OP-ED

The presence of political parties at universities is a hugely destructive force

By Adam Habib 25 May 2020

South African universities are in peril, a result in part from the toxic culture of party-political student leadership which alienates the vast majority of students, says the writer. (Photo: Flickr/Tami Stainfield)

Student politics run on party-political lines creates a toxic and alienating culture which places the future of universities at peril. Democracies do not thrive in anarchic atmospheres where there are no rules.

These past weeks, the SRC at Wits University again attempted to launch a campaign against online learning, despite the fact that the vast majority of students are participating in the programme. It was, of course, acting in solidarity with the directives of the Sasco leadership which has been trying to undermine the shift to emergency remote learning for some weeks now.

We responded by contesting the philosophy underlying the campaign, suggesting that social justice does not require a reversion to the lowest common denominator. We expressed the view that social justice necessitates an awareness of inequality and a recognition of the importance of assistance to those who are disadvantaged through the provision of laptops and data connectivity so that all could participate in the learning process. We recognised that this alone would not do away with inequality in our midst and provision must be made for face-to-face learning on our return to campus for those who could not engage online. But to no avail. The student leadership still opposed online learning in a politics of vindictiveness that held if some cannot learn, no one should learn.

But this debate on emergency remote learning is not my concern here. What is of concern is the discussion on my Twitter account on the subject and what it indicates about the politics of the student leadership and what to do about it. Perhaps, it would be best to start this reflection by describing an interaction between two individuals on the account. The first was a student @zwelitom from a rural town who waded into the discussion confronting student leaders and activists indicating that he was appreciative of the device distribution and data provision, and that he wanted to learn online so that he would not lose this year. The second individual, @NathiRadebe_25, berated @zwelitom for not understanding the disadvantage of students, accusing him of being an Uncle Tom, and a privileged person.

@zwelitom is the typical Wits student, courteous, aware of inequality and injustice, but yet interested in studying and completing his degree. @NathiRadebe_25 is the typical activist-cum-student-leader, normally from a wealthy or middle-class home, accusing all and sundry of privilege, claiming to speak for disadvantaged students, and then, when confronted by such a disadvantaged student, promptly attacks her/him for being privileged and not understanding their historic mission. This, in effect, is an attempt to silence the broader student community.

The interaction between the two is not unique and I have on multiple occasions witnessed similar interactions and expressed a concern about such intolerance on the part of activists and student leaders. It suggests a student leadership and activist cohort divorced from the interests of their constituency. It is reflected in the relationship between SRCs and student constituencies around the country, the evidence of which is in the small minority of students who actually vote for SRCs.

I have previously expressed concerns around the growth of proto-fascist movements in SA which manifest in the existence of both the EFF and in certain far-right political groups in the white community. I do not use this political label simply in a pejorative sense. Rather, I use it in a descriptive manner to explain a politics that plays out through nativist identities, political authoritarianism, a militarist culture, leadership cults, and a propensity for threats and violence.

At Wits University, we only had about 18% of students who participated in the SRC elections. The vast majority of the students see these student leaders as politicians who are intent on their own agendas, and are turned off as a result from the processes of student governance and representation. The leaders are in reality representatives of student political parties – Sasco, ANC Youth League, EFF Student Command and DASO – who see the majority of students in their midst as a conservative privileged group. They feel free to speak in their name even when they act in a manner that is diametrically opposed to the interests and actions of the vast majority of students. Their defence: the majority of students are not politically conscious, are conservative and not aware of their historic mission. The student leaders see nothing wrong with this patronising response and the vanguardist notion of leadership it engenders within their organisation and in student governance structures. It also engenders within them a justification for the deep intolerance that they display when the majority of students do not act or accord with their agenda.

But, as concerning as this patronisation and deep intolerance may be, we should be as concerned about the politics that prevails among the student leadership that these characteristics are partial symptoms of.

I have previously expressed concerns around the growth of proto-fascist movements in SA which manifest in the existence of both the EFF and in certain far-right political groups in the white community. I do not use this political label simply in a pejorative sense. Rather, I use it in a descriptive manner to explain a politics that plays out through nativist identities, political authoritarianism, a militarist culture, leadership cults, and a propensity for threats and violence.

