It matters little what the issue is, when students rise on a national scale society does well to heed them. One of the most iconic student uprisings in history was on 10 May, 1968 in Paris. Historians will tell you that the nexus of the students’ grievances had very little to do with “real” issues but that would get in the way of popular narrative and so the revolution swept France and before you knew it, hundreds of thousands of non-students had joined in the wave as the New York times recalls: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/11/world/europe/11iht-paris.4.12777919.html?_r=0
The next iconic student uprising brings us closer to home with the well documented June 16, 1976 student uprising against the apartheid regime’s imposition of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in South African schools. Again, an act by students in one area of a country, quickly had the effect of gaining national or international attention followed by reform or action: http://www.sahistory.org.za/topic/june-16-soweto-youth-uprising
I have long admired South Africa’s activist population and the fact that they will protest against poor service delivery, for lower university fees and other socio-economic issues that affect them. It is indicative of a growing and thriving democracy. South Africa is a special country. For some reason, student activism tends to attract more attention than any other type of activism.
Is it because we see them as our children rather than as adults? Is it because there are normally more students in most populations and, therefore, their sheer numbers are impressive on television? Or is it because student activism is naturally high energy, emotional and comes with a dose of more than a few run ins with authority? Or we just naturally seduced by the idea of revolution?
For a long time, it was thought that South Africa’s “born frees” were spoilt, did not remember the struggle and were only interested in hip hop and the latest smart phone. It would appear we were wrong.
Could the same be said of Zimbabwe’s students? Post independence students in Zimbabwe were either pro government regularly demonstrating against apartheid South Africa, attending youth conferences in North Korea or they were pro student when they demonstrated for better conditions on campus. I recall students trashing kitchens when demonstrating for better food. Some habits die hard. Out of student activism on student issues in Zimbabwe, arose a new political activism that began to turn against government as the students began to “see” in to the economic future of the country. The gap between student idealism and government practice widened and the students began to agitate on “wider real” issues such as human rights, democracy and the opening up of political space. Parents normally condemn students for trashing libraries or kitchens as indicative of how spoilt they are and worry about them when they take on a powerful government and police with batons and tear gas itching to “have a go at them.”
It is the “wider” issues that I am concerned about. Zimbabwe has had the fortune of never really getting a youth bulge. Botswana, South Africa and countries overseas have combined to provide the safety valve that has allowed the pressure cooker to never really get to “blowing” point. Worse, thousands of poor youth were given a t-shirt and some alcohol and co-opted in to youth militia groups that could go and terrorise the middle class at will: http://www.financialgazette.co.zw/border-gezi-youth-service-return-imminent/ The result has been the death of the student movement in Zimbabwe in an era when the “wider real” issues could not be any “wider or more real.” There has never been a time in independent Zimbabwe when the word crisis has not been more real, pressing, present and devastating in every citizen’s life and yet whether weary, deflated, despairing or merely hanging on for survival, the student movement has gone completely silent compared to the activist years of the late nineties.
We would suggest this is a tragedy. The soul and spark of any nation is its youth. They are brimming with ideas, challenging authority, questioning and reminding us that the work is not yet done. In Zimbabwe’s case, our youth have been cowed in to survival mode or silenced. We cannot live on past glories of student movement past. The crisis is today. It is a crisis of unsustainable unemployment, unacceptable power outages and an uncertain future for the country.
Albert Einstein was probably referring to the world of science when he said, “learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Can we apply the same dictum to Zimbabwe? Have our youth stopped questioning and withered inside? How do we “light this candle, instead of cursing the darkness” that pervades Zimbabwe society today, literally and figuratively. The adult leadership, on both sides of the fence, has failed us. We look to the youth to remake our world.