Zimbabwe students campaign for multi-party democracy, 1988-1990


Students demanded an end to corruption in the Zimbabwe government and a transition to a multi-party state.

Time period

September, 1988 to September, 1990



Location City/State/Province

Jump to case narrative


A.G.O. Mutambara, president of the Students' Representative Council
University of Zimbabwe Students' Representative Council


Shadreck Gutto
Kempton Makamure

External allies

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions
Zimbabwe Unity Movement

Involvement of social elites

Edgar Tekere, previous secretary general of the Zimbabwe African National Unity party


Zimbabwe African National Unity- Popular Front
President Mugabe

Nonviolent responses of opponent

Not known

Campaigner violence

One source reported student violence against administration during the police raid that occurred at the University on 4 October 1989.
At the demonstration on 1 May 1990 violence was reported, in a confrontation between Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front youth brigade and the Students' Representative Council. It is unclear whether any university students committed acts of violence. In a letter the following day, Mutambara claimed that the youth brigade had been “agitating for a violent clash”.

Repressive Violence

In response to the students' plans to hold a seminar about corruption, police equipped with automatic weapons, teargas, and batons attacked students and threatened to use their guns.





Group characterization

Students of University of Zimbabwe

Groups in 4th Segment

Zimbabwe Unity Movement

Groups in 6th Segment

Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions

Segment Length

Approximately 4 months

Success in achieving specific demands/goals

2 out of 6 points


1 out of 1 points


2 out of 3 points

Total points

5 out of 10 points

Notes on outcomes

Academics, including Jonathan Moyo, referred to the 1990 election results as Zimbabwe’s first transition toward democracy. It is likely that student protests brought attention to governmental corruption and lack of democracy, and prevented the official legal endorsement of one-party rule. The score of 2 out of 6 reflects the campaign's inability to create a truly functioning multi-party democracy.

Database Narrative

After almost ten years of guerrilla warfare, Zimbabwe achieved independence from Britain in 1980. The Lancaster House Agreement included a constitution for Zimbabwe that described a multi-party democracy. That year, the British oversaw a democratic election in Zimbabwe.  Candidates from at least four parties ran in the election.  Voters elected as president Robert Mugabe of the Zimbabwe African National Unity party (ZANU).  In 1984, the Zimbabwe government released a Leadership Code that condemned corrupt behaviors, such as the manipulation of power to accumulate wealth. 

In the 1985 presidential election, representatives of the Zimbabwe African National Unity party (ZANU) intimidated members of the oppositional party, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU).  ZANU won the majority of parliamentary seats. After forbidding the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) from holding meetings, the ZANU pushed a Unity Accord that merged the two political parties, creating the Zimbabwe African National Unity- Popular Front.

In 1988, Edgar Tekere, previously a secretary general of ZANU, criticized the single-party rule, referencing developments in the Soviet Union and Tanzania.  Mugabe dismissed Tekere from ZANU. 

On 29 September 1988 the University of Zimbabwe Student Representative Council organized a mass demonstration, the “Great Demo” in Harare, protesting corruption.  The Students’ Representative Council released an “Anti Corruption Document” which expressed their feeling of betrayal by “ideologically bankrupt leaders” within “our Party ZANU-PF (Zimbabwe African National Unity-Popular Front).”  

In the document, students included ten examples of corruption by government officials.  The students expressed that they demonstrated in support of President Mugabe.  After the demonstration, President Mugabe and Minister of the State Ernest Kadungure condemned the students.  The government expelled Shadreck Gutto, a law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, for helping the students to draft their “Anti Corruption Document.”

In December 1988 the Zimbabwe “Chronicle” newspaper revealed that government officials had been illegally acquiring cars from Willowvale Motor Industries.  

On 20 May 1989, Minister Kadungure publicly suggested that the University students were vulnerable to cooptation by Zimbabwe’s enemy, the Mozambique National Resistance.  In an open letter published on 22 May 1989, A.G.O. Mutambara, president of the Students’ Representative Council undermined Kadungure’s statement and reasserted the students’ democratic right to demonstrate.  Mutambara condemned the government’s decision to forbid the new oppositional party, the Zimbabwe Unity Movement, from holding a demonstration.  Mutambara clarified that the Students’ Representative Council would not support a political party but would remain committed to democratic rights.

In June 1989 police detained Kempton Makamure, another law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, for supporting the 1988 student demonstration and criticizing the government in a radio interview.

On 29 September 1989 the Students’ Representative Council planned to hold a Commemorative Gala and Seminar about government corruption in honor of the anniversary of the 1988 demonstration.  The Zimbabwe government forbade the students from holding the Seminar.  Public officials declared that the students required permission from the state, and that to hold the seminar without doing so would be illegal.  The government used “emergency powers” to summon two hundred police to the university to prevent students from gathering in the Great Hall where the seminar was to be held.  Police equipped with automatic weapons, teargas, and batons attacked students and threatened to use their guns. Some administrators did not condemn the police violence.

On 2 October 1989, Mutambara, on behalf of the Students’ Representative Council, published an open letter condemning the government’s militant response to the Seminar.  Mutambara suggested that Mugabe’s administration was more repressive of academic freedom than the country’s previous Prime Minister Ian Smith or even the South Africa apartheid regime under Frederik Willem de Klerk.  In the letter Mutambara communicated the Students’ Representative Council’s demand that that Vice Chancellor Kamba and President Mugabe meet with the entire university student body to discuss the police repression.  In the letter, Mutambara expressed: “This university is the last island of democracy in this country and we will fight to the bitter end and hilt to sustain these democratic rights and extend them to the generality of the masses of Zimbabwe.  You can’t push a cat into a corner, after all we are not cats but tigers!! Defeat is not on our AGENDA!!”

The Students’ Representative Council also sent a letter to Minister of Defense Moven Mahachi, deploring his unlawful use of “emergency powers” to bring the police force onto the university campus.

On 4 October 1989, the police returned to the campus of the University of Zimbabwe.  Mutambara jumped from his second floor window to escape from them.  Police arrested Mutambara and other leaders of the Students’ Representative Council.  

The Students’ Representative Council called a General Meeting in the Great Hall, stating “Comrades, no apathy, it’s a matter of our life and death.” Students boycotted class and vandalized university property, including buildings and windows.  The government closed the University for the following three weeks and only permitted students to return after they committed not to engage in political activity.

On 6 October 1989, at a national Council meeting, the government expressed its support for the closure of the university and appointed a Commission of Inquiry to study the event. 

Morgan Tsvangirai, president of Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, criticized the closure of the University.  The government detained Tsvangirai.  A court order demanded his release.

In December 1989, the Zimbabwe African National Unity- Popular Front (ZANU-PF) congress passed a resolution endorsing a single-party state.  Mugabe announced intentions to call another congress to formally incorporate a single-party state into Zimbabwe’s constitution.  Constitutional amendments were possible as of 1989 after restrictions imposed by the Lancaster House Agreement expired that year.

During the months leading up to the May 1990 election, the ZANU-PF dominated the government-controlled media.  Representatives of the ruling party suggested that they would end food relief if people voted for the opposition party, the Zimbabwe Unity Movement.  

Candidates of the ZANU-PF advocated for a single-party state in their election platforms.  The Zimbabwe Unity Movement stated that multiple parties were a necessary component of democratic governance.  The ZANU-PF stated that a single-party state would not be imposed on the country, but that it would hold a referendum after the election to gather the people’s input.

On 1 May 1990 university students filled two buses to attend the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions’ May Day celebration in the Rufaro stadium.  The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions had displayed posters protesting the one-party state.  

Police removed the posters and expressed their disapproval of the students’ attendance. The ZANU-PF had a presence at the celebration, in the form of a 200-person “youth brigade,” which was armed with knobkerries.  The youth brigade surrounded the University students, and some violence ensued.

On 2 May 1990, Mutambara wrote an open letter on behalf of the Students’ Representative Council, questioning the police repression of the previous day.  Mutambara claimed that the youth brigade had been “agitating for a violent clash.”   Mutambara also expressed the students’ opposition to the single-party state and demanded a meeting with Labour Minister Nkomo and President Mugabe.

On 23-30 May 1990, the Zimbabwe government held presidential and general elections.  The Zimbabwe Unity Movement won 18% of the popular vote for parliamentary seats; Edgar Tekere won 17% of the popular vote for president.  Only 54% of eligible voters voted.  Mugabe was re-elected, and the ZANU-PF won 116 of the 120 parliamentary seats.

Mugabe agreed to allow his party’s Central Committee to debate the topic of multi-party democracy. Mugabe also agreed to abide by the Committee’s decision.  In September 1990, the ZANU-PF’s Central Committee overwhelmingly rejected a single-party state.

Though the government affirmed the legality of multiple parties in 1990, an oppositional party strong enough to challenge ZANU-PF did not appear until 2000 with the Movement for Democratic Change.  This delay was likely due to effective government silencing practices and imbalanced access to campaign publicity.


(1) Edgar Tekere, previously a secretary general of the Zimbabwe African National Unity party, criticized the single-party rule, referencing developments in the Soviet Union and Tanzania.


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Additional Notes

In October 1990 hundreds of University students assembled outside of Parliament building in capitol Harare in protest of a proposed University of Zimbabwe Amendment Bill which would limit the University’s autonomy. Students blocked a major road for two hours, chanting and holding signs. Then police dispersed the students with tear gas, batons, and shields and forced them back to campus. They arrested at least a dozen students in the process. Once on campus, some students vandalized university property, throwing bricks at the administrative building and burning garbage bins.

In early November 1990, Parliament passed the University of Zimbabwe Amendment Bill, which increased power of the national government in university appointments and increased the disciplinary powers of the vice chancellor. The Bill also officiated President Mugabe as the University Chancellor.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy

Laura Rigell, 20/04/2013