to Tendai Biti’s PDP and the other to Tsvangirai’s MDC. There is also ZICOSU which is loyal to ZANU PF.
Such is the sad case of students’ politics that students have been apportioned to different political groupings and are therefore not united.
In 2010 for example, ZINASU split on the basis of whether to participate in constitutional making process or not. The MDC was basically pushing the constitution making agenda along with ZANU PF. The group that had Morgan Tsvangirai’s backing led by Brilliant Dube eventually prevailed at the expense of the group led by Clever Bere which was against participating in the constitution making process.
Those who were familiar with the goings on in civil society at that time talk of huge perks for student leaders and how money exchanged hands. The MDC was heavily funded and had resources to influence proceedings in civil society. With their money they ‘bought and corrupted’ student leaders. Ultimately the opposition party took control of student politics and silenced the voices of the students.
While it was seen as a strategic move and a victory back then, events now show that the victory was hollow as it had the effect of disempowering the student movement in many ways. I have already mentioned that once it openly aligned itself with partisan political interests, the student movement compromised its own legitimacy and credibility.
Secondly by meddling in partisan political warfare the student movement became a political foe of the ruling party and was therefore treated as such. Politics tends to get dirty especially when power is at stake. Students asked for it when they openly sided with political players.
For many student leaders who came after the militant Mutambaras, student politics was viewed as a spring board for entering mainstream politics. One just needs to look at the number of former student leaders who now occupy senior positions in the various opposition political parties. Neutral students saw this and they could no longer be used as springboards to launch political careers by some individuals.
Collective action was futile especially when it was clear to all that most of the student leaders were in pursuit of their own individual political interests. Students were demanding that Mugabe must go instead of articulating their own issues. It was clear that the student movement had seized to represent the primary interests of ordinary students.
It was therefore Tsvangirai’s attempt to capture the student movement that strangled student politics not President Mugabe as claimed by Magaisa.
Tsvangirai through use of donor money compromised and corrupted the student movement and therefore silenced it. I don’t know if this was done intentionally or not but the effects are now all too clear for all of us to see.
While state brutality is responsible for student apathy, many students are no longer interested in student politics because it is evident that student politics does not talk to their everyday issues. It is not too late for students to get back to basics but first and foremost they must free themselves from political control by the various political parties that are competing for political space in the country.
The political parties must also come to a realisation that it is not prudent to control civic groups such as student groups. These are best left to determine their own agendas. Smart political parties especially those in the opposition know that they must not control civil society. They just need to be strategic enough to be able to ride on and harness social discontent.
Students have been demobilised and have become disorganised. It is time to go back to the drawing board.
Post initially published on link