The Sunday News
Richard Runyararo, Mahomva
The Ngwabi Bhebe I know.
THREE weeks ago, Zimbabwe lost a giant intellectual pathfinder and academic godfather to many, Professor Ngwabi Bhebe. He was the Founding Vice Chancellor of the Midlands State University (MSU). It was a lifelong honour to have occasionally interacted with him in the university’s council and senate meetings during my tenure as the President of the Student Representative Council (SRC). In 2012, I was the first SRC President to be elected to office through the then novel e-voting system. This innovation was preceded by the seamless e-learning system which easily socialised any new student into all e-facility portals of the university. Having been to two more other universities in my post-graduate life, I am yet to see any other institution with an efficient e-learning system better than that of MSU. For that, Professor Bhebe will be remembered as a towering beacon of promoting the ease of learning.
The late Professor advanced a pro-poor tuition fees policy which was equally pivoted on guaranteeing sustainable profitability and modernisation of the university. After my election into office, our student representative group was in constant negotiations with the university authorities to have a fees structure which was alive to the plight of many students who came from working class backgrounds. The focal point for these fees negotiation processes was Mr Erasmus Mufiga, the then Registrar of MSU. He is now the Registrar of the Gwanda State University. While we agitated for cheaper school fees and levies the university grappled with the need to also offer competitive salaries to the staff.
On the other hand, the university was engaged in the construction of a student residential complex which was colloquially christened the ‘‘China Hostels’’. The hostels earned this name because the company involved in their construction was of Chinese origin. As the student representative body, we advocated for the striking of a balance between a reasonably timed construction of the hostels and maintaining a pro-poor fees structure. Substantial bargaining was realised from this process.
After the MSU’s campus expansion, South Africa was rocked by the “Fees Must Fall” Movement in 2015. Running under the auspices of decolonising knowledge, the ‘‘Fees Must Fall Movement’’ demonstrated the extent to which African tertiary institutions had to be responsive to the economic constraints of students from working-class families. The ‘‘Fees Must Fall Movement’’ explicitly articulated that education is an inalienable right even for the poorest person in society. The movement’s call for market-based curriculum constructions and corporatisation of the university to fall had already been achieved by MSU back here in Zimbabwe. Thanks to the foresighted policy direction initiated by the doyen of letter, Prof Bhebe. A state-of-the-art administration block had also been constructed when I was a first-year student. This fast-paced development of the university is mainly attributed to the alternative funding model deployed by Prof Bhebe to run an accelerated parallel enrolment system which was able to finance the institution’s ambitious projects. By 2013 MSU had an approximate enrolment capacity of 17 000 students.
The main import of the ‘‘Fees Must Fall’’ agenda and its correlation to the Zimbabwean situation, is that it offered an instructive call to tertiary institutions to rationally navigate between pro-poor policy needs and administrative correctness. Prof Bhebe proved that this is an essential part of balancing the existential forces of profit and education delivery. Under Prof Bhebe, the edge for profit was suppressed for the just realization of making education accessible for erstwhile marginalised fragments of our society.
The enigma, omnipotence and his indirect mentorship
I was politically born again and initiated at MSU. I became a member of the on-campus Zanu-PF branch in the last semester of my first-year studies. The Party’s branch was a “secret society”. This was/is due to the normative conformity that universities are supposed to be sites of political neutrality. Obviously, this narrow view seeks to depoliticise academics. It’s as if academic credence is gained by being politically soulless. In the same manner, those of us in public service are expected to posture political neutrality. Inversely; and surprisingly so, some sections of our post-land reform conceived civil society has an anti-nationalist inclination. Zimbabwean civil society’s hobnobbing with the opposition is not subjected to the same litmus test of neutrality imposed on pro-Zanu-PF public servants. However, the MSU experience and my in-depth reading of political philosophy made me understand that “not taking a side is taking a side”. Humanity in all its dissent contrasts is never neutral.
The enigmatic operation of campus political societies and activities continues to fertilise important public policy ideas. MSU became a nationalist incubation and a safe space for anti-colonial expression. I attribute the publishing of my first book Pan-Africanism, From the Cradle, the Present and the Future to the organic knowledge production culture which was mining deep on the inspiration from Prof Bhebe’s iconic and sophisticated contribution to the writing of our national history.
It was at MSU where I was introduced to the writings of Amilcar Cabral by the then Patron of the Party’s Branch and ex-Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Mr Christopher Nharo Gwatidzo (now Chief Director Office of the President and Cabinet). Cabral’s decolonial thought modelled me into a political scientist with a passionate foregrounding in the study of national liberation heritage. It was Dean Gwatidzo who was responsible for convening several public lectures which were exclusively addressed by Cabinet ministers. One such high level lecture was delivered by the then Vice-President of Zimbabwe Cde Dr Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa. In a very unprecedented fashion, Professor Bhebe attended that lecture and also gave remarks.
The late Professor would not make himself available for most events which were in the university calendar. He was such an enigma, he understood the ‘‘law of absence’’. However, on that day as he introduced the Guest of Honour (President Mnangagwa) Prof Bhebe thanked ED for his contribution to the formation of MSU. In his usual oratory wit, he said “We are proud that we only have a State university here in Midlands”. This ideological poignant humour also expressed the pride he had in being associated with producing intellectuals who were immune from the colonial epistemology linked to the missionary education system which he extensively wrote about. It only makes sense now why Prof Bhebe attended the ED Mnangagwa Lecture. It is also not a coincidence that at the time of his promotion to glory, Professor Bhebe was writing the President’s biography. The two have always been friends and this was confirmed by the President in his eulogy to Prof Ngwabi Bhebe.
The omnipotence of Professor Ngwabi Bhebe’s political thinking was also expressed in the way MSU became a political ideological incubation space for nationalist thinking and its neo-liberal regime-change tilted juxtapose. The Zanu-PF underground activities on campus co-operated with those of our colleagues in the opposition. The debate rigour throughout our varying engagements as students across our ideological divides epitomised the notion of idea contestation embodied in Prof Bhebe’s literary work. Since then, I developed very healthy friendships with pro-opposition student activists and beyond the confines of the campus space we became brothers in the professional space.
In the same vein, Prof Bhebe will be cherished for his tolerance of academic criticism even from his subordinates. One such example is the highly acerbic review of his book Simon Vengesai Muzenda and the Struggle for and Liberation of Zimbabwe by Mhiripiri (2009). Professor Mhiripiri problematised Prof Bhebe’s work for being grounded in excesses of political correctness. One would have expected Prof Mhiripiri to suffer reprisal for taking such a stance against his principal, but that did not happen. In his most actualised claim to fame as our national historiography godfather, Prof Bhebe still considered himself as an equal to his junior colleagues in the academia. He was respectful of their critique of his works. This intellectual personality of Prof Bhebe permeated into the entire institution which became a site of embracing dissent and respect for academic freedom. I also had a second lease of access to Prof Bhebe in his role as Zanu-PF’s internal election commissioner. He was a modest listener and humbly engaged all regardless of their social class.
Such is the long-lasting and exemplary trait that Professor Bhebe’s leadership exerted to the entire MSU community and the entire pro-nationalist academic fraternity. He will be forever remembered for this. Now that he has rested, the work he began must continue.
He was a revolutionary intellectual whose influence went beyond mere writings, but he was a producer of a battalion of scholars whose contribution to national development will be indelible even in the years to come.
History will never forget this colossal historian called Ngwabi, Reggae for Bhebe!
Richard Runyararo Mahomva is the Director for International Communication Services in the Ministry of Information Publicity and Broadcasting Services. (Feedback [email protected])