From vendor to UZ student leader at 34

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At 34, he is easily one of the oldest students to become the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) Student’s Representative Council (SRC) vice president.

It is little wonder why university students in their 20s did not want him to assume a post in the council arguing it would set a bad precedence to future student leaders.

But all that did not seem to faze Zivai Mhetu who only five years ago bizarrely made the daring decision to undertake ‘‘A’’ Level studies at the advanced age of 29, long after many of his age mates had forgotten they had walked that route.

Still, almost half a decade later he would stride into the university campus as a 32-year-old freshman with zero college experience.

At that stage he had a steep road ahead of him, but with decades of life experience to draw from, Mhetu was confident he could build a strong foundation for academic success.

His persistence paid off last weekend when he received the second highest votes at UZ’s SRC elections.

He lost out to SRC president Tinotenda Mhungu who is 13 years his junior.

“Many would-be students aged 35 and older see age as an obstacle to furthering their education. But it should actually be a motivator,”

Mhungu and Mhetu have big shoes to fill if they are to build on the dramatic exit of predecessor Tonderai Dombo the immediate past UZ SRC president.

Dombo was arrested after raising a placard at this year’s UZ graduation ceremony in September.

The placard read “Graduate today rovha mangwana!”

Higher and Tertiary Education minister Jonathan Moyo immediately warned students against using politics to interfere in academic processes saying those who choose to cross the line will face “costly” consequences.

However, that protest has since seen police now systematically searching students before every graduation ceremony fearing Dombo’s actions could be repeated.

After the ruling party Zanu PF hemmed on protests, Dombo’s daring gambit was old school — a sneak view into the golden days of student activism.

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The yesteryear student activists revolutionised activism when corruption started creeping into government and human rights abuses were first registered.

“The task has always been huge but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” said Mhetu whose mother a subsistence farmer single-handedly put him through school after his father died early in his childhood.

“There is no riper ground for student activism than now when our tertiary institutions are facing serious problems.

“People are dropping out of school because they lack educational funding, there is no college accommodation, and some are selling their bodies for food and there is also a mass exodus of seasoned lecturers.”

The former vendor who put himself through ‘‘A’’ level with money gained from selling wares said students “should never hide in the closet but should continue to fight for their rights even though they risk being victimised in the process of doing so”.

Mhetu also waded into the politics of the day saying political parties should stay adrift of fostering divisions in student affairs and unions at the expense of student rights.

The Public Administration student, however, felt sections of Cabinet ministers and politicians were reluctant to lobby better living conditions for tertiary students because they are benefiting from the crisis.

“Government has an obligation to ensure that at least they provide the bare minimum for students,” Mhetu said, he added:

“Unfortunately, ministers and politicians are taking advantage of a system they do not want to capacitate.”

Mhetu who started off as a street hawker said he would use his position as the SRC vice president to push for reforms in tertiary institutions.

“I fail to see the sense in forcing students on attachment to pay full fees,” said Mhetu.

“I am also baffled by the fact that students who fail to pay fees during stipulated time-frames are forced to pay late registration fees as if government has ever been punished for shifting pay dates for civil servants.

“I vow to stop such exploitative acts by institutions of higher learning and promise to initiate dialogue, demonstrate and file litigation if government and institutions of higher learning continue to pay a deaf ear to the plight of students.”

Mhetu said if government subsidised students’ fees, some of these social ills would be eradicated.

“This issue of fees must fall doesn’t affect an MDC student or a Zanu PF student. It affects all students,” he said.

“It’s time we put away partisan cards and fight for student freedoms. We will engage government but if they fail students will make a stand.”

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