Voice of the Voiceless

Universities everywhere are flash points where young people express their views in words and demonstrations on building a better world than their elders have managed to do.

The Chinese student who held up a row on tanks in Tiananmen Square, the four American students shot while demonstrating against the Vietnam war and the riots that nearly brought down the French government in 1968 are perhaps more widely known than our own students confrontations with police on our university campuses. A short book has just appeared in Zimbabwe, the first of its kind in attempting to chronicle student activism in the half century from 1957 to 2007 half of it in the colonial period and half after independence.

Reading it, I was in awe at the courage of the students in coming out in protest time and again against the injustices they discerned in our society. The new order established in 1980 gave merely a breather, a few years truce, before the students once again took up the task of voicing grievances which in one way or another were symptomatic of the ills of society as a whole. My awe was due to the way they came in waves: one generation would be beaten, imprisoned, expelled and some even killed and then another would take their place and carry on the struggle.

Governments, both colonial and independent, have used ever more brutal means to suppress the students with tear gas drifting across the northern suburbs of Harare and sometimes the university was closed for months on end. Heaven knows how many students have but their idealism before their studies, their present before their futures.

This book chronicles their story. The authors have interviewed a wide variety of former students some of them well known like Arthur Mutambara, Deprose Muchena or Job Sikala and recorded their experiences. At the launch of the book last week at the Catholic Chaplaincy at UZ, the authors were quite self-effacing claiming they were simply recording the views of those they interviewed. There was no need for this self denial and in fact their weaving of the story into a continuous history is done skilfully. Students dominated at the launch and used the occasion for practicing their brand of hot language towards each other to the amusement of the rest of us.

One question remains and it was only partly answered. What has happened to the idealism and fire that marked the student years of many who are now in government or in leading NGO positions? Guest speaker Jacob Mafumes response to this was to claim that the MDC in government is using all the motivation and skills learnt in their student years to work for change. Perhaps there is some truth in this but there are many in Zimbabwe today who would not be convinced.

Politics is a seductive occupation. If you can speak fluently, loudly and throw a few barbed comments here and there many will be entertained and you may gain a following for a moment. But if politics is not about a critical analysis of issues in the world beyond the campus and if it does not put forward serious ideas that could one day become policies, then the hard won experience of student days will be wasted on entertaining soothing postures and ephemeral aspirations.

Post published in: Opinions

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