Academic freedom another casualty of Zimbabwe’s 2023 elections

Stephen Chan/CREDIT: University of London
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Zimbabwe concluded its 2023 elections with numerous challenges to their credibility, including the arrest of domestic election observers. The incumbent ZANU-PF emerged victorious but both European Union and Southern African Development Community (SADC) observers identified numerous problems and limitations. The opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC_ has rejected the flawed election. It continued nonetheless to participate in formal politics and called for a political solution to the existing conundrum. Today, Zimbabwe’s political future looks increasingly grim, especially as it appears that a campaign is underway to “unseat” 15 elected CCC Members of Parliament using underhand tactics – a strategy that appears designed to give ZANU-PF such a large majority in parliament that it will be able to change the constitution at will.

Two incidents during the election highlight how sensitive the ZANU-PF regime has become to any form of repression, and have inadvertently drawn attention to the state of academic freedom in Africa. Stephen Chan OBE, Professor of World Politics at the prestigious School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) was prevented from entering Zimbabwe and subsequently deported after arrival at the airport in Harare. Chan has consistently critiqued the state of governance in Zimbabwe, the violent politics of the late Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF as well as the limitations of the opposition MDC and its late leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Despite the fact that he has at times been as critical of the opposition as of the government, the state-owned newspaper, The Herald, sustained a campaign of vilification over a prolonged period. More broadly, ludicrous claims that Chan – also an experienced Martial Arts instructor – was really in Zimbabwe to train opposition cadres to overthrow the government were deployed to sully his name.

This was not he only case of interference with academic activities and free speech. Ibbo Mandaza, the well known Executive Director of SAPES Trust, a think-tank based in Harare, had a lecture on the “The State of democracy in SADC region: A reflection on the national election in Zimbabwe” cancelled at the University of the Witwatersrand due to an instruction from the secretary of the African National Congress, General Fikile Mbalula. Despite Mandaza himself being an Adjunct Professor at Wits, the University caved to the political pressure after Mbalula cited the – as yet unexplained – “delicate engagements regarding the situation in Zimbabwe”, and the lecture’s potential to “complicate initiatives.”

This sets a worrying precedent because it suggests that the ANC has effective veto rights over lectures provided at South African universities, and that these lectures need to be consistent with party political objectives. More broadly, the cancellation of Mandaza’s talk also suggests the power of ZANU-PF to influence and interfere with how Zimbabwe is discussed in other countries in the region. As Innocent Batsani-Ncube has recently argued, parties such as the ANC and ZANU-PF have a formal structure through which they engage with and support one another, the Former Liberation Movements of Southern Africa (FLMSA).

The recent attempts to censor Chan and Mandaza – and the horrendous treatment of critical voices from Zimbabwe’s long suffering university sector – serve as an important reminder that the right to freedom of speech is an indispensable tenet of democracy and the essence of critical scholarship. It must be rigorously defended and intellectuals be protected from powerful political forces. The deafening silence by academic institutions and professional associations in both Zimbabwe and South Africa – a state that consistently emphasises its democratic credentials – during the impasse has been deeply disturbing. It also bodes ill for a vibrant intellectual culture moving forwards.

A university is not a political party and scholars cannot yield to the caprices of incumbent elites. This does not negate a potential convergence of interests between actors; in fact, political parties stand to benefit tremendously from rigorous scholarship and the training of graduates in support of effective, legitimate and ethical states. But when party interests and academic free speech clash, it should be the latter that governments and universities seek to protect.

Graham Burton Joseph is a PhD and International Studies candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

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