October is an important month in the academic life of Swazis. This is mostly because students at the University of Swaziland graduate. For many this will be a bitter-sweet victory because they still have to face the grim reality of an economy that does not absorb as much students as those churned out by our institutions of higher learning.
The sad reality is that a majority of graduates in our country ultimately find themselves unemployed. They come to appreciate that the whole notion of a degree being the key to success is a farce.
Back in 2005 the government introduced a policy of segregating courses as priority and non priority courses. On this day government set in motion a systematic destruction of careers and professions.
This policy meant students could be denied funding on the frivolous grounds that they chose the ‘wrong’ courses. These courses included Journalism and Mass Communication and LLB from among others. Meanwhile, Health Science at all the institutions of higher learning was considered a high priority course where scholarship was guaranteed.
Ironically, despite being a so called high priority course, government has not hired nurses for the last three years. This was after the late Prime Minister Barnabas Dlamini placed a moratorium on hiring new civil servants. Nurses still find themselves frustrated and unemployed even as they were told they were an important profession.
For those who did not graduate it is will be back to business as usual. In fact, right around this time students begin election of Students Representative Council (SRC) in all the campuses. The unfortunate part is that, just like the national politics, students have to vote for individuals who do not represent any particular constituency.
Tinkhundla’s none party electoral system cascades down to even student elections at the country’s Universities. What is worrying about this year’s student election are reports that police have been roped in to monitor them. This is without a doubt a worrying development. The justification being thrown around is that this is necessitated by “safety” concerns.
One then wonders what is the role of campus security if not to provide the so called safety and security on campus? Some go as far as cite ‘tensions’ and ‘threats to electoral officers’ as justification for involving state security. Firstly, the so called tensions and threats are not a new.
As I recall, a few years ago tensions were so high that ballot papers were burnt by angry students following a disputed election at Luyengo campus. However, a re-run of those elections was done peacefully without the involvement of the police.
We are then left to conclude that there is something more sinister at play here; the University wants to control the new students’ leadership or intimidate those it does not want to lead.
This securitisation of internal students’ politics comes at a time when students were recently forced to sign re-admission contracts following a student’s boycott and protest.
Subsequently, the University closed all campuses only to re-open them under the strict condition that students sign a contract committing that they will not engage in any protest ever again or hold meetings at night. Sadly, students allowed the state to bully them into signing those illegal contracts.
There is a reason all these things are happening. The University, together with the state, wants to extinguish once and for all the last remaining cradle of resistance in Swaziland’s fight against royal domination and control.
By forcing students to sign such an illegal contract, the University has in fact sounded a death knell to all forms of students bargaining and collective action. If the students’ ‘re-admission’ contract is allowed to stand, then students will never have meetings again. They will never freely exercise their right to peaceful assembly.
This is because the University intends to ban the now customary night meetings. It must be remembered that there was a reason joint meetings were held at night in the first place. It is the University itself that does not allow students to meet during the day claiming this would disturb lectures.
The only available alternative was meeting at night or weekends. Still, meeting on weekends proved difficult because it meant asking for too much from off campus students who mostly come from far places.
The second and even more insidious implication of this latest turn of events is that if students agree never to protest again this will give the administration a blank cheque to roll back all the gains students have made over the years.
We might as well go back to students dressing in uniforms and being punished for late coming in true high school style. Only a few brave students will now have to stand up to the administration at a great risk to their own academic futures.
I argue, therefore, that this madness must be opposed by us all because it is a threat to academic freedom as enshrined in the Lima Declaration. It also infringes on students’ constitutionally protected right to freedom of association.
It seems to me that this is a continuation of an almost decade long battle between students and the government centered on the demand for free education. As we argued back then, education is not a commodity but a right. Government had already cut 60% of students allowances and repeated the same for tuition fees for those admitted in the so called ‘none priority courses’.
Students have always opposed this drastic cut on funding for education and called for scholarship for all. This has been a protracted battle expressing itself differently at various intervals of the academic calendar. Government’s response has always been “either we increase allowances or we give more people scholarships”. This was a calculated response to divide the students because they now have to choose whether to increase their allowances or get more students funded.
This year the division has gotten worse, UNISWA alone has more than 800 students denied scholarship. I do not know the status of other Universities in the country, but I can only assume it is equally bad. UNISWA off campus students on government sponsorship are to get a meagre E1690 per month while on campus students E650 a month.
What can you do with such a pittance at this day and age? Now, this has set divisions between students as those on campus feel government favours those off campus. But this is a poor conceptualisation of the problem. Such simplistic thinking merely helps drives wedges between students.
If anything, it has succeeded in dividing students into three groups; non-sponsored, off-campus and in-campus. The question then is can unity ever be forged when all these groups feel they can fight isolated struggles? Has government not succeeded in killing the last remaining hope for resistance in the country?
Can we really say off campus students are better off? Where do most of these students reside anyways? Limkokwing University of Creative Technology (LUCT) has no student housing. Most of the students find accommodation in the neighboring townships of Cobonga, Sdvwashini, Stibeni and Nkoyoyo. How safe are these places? Are they student friendly even?
For UNISWA Mbabane off campus students have to look for accommodation at such shady places as Mangwaneni, Msunduza, Gobholo and neighboring townships.
If students manage to find accommodation in these places it is normally under deplorable conditions. Swaziland Christian Medical University (SCMU) has no student housing at all.
Students live in Zone 4, Nkwalini, Hilltop or Mpolonjeni. Meanwhile, Southern Africa Nazarene University (SANU) has limited housing and a majority of their students must stay off campus in such places as KaKhoza Ngwane Park, and Fairview.
Kwaluseni students live at what is called the Z block, Mbhuleni, Ludzeludze. All these areas are notorious for harboring the most dangerous criminals. Those who manage to get housing are normally forced into one rooms where they cook, bath and sleep in the same space. In the majority of cases they live with noisy fellow tenants who care less about their education.
What has not been properly researched documented are the number of crime these students have either faced or still face while living in all these townships. How can any tertiary institution even be allowed to operate without building or catering for students’ accommodation?
These latest developments must therefore be seen as a systematic agenda to defang students from mobilising to fight against these historical wrongs. The University administration and government have always identified UNISWA as the problem child hence a need to ‘deal with it once and for all’.
By castrating UNISWA as an epicenter of activism society as a whole loses. When our intellectual class become docile and timid then we can kiss goodbye any hopes of ever transforming our country.
This is more so given that the history of student has always been marked by giving this country something new that shapes and thrusts our country forward. For example, had it not been for students organisations like PUDEMO and its youth wing SWAYOCO would never have been born.
Over the years student have not only shaped public discourse but also provided a new layer of leadership across all sectors of society. For example, former NNLC President DR Alvit T Dlamini joined the NNLCYL while a students in then then BOLESWA before going to study medicine at the University of Zimbabwe.
In fact even the former former UNISWA Vice Chancellor Prof Cisco Magagula was once Secretary General of the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS). In fact I could go on and argues that for the past nine years SNUS has injected a new militancy within the trade union movement and gave it quality cadreship.
The formation of the Swaziland National Union of Students heralded a new era in students politics as it became the uniting body across institutions of higher learning.
I cannot imagine what these latest developments will do to the organization as a whole. The progressive movement must therefore not turn a blind eye on what is currently happening in the already fractured student movement.
NB: Thembelihle is former President of the Swaziland National Union of Students (SNUS) and a Masters Student at the University of Tromsø. He writes in his personal capacity.