Opinionista Wandile Mhlengi Ngcaweni 8 November 2017

Why the EFF is winning the argument at South African universities

It is now a matter of public record that the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC) is emerging victorious in this season's Student Representative Council (SRC) elections. They have scored victories at Wits, Limpopo, Sefako Makgatho and other universities. Until recently they momentarily led at UCT too. Even in the TVET colleges they are emerging strong. There is ongoing debate about why the EFFSC is winning the argument and therefore SRC elections in our tertiary institutions. Here are eight points to ignite the debate.

1. Kardashianomics (conspicuous consumption and narcissism) preoccupies some of the popular Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) leaders. The PYA has been slow to shrug off perceptions that it’s leaders are not genuinely concerned about the plight of poor students. Allegations of using access to power and resources can go for months unchallenged. This spreads the image of leaders preoccupied with themselves, conspicuous consumption and popularity.

These widespread perceptions could be built on residual effects of macro social dynamics or they are merely a microcosm of national political elite formation.

It worries us in the congress movement when PYA leaders are seen to be chasing the good life, not prioritising the general welfare of students. Many times, during #FeesMustFall protests we heard allegations of PYA leaders receiving bribes from ANC proxies like Shaka Sisulu in return for them for agitating students to stop the protests. Political perceptions can be too powerful than actual evidence especially in an unsympathetic social media environment.

The EFFSC on the other hand is seen to be dealing harshly with those seen to be leading flashy lifestyles. While their commander-in-chief loves Gucci and other top brands licensed to the Stellenbosch-based godfather of white monopoly capital (Johan Rupert), it is not expected for its Student Command to be seen to be flashy. Sources of income are questioned and leaders are suspected of being bribed by university authorities.

In the PYA, the margin of tolerance of conspicuous consumption is unlimited. One need only to attend one of their campus parties to see the premium vodka and whisky these young lions consume sometimes at the cost of the SRC allowances given by the university. It is part of the body politic of the broader movement. Even to campaign for the SRC you hear young comrades say “we need resources chief…”

2. Linked to the above, the PYA (in the campuses they have lost both elections and hegemony) had arguably created a social distance between itself and the students they lead, much like the parent movement.

The argument is that under the PYA student struggles moved to the boardrooms when students on the ground were facing challenges that required street politics. The Student Command capitalised on radical rhetoric and their readiness to show agency by taking to the streets and breaking a window or two. This appeals to students who think SRCs can sometimes make too many compromises with management in these boardroom meetings.

For its part, the PYA’s mother body has recognised the need to reconnect with the electorate in order to close the social distance which affects electoral outcomes. Even Parliament has become more activist in recent times in an attempt to regain legitimacy in the eyes of the impatient public.

3. Radical and populist posture appeals to students who have suffered for too long in what is now is overwhelmingly considered a neo-liberal arrangement that delivered accommodation (a palliative) rather than faster and qualitative transformation (to cure the wounds of apartheid colonialism). Hence the movement now argues for radical economic transformation to fast track socio-economic inclusion.

The EFFSC exploited this gap. They have been uncompromising on what their goals for society look like – hence the coincidence of their land policies and students’ calls for free, quality and decolonised higher education. This radical rhetoric has appealed to students who cannot wait for transformation to come some other day. Again, breaking windows and flooding libraries is seen to be the language that authorities listen to more, thus forcing them to act quicker.

4. Branding: the EFF has branded itself (ideologically and symbolically) as an alternative. Inequality as a perceived or lived experience of black students at UCT, VUT, CUT, Wits for example, expands their political horizons as they embrace what appears to be an organisation working outside the bounds of what tolerates the manufacturing of the status quo (colonialism). What else could have endeared the Student Command to the point of winning 12 out 15 seats at last week’s Wits SRC elections?

5. Arrogance of management goes a long way towards radicalising students. Importantly, this arrogance also manifested in the bullying of the PYA leadership who have been undermined by unilateral decisions of governing structures. Students react to this bullying by supporting those ready to break bones and flood/burn libraries in retaliation. Wits is the case point. Just look at how Mcebo Dlamini and Nompendulo were treated by management at Wits – no different to how student leaders where treated by apartheid university administrators.

6. Electronic and social media have opened intellectual spaