Academics say that the violent crackdown on protests in Zimbabwe has squashed any optimism for the future of universities in the country that remained after the ousting of former president Robert Mugabe in 2017.
Zimbabwe has experienced its worst violence in over a decade as the forces of Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor as president, brutally suppress demonstrations against fuel price rises. Police have shot 12 people dead and many more have been injured, while hundreds of protesters have been arrested.
The economic difficulties that prompted the government to dramatically increase fuel prices in January are likely to have a significant impact on universities, according to Stephen Chan, professor of international relations at SOAS University, London, who says Zimbabwean universities are already badly underfunded. “This is something that will build and build. The country is not going to get better economically any time soon… and so the government is likely to cut its public subsidies to the universities,” Prof. Chan told Times Higher Education.
Chen adds that the government’s intermittent blocking of the Internet during the violence has already disrupted access to vital educational materials for students and staff. Because Zimbabwean university libraries often lack funding for printed books, foreign governments have funded electronic access to periodicals and books. Without the Internet, however, such access is of limited use.
Admire Mare, a Zimbabwean academic based at the Namibia University of Science and Technology, says transport costs have soared beyond the reach of higher education staff and students. “The fuel price hike is certainly going to affect students. Transport and accommodation prices are likely to go up… I can see the situation becoming dire if progressive social policies are not put in place in the next few days and months,” says Mare.
Simukai Chigudu, professor of African politics at Oxford University, describes the situation in Zimbabwe as “deeply disturbing and deeply troubling”. “The university is certainly a site where violence and politics play themselves out (in Zimbabwe)… frequently there have been crackdowns from the government,” he says.
However, Chigudu says Zimbabwe’s universities offer a beacon of hope. He recalls that during the turbulence of the mid-2000s, academics remained committed to their work. Even when the University of Zimbabwe was “absolutely cash-strapped, with no flowing water, they continued to write, publish and convene and have intellectual discussions”. “It tells you quite a bit about the function of the university as a social institution… a lot of people are doing what they can, not only to get by, but to continue to be educators and teachers,” he adds.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist and Times Higher Education)