THE GRUESOME AFTER LIFE OF MUZZLED STUDENT ACTIVISM | When Tonderai Dombo (23) recounts what happened on September 29 last year, he battles to keep a straight face.
Today marks exactly one year after his daring protest for jobs, when he raised a placard as President Robert Mugabe officiated the 2016 graduation ceremony at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ).
“Most of us had finished lectures in June, but none had been called for an interview despite sending several curriculum vitaes around and we knew the prospects of being employed were bleak,” Dombo chronicles what triggered the protest.
The former UZ Student Representative Council (SRC) president, had, during his term, been known for challenging authorities on several issues including tuition increments and reopening of the bar on the campus, but on the day in question he took his bravery to the next level.
“Graduate today… rovha mangwana (unemployed tomorrow), we want jobs!!” read the placard he raised in the air, before he was whisked away by security details.
“We tried to have a bigger group of activist students from the crop that was graduating (and) we created a platform where the idea was being discussed, but during that process, there was infiltration in the group,” Dombo said.
Only two students — Thembinkosi Rushwaya and Alexander Mukamba — posted the pictures, which went viral online, in solidarity with Dombo.
Since that day, pens, paper and even lipstick are now regarded as contraband at graduation ceremonies ostensibly “for security reasons”.
Dombo has now become familiar with the pains of sacrifice apart from the immediate harassment and mental torture at the hands of suspected Central Intelligent Organisation agents, who subsequently threw him behind bars for a few days.
“You tend to be sidelined, not only by the nation, which matters less, but your family and support strength would question why you would do that,” he explains, recalling how he had been ready to die for his beliefs. Still jobless, his actions are also haunting his academic prospects, as he has been denied the chance to pursue a Master’s degree at UZ and has a pending court case.
“You find that there is nowhere you can go to ask for justice given where it is a clear case that the institution had no grounds to turn down my application on the basis of my being an activist,” Dombo laments.
He has become part of a growing number of student leaders fighting legal battles on trumped up charges related to questioning the government.
Zimbabwe National Students Union (Zinasu) secretary general, Makomborero Haruzivishe has also been a victim, with his two-year suspension from UZ being lifted early this year.
“The clampdowns have set a very negative precedent in which participation in student activism is now seen as a passport to victimhood,” he says.
With over three court cases related to activism, inciting violence and treason all pending trial, Haruzivishe has been emboldened and insists the State’s attempt to clip their wings has fuelled their resilience.
“It has also sowed a seed of radicalism among the few who decide to bite the bullet and stand up for what they believe in,” he says.
Contrary to wide spreadspeculation that they get pampered by foreign donors for raising their voices, these youthful activists maintain that the poverty and bad governance are the triggers.
“Most of us do not join activism for fun, but dire social and economic situations force us to rise up in defence of academic freedoms and in demand of access to education for all,” he said.
Dombo also said he has not received any financial incentives before or after his protest and adds he is not worried about it, as he is content with standing for his beliefs.
“When we planned the thing, we didn’t look for a donor to fund us, so, equally, when we finished we distanced ourselves from other career activists, who might want money for doing these things,” he said, adding that no amount of money was worth risking life for.
“I would not raise a placard for money. There is no amount enough to warrant risking his life for, but I can raise it for free because I have seen the plight of people in my community.”
At a national scale, activism is growing physically and on cyberspace, with a number of people partaking in the fight against Mugabe’s failed government.
While for student activists they are pushed by the need to address student issues at different institutions, the matters inevitably spill into national affairs, as the rest of the population is affected.
Student activism has in the past contributed to the struggle for democracy in the country.
Driven by a penchant for economic enhancement a new phenomenon of “career activists” have in some instances hijacked student causes as they target donor funding.
Haruzivishe believes the youth in tertiary institutions need to be responsible enough to avert their own problems.
“As a generation, we just have to accept the reality that those in positions of power across the political divide do not understand how it is to drop out of school due to failure to pay fees, how young ladies have to resort to transactional sex for survival, how it is to be an unemployed graduate, and how one can survive without hope,” he said.
Some bogus student leaders have sold their souls to politicians at the expense of their colleagues, as they align with those in the corridors of power, thereby, weakening a once powerful mouthpiece for the young. When corruption started creeping into government with human rights abuses on the rise in the post-colonial era, an early generation of students reacted radically.
Student leaders Tendai Biti, Munyaradzi Gwisai, Arthur Mutambara, Nelson Chamisa the late Learnmore Jongwe are some of the notable figures, who went from student politics to national politics.
They became an informal advocate for the masses as they demonstrated against corruption at Willowvale involving senior government officials, protested against Zanu PF’s proposal to establish a one party state and strongly opposed the introduction of Western-backed economic structural adjustment programmes.
In the year 2000, student activists in partnership with the National Constitutional Assembly and the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, successfully campaigned against the government-led Godfrey Chidyausiku draft constitution.
The vibrant student movement has, however, been demobilised as a result of persistent persecution of its frontrunners resulting in more suspension, expulsion and arrests.
Former student leader, Blessing Vava, bemoans the State’s heavy-handedness, but maintains the candid, although minor, dissent is still crucial.
“The State has become more vicious than it was in the previous years if you look at the time of Learnmore Jongwe and era of Gumbo. There is infiltration because the State is recruiting more and more intelligence agents either to infiltrate or basically try to just destabilise,” he said.
“In a way, they are trying to do something in an environment that is not conducive for all those things mainly because of the repression from the Zanu PF government, but I still feel they is more they can do.”
Vava claimed he was arrested over 10 times and tortured in police custody as a student activist.
“The movement is still relevant. If you look at what they have been doing in tertiary institutions, it is something that is commendable in relation to the situation they operate in currently,” he said.