Third World youth organise against the odds



In Pakistan, student activists are beaten and intimidated by the Islamic fundamentalists; in Zimbabwe, police attend student meetings and political activity on most campuses and colleges is prohibited; and in India, blind students are jailed after taking part in protests.

Despite this sort of repression — as well as having to deal with hunger, unemployment and poor but expensive education — young activists in many Third World countries continue to defy the odds and organise to bring about radical change. This was the conclusion I reached after visiting several countries in January and February.

“Our lunchtimes are made more interesting by having political meetings, because we can't afford to buy our lunch”, a student said at an anti-war meeting in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. The meeting attracted around 80 students, even though the poster advertising it had been put up just a few hours earlier.

Conditions for students in Zimbabwe are difficult. One student wrote in a letter to the magazine of the Zimbabwe National Student Union (Zinasu): “I didn't know that university is all about starving. Our Student Representative Council is doing little about our predicament. Most of my friends have now turned to prostitution.”

Education standards are nose-diving. When the neo-liberal Structural Adjustment Program was imposed on Zimbabwe in 1990, the government's priorities shifted to servicing its foreign debt and privatisation. Something that has not changed, even though the name of the government's economic policies have changed.

Since then, the southern African country's literacy rate has dropped from 97% to around 70% today. Life expectancy has also fallen, from 59 in 1990 to 43. Since the beginning of 2002, college and university fees have increased by 3000%. Students are forced to borrow from banks at market interest rates in order to study.

Qualifying for a loan is hard. Even a student's “behaviour” is analysed, which means that many activists are refused loans. Students must provide surety, which poorer students find very difficult. Loans have to be repaid within three months after graduation. Few students are able to find employment in that time.

Accommodation and catering services at Zimbabwe's universities have been privatised. After fees are paid, students are left with Z$5000 of their loan, which just enough to pay for 25 meals over 13 weeks.

The government's National Service Training scheme is one a those who can't find employment and don't have much money can get into college. Students who join the NST are given priority to go to university, but to join the service a student must be recommended by the structures of the authoritarian ruling capitalist party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF).

Poverty and repression make political organising on Zimbabwean campuses difficult, Bulawayo student activist Steve Biko told GLW. “Students are afraid to be associated with politics, and that's why only about 2% vote in SRC elections”, Biko explained. Biko is also a member of the International Socialist Organisation of Zimbabwe (ISOZ), the country's revolutionary socialist party.

Since late 2001, the ZANU-PF government of President Robert Mugabe has systematically cracked down on student activists, in particular before elections. Biko is one of 46 students currently suspended for political activity. Among the reasons given for this victimisation was the students' refusal to do national service and for “inciting riotous behaviour”.

After the general election last year, the students were detained when they led a class boycott in solidarity with a stayaway called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

“The police reaction unit that descended upon our college was ready to take on a rebel army. They invaded our office and went around campus pulling down our posters. We were rounded up, put into police trucks and taken to the central police station, where we underwent long hours of beatings and harassment. By the time we were thrown into cells we could hardly sit”, Briggs Bomba, another ISOZ student activist said. Three days of intimidation and terrible conditions passed, but “we refused to sign their prepared statements”. A huge crowd gathered for their court hearing and international protests helped to secure their release two days later.

“A lot of students are anti-government, but Zinasu is very small, with little money, so it's hard to reach them”, Biko said. “Political activity on colleges is banned, but on some universities, like Bulawayo Polytechnic, there are large numbers of activists organising meetings and demonstrations. A fund has been set up by Zinasu to help the expelled students study by correspondence.

“We will continue fighting for democracy, fighting for the re-installment of all expelled activists and defend our right to hold political meetings on campus”, Biko said.


In India, students can also be expelled from university for political activity. Repression is intense. For foreign scholars to be allowed to speak at seminars on a range of “sensitive” topics, they must first get permission from the government. Student politics is banned outright on many campuses; the student union elections are often postponed indefinitely by the state.

Radhika Menon, a leader of the All India Students Association (AISA) in Delhi, explained to GLW: “Because political activity isn't allowed, we do mostly cultural work and organise study circles. But we also organise demonstrations against the privatisation of education, for women's rights and more recently against the war on Iraq.”

“There's been a massive restructuring of courses. The government and university administrations are getting rid of left-leaning courses and replacing them with subjects which emphasise right-wing ideas. Funds favour the job-oriented courses, but when you leave there's hardly any jobs anyway”, Menon explained.

Like Zimbabwe, the government takes advantage of the high unemployment amongst youth, recruiting them into the army.

In December, 93 AISA members — including 87 blind students — were arrested and sent to Tihar jail for demonstrating against the treatment of blind students by police.

The blind students had set up tents outside Delhi University's vice-chancellor's office, part of a two-month protest against university's failure to implement a requirement that 1% of campus jobs be given to blind students. University guards and Delhi police had attacked the students, wrecking their tents and confiscating their blankets and clothes.

Some students were released from jail after a week, and it wasn't until February that all of the students were released.

“The repression doesn't stop us organising, but that's what it's designed to do”, Menon pointed out. “We organise in many different ways. We invite speakers and hold public meetings, we show films and run workshops, we put pamphlets on the tables at dinner time, and in hostel rooms and under dormitory doors. The students know us and often give us donations.”

Students were preparing for their exams, but Menon reported that despite this, protests against the US-led war on Iraq have been getting larger.


Pakistani youth are also participating in large anti-war protests. Since 70% of Pakistan's population is under 30, young people play a prominent role in the mobilisations. As in other Third World countries, young people in Pakistan confront poverty, high unemployment and limited access to education.

Tariq Shahzad, a leader of the Progressive Youth Front in Lahore, spoke to GLW. The PYF was formed in 1999; today it has about 500 members, mainly students and street youth. “It's impossible to do anything political on campus, so we do all our organising through the student hostels”, Shahzad explained.

Student unions are banned by the government and left-wing lecturers are forbidden. Most educational institutions in Pakistan, from primary schools to universities, are controlled by fundamentalist religious organisations. These organisations receive a lot of donations and are the only organisations with enough money (apart from the Pakistan government) to start schools.

“Education in Pakistan is religious. It teaches you that your first and last duty is jihad against non-Muslims. It's not surprising that many young people support jihad against India”, Shahzad added. Fundamentalist groups take advantage of the high level of unemployment; they pay young people large amounts of money to join the jihad.

Shahzad described campus life in Pakistan as being “like Iraq's no-fly zone”. The reactionary fundamentalists violently prevent PYF activists from distributing leaflets or posters. They beat students who talk to women, calling it "unislamic". Students must eat separately in the canteen, according to their gender.

Despite these attacks, the PYF continues to organise and grow. It has organised debates on topics such as globalisation, the privatisation of education, how to fight unemployment, and other youth issues. “We organise musical shows [which explain political issues] for the unemployed street youth. They then organise demonstrations against unemployment and to demand an unemployment allowance”, Shahzad told GLW.

Opposition to Pakistan's war with India over Kashmir, and the US war in Afghanistan, are also major campaigns being waged by the PYF. Most Pakistanis are directly affected by these wars, Shahzad pointed out. The PYF is now campaigning heavily against the US-led attack of Iraq.

From Green Left Weekly, April 9, 2003.
Visit the Green Left Weekly home page.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.