SA's Zannu-PF students

2008-09-08 00:00

In July, I wrote the following letter to the vice-chancellor of each of South Africa’s 25 universities: “I understand that a number of Zimbabwean students are studying at South African universities on Zimbabwean government scholarships. These students, I am advised, are the sons and daughters of high-ranking Zanu-PF members, are themselves Zanu-PF members and are committed to serving Zanu-PF after they graduate.

“One of the non-violent tools used by the international community in the struggle against the oppressive apartheid government was a refusal to accept white South African students into their universities. It was the aggregation of countless actions like this which eventually resulted in the end of apartheid.

“Given the oppressive government operating in Zimbabwe, I am writing to the vice-chancellor of each South African university to ask that they cancel the registration of any student funded by the Zimbabwean government.”

Two months later, I have received two replies. While it is not possible to infer anything about the viewpoints of the other 23, I think it is significant that only two replied. As I now argue, taken with other evidence, I think this is indicative of a gross neglect by South African universities of their social responsibility, a neglect which is supported by their management, academic staff and students.

The first reply was brief. It stated that the university would not reject any student who was legally entitled to be registered. Presumably this means that any student who meets the academic entrance requirements and pays their fees will be accepted. Anything they might “represent” — as white students were deemed to represent apartheid prior to 1994 — is irrelevant.

It seems to me quite possible that the average Zanu-PF-sponsored student might well represent and support human rights abuse in Zimbabwe more than the average white South African student supported human rights abuse in South Africa. But I wasn’t in South Africa at the time and will defer to more knowledgeable people on that point. It is clear, however, that being white meant that a price had to be paid in terms of international acceptance, irrespective of the views or actions of the individual concerned.

The second reply also rejects my suggestion but for quite a different reason. It argues that the “best contribution we could make as a higher education institution would be to educate these young people in such a rigorous manner that they will willy-nilly choose the most democratic, jurisprudential and judicious path for their country”. In short, the letter suggests that Zanu-PF-supported students may be transformed by their South African university education and so return home to build a culture of democracy and respect for human rights.

I wish that were likely to happen but its chances are very slim. Think first of the example which South African society provides to these Zanu-PF students: we have huge and increasing economic inequality, massive interpersonal and intergroup violence (far more than in Zimbabwe, by the way) and an increasingly oppressive and corrupt system of government. God forbid that Zanu-PF students learn these lessons from us and take them home.

What about our universities? Do they provide examples of democracy, freedom of expression and mutual respect? Sadly, they do not. There is a small and shrinking space for alternative, let alone radical, thinking and discussion in many of our universities. Some of this is the result of a changed perception of what a university exists for — from an institution which fosters the development of independent, critical thinkers to a factory producing the human resources demanded by the economy.

Some is a consequence of the managerial style of some university leaders who regard the expression of any opinion other than their own as tantamount to treason. Individuals and groups who dare speak such words are subject to persecution and dismissal so the vast majority of staff live in fear and say nothing. Again, not something we would be proud to export to Zimbabwe.

Some parts of some South African universities teach and research competently but this will not transform Zanu-PF students. All it will do is to give them a permanent advantage over other

Zimbabweans who they will continue to oppress, indirectly if not directly.

This is depressing stuff and we need to draw on trustworthy sources of inspiration to see us through.

One of the more helpful things I have read recently goes like this: “The most important thing to remember during times of great change is to fix our eyes anew on the things that don’t change.”

These unchangeables include personal integrity, respect for others and the courage to change the things we can change for the better.

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