But I have also expressed concern in Rebels & Rage, my book on #FeesMustFall, about an extreme anarchist politics on the far left which I disparagingly refer to as the Pol Pot brigade. This is a politics that rejects organisation and leadership, policy nuance and measuredness, and sees engagement and contestation in zero-sum terms. There is no appreciation for compromise or engagement in this politics, and all who differ are seen as conservatives and neo-liberals who should be isolated through ideological (and sometimes racial) vilification. It is a politics of extremism that commands the support of a fringe minority who feel free to speak as representatives of broader collectives even when they command little of their support and whom they normally hold in contempt for their perceived mainstream conservatism.

The elements of both these political traditions are strongly represented in the student leaderships at our universities. This should be of concern. Both political traditions have held sway in previous historical epochs with devastating consequences for societies, their regions and their peoples.

There is much awareness about the disaster unleashed by the rise of fascism in Germany, Italy and Japan and its enabling of war, genocide and ultimately economic devastation. But the same is true, even if it were more localised, by the vindictive “equality through collective impoverishment” experiments of Stalin’s forced agricultural collectivisation in the Soviet Union, China’s Cultural Revolution and Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. These social experiments resulted in the death of millions, the devastation of entire societies and their economies, and ultimately the long-term postponement of financial inclusion and social equality in these contexts.

The presence of this kind of politics among student leaders should be of serious concern. Mercifully, it is not reflective of the values and ideas of the broader student community. But it is very evident in the student leaderships which are largely derived from the political party traditions outside the institutions. This could come to haunt us in future years, especially if the current structural conditions prevail. At best, it would enable the re-emergence of the corruption and institutional incompetence that marked the dark years of State Capture under Jacob Zuma. At worse, it could result in the repetition of history with new episodes of fascist and Stalinist social experimentation. Addressing this challenge is thus an urgent necessity if we want to realise an economically and socially inclusive democracy.

How did this situation come about and what should be done about it? Obviously our apartheid history has played an important role in creating the polarised circumstances that engender such political behaviour. But the consolidation of deep economic inequalities in the post-apartheid era has also played an important role in engendering the social polarisation that enables a politics of extremes, of which fascism and Stalinism are simply two political manifestations. Developing a sustainable agenda to contain these political expressions would require addressing the deep structural inequalities in our midst. But this is dependent on the emergence of a political agenda of constructive social justice that is directed to building the capacities of, and lending a helping hand to disadvantaged communities, rather than advancing a vindictive populist politics of impoverishing all.

In a sense, we are in a chicken and egg scenario; we need a constructive social justice politics that would enable us to address inequality, without which an inclusive social democracy is not possible. Yet, this constructive social justice politics is constrained from emerging by the very inequality that promotes a politics of extremes. Overcoming this political conundrum requires a strategically conscious, yet plural political leadership that has an eye to social justice, but is pragmatic enough to mobilise societal support for initiating reforms that progressively overcome our structural inequalities.

How then can we engender a more constructive social justice politics among student leaders? I have three recommendations.

Universities have lost this understanding in recent years and student leaders have manipulated the rights discourse, capitalised on the availability of a legal infrastructure made available by NGOs and political parties, and presented themselves as victims of a system in order to avoid being held accountable for violence and for violations of the rights of others.

First, we must reject an appeasement strategy and respond firmly to fascist and Stalinist behaviour. There is frankly too much appeasement of these political expressions in South Africa. Part of this emanates from a paternal indulgence from older generations of activists and a political establishment that treats students’ groups, and even some political parties like the EFF, as errant young people who need to grow up. The most outrageous racist and sometimes even violent behaviour is overlooked and excused on the grounds that the person is young, even though the person is of legal adult age. But there is also the indulgence granted by a media establishment that needs spectacle to drive ratings and the appeasement of progressive journalists and academics who sometimes view these persons as allies who can be won over in a legitimate struggle against inequality, poverty and racism.

Couple this with the perils of social media and Twitter in particular where fringe groups with the loudest political voices have these easily amplified through orchestrated campaigns, and you have a toxic political discourse and climate that alienates the broader society as much as it energises and mobilises the political foot soldiers. All of this is often accompanied by a nonsensical esoteric discourse that black persons are incapable of being racists, a thesis manipulatively advanced by the fascist and Stalinist political groups themselves.

Second, student leaders are developed not only through acculturation and educative processes, but also by being held accountable for their actions. Consequence is as important a variable for developing student leaders as is acculturation and education. Universities have lost this understanding in recent years and student leaders have manipulated the rights discourse, capitalised on the availability of a legal infrastructure made available by NGOs and political parties, and presented themselves as victims of a system in order to avoid being held accountable for violence and for violations of the rights of others. I have lost count of the number of times student leaders speak about peaceful struggle but interpret this to mean the right to disrupt classes, and attack students who do not decide to protest.

Moreover, they often confuse consultation with an agreement and justify violence on the grounds that universities have not implemented what they want, however unreasonable the demand may be. It must be said that the political and fiscal naivety of these student political leaders is breathtaking, which is why they are often deliberately obstructive and as a result do not proffer any solutions to the very real challenges that confront students. In any case, the almost anarchic interpretation of “peaceful struggle” of student leaders has to be challenged not only through patiently explaining the rules to them, but by also imposing severe penalties when violence is perpetrated or when rules and the rights of others in the university community are violated.

Finally, we have to speak about the presence of political parties in the universities. There is no more destructive a force in universities, and in promoting instability within it, than the political parties. I am cognisant of the fact that our Constitution gives political parties the right to mobilise and organise. But it is precisely this in the universities that marginalises the broader student community from student governance and leadership, deflects the accountability of leaders from their constituency to political parties, and frankly introduces the fascist and Stalinist discourses and behaviour in student leadership circles.

We need to urgently address the destructive effects of party politics at universities. Our institutions are in peril, a result in part from the toxic culture of party-political student leadership which alienates the vast majority of students and replicates the most negative features of our political system in the universities.

Independent candidates find it incredibly difficult to compete against organised party-political formations in student governance elections, and find the toxic discourse they introduce into the election process as alienating. Universities have tried to address the challenge by establishing an electoral process based on individuals, but parties have got around this by using a slate, and canvassing as a party collective in the election process. This has resulted in a student community alienated from their leadership who are essentially more responsive to external political interests. This situation has been aggravated in recent years as political parties tried to co-opt young student leaders onto their parliamentary slate in an effort to attract the youth vote. The net effect has been to create an incentive structure where student leadership in universities, and creating institutional mayhem, is seen as an entry point into a lucrative political career, further consolidating the accountability lines of student leaders to external interests.

What is a constitutionally compliant way of addressing this challenge? Is declaring higher education (I would say education more generally) an essential service a possible solution? After all, we do not allow party political canvassing and unionisation in the SANDF because of the destructive effects it can have on moral and organisational coherence. Why can the same not be done for higher education which is a critical function to the future of this country? This need not mean that politics cannot happen on campus. Political parties would be free to organise, but they would be excluded from canvassing for SRC elections. SRC elections would be organised on the basis of individuals, and no collective organised campaigning by student parties would be allowed.

It is also worth recognising that politics need not always be party-oriented. It can be organised on the basis of a variety of interests, an outcome which ironically would accord with the situation in most universities around the world. This university reform on student governance must be accompanied by a sectoral one in which the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) should only engage in its consultative processes with the non-party designated SRCs. Student political parties should not have any greater access to the DHET officials than any other club and society in the universities. Otherwise, we are deliberately enhancing the party credentials of student clubs and societies over all others. And there is no moral or logical justification for this in our constitutionally grounded higher education system.

There will, of course, be a concern that the rights of academics and workers could be negatively impacted by the lack of unions if higher education were declared an essential service. But, again, this could easily be addressed through the establishment of an independent panel of remuneration experts who could pronounce on annual increases and working conditions at universities which would be binding on all stakeholders, including executive management. This is a far more conducive arrangement for enabling employees’ rights than treating the institutions of learning as no different from the ordinary shop floor.

We need to urgently address the destructive effects of party politics at universities. Our institutions are in peril, a result in part from the toxic culture of party-political student leadership which alienates the vast majority of students and replicates the most negative features of our political system in the universities.

It needs to be understood that democracies do not thrive in anarchic atmospheres where there are no rules. They only thrive in environments that nurture individuals, where those who are violent are held accountable, and where ordinary citizens feel a part of the governance and representation system that is meant to act in their interest. This is not the case for most students in South African universities and unless it is urgently resolved, we will lose the best of our institutions of learning. DM

Adam Habib is the current Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg. See his Wikipedia profile here.

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