Monday, January 19, 2009


Swaziland’s only independent daily newspaper has called for a probe and audit of the kingdom’s only university.

The Times of Swaziland in an editorial says the University of Swaziland (UNISWA) spends millions of emalengeni a year, and asks whether Swazis are getting ‘value for money’.

The Times goes on to ask, ‘Are some of the unemployed graduates unemployed because they are no longer relevant for the job market or are they victims of a government that is failing to provide employment despite knowing very well what it needs to do to lure investment our way?’

Memories are short in Swaziland. A Commission of Inquiry into UNISWA reported in 2006 (it was widely covered by the Swaziland media at the time). The Commission set up by the Swaziland Minister of Education (Constance Simelane at the time) investigated a wide range of issues, including the relationship between the university administration and students, the qualifications held by teaching staff, the transparency of decision making in the university and the accountability of the university’s governing council.

UNISWA’s administration refused for three years to take part in the inquiry because it said the Commission would support students in their grievances against the university.

Eventually (but reluctantly) the administration took part.

In its report, the Commission said the university administration tended to believe that its students were militants and therefore needed a firm hand, which fuelled conflict between the two (Swazi Observer, 7 March 2006). The Commission called on the university administration to improve channels of communication and to open dialogue with the students.

Anyone who has been following events at UNISWA since that report was published will know that nothing changed. Throughout 2007 and 2008 the students were in dispute with the university’s administration over the implication of a semesterisation programme at UNISWA. After class boycotts and violence, the Swaziland High Court ruled that the university administration was wrong to implement semesterisation and instructed it to consult with students.

Only yesterday (18 January 2009), the Times Sunday reported that students accused the Vice Chancellor of going ahead with an inquiry into circumstances that led to vandalism of property during a boycott by the students last year — and the students are opposed to the inquiry.

So, the Times can have its probe if it must, but we shouldn’t expect anything to come from it. In Swaziland the best way to ignore a problem is to have an inquiry into it. This takes time (years in the UNISWA case) and takes the heat away from those under investigation. When the report is eventually published it gets publicity for a day or so and then gets hidden in a cupboard.

There are some real questions that need to be asked about UNISWA. It is a government-run institution with King Mswati III as its Chancellor and the King’s brother Prince Phinda is the unelected chair of the university council. With such a set up it is unsurprising that the university is often criticised for its lack of academic freedom. If you are an academic at the university and you upset the powers that be you are finished.

The Times of Swaziland thinks that UNISWA may be a waste of money. The newspaper may have a point. In October 2008 the King in his address to graduating students told them they should go abroad to find jobs because there were none available for them in Swaziland. That was a damning (unspoken) admission that UNISWA is not operating in the interests of Swaziland. What is the point of educating people at university level when there is nothing for them to do once they graduate?

In the past year we hear news that two independent universities may be opening in Swaziland. According to reports both should be operating by now, but neither is. I have my doubts that either of them (one a ‘Christian medical’ university and the other a ‘business’ university) will contribute much to the needs of Swaziland.

That said, I think this does give us an excellent opportunity to debate what a university in Swaziland ought to be doing and how best to achieve it.

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