By Francis Mukora
“The situation has changed significantly in this age as systematic arrests, suspensions and expulsions send a discouraging message to students while their expelled leaders then find it very difficult to organise and coordinate from outside campuses.”
Student activism used to be a vibrant pressure group which could influence socio-economic and political dynamics at almost all levels of the Zimbabwean society. However, over the past decade, students voice in key national processes has been fading and nowadays, the once popular “Ahoy Union” chant is no longer inspiring to students at most tertiary institutions, including the National University of Science and Technology (NUST).
Various theories have been suggested in attempts to explain the declining fortunes of student activism in Zimbabwe. The first perspective analyses the dwindling vibrancy of student activism within the national political context. This perspective argues that the birth of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), arguably the most popular opposition party in the post-independence era, in the late 1990s marked the beginning of the slow death of student activism in Zimbabwe. This perspective argues that the MDC took over the space of student activism as the most influential pressure group in the country. From this stage onwards, the argument goes; student activism was assimilated into opposition politics to a point where the two seemed to be one and most student leaders went into the structures of the opposition party. This created divisions amongst the membership and leadership of students unions to a point where some students decided to be apathetic and thus student activism was severely crippled. Thus the dwindling fortunes of the opposition MDC also began to be mirrored by a corresponding decline in student activism exuberance.
Another theory argues that the socio-economic malaise that has been afflicting the country since the late 1990s has had a debilitating effect on student activism. This theory argues that with economically parents now bearing full responsibility for fees payment and the entire upkeep of their children since government stopped the students grants system around 2006, the students themselves now feel indebted to stay away from “troubles” such as student activism which would put their parents’ investments to waste if they were to be suspended or expelled. In the long run, this has weakened student activism and as they no longer have a robust voice to effectively engage authorities at both institutional and national levels for solutions their concerns.
Former NUST Students Representative Council (SRC) and Zimbabwe National Association of Students Union (ZINASU) president, Clever Bere thinks that there has been a change in conditions over the past two decades which has also significantly affected student activism in Zimbabwe.
“Back then, the democratic space was a bit open and student leaders found it easier to organize”, said Bere. “The situation has changed significantly in this age as systematic arrests, suspensions and expulsions send a discouraging message to students while their expelled leaders then find it very difficult to organise and coordinate from outside campuses.”
However, a different perspective argues that contemporary student activism has shifted from the confrontational tactics which made it popular in the previous years to non-confrontational engagement with authorities and this shift in approach is being confused as disfunctionality. Whether this is true or false remains a subject of debate, but what remains indisputable is the fact that the chant “Ahoy macomrades” can no longer galvanize students in the manner that it did say at the turn of the millennium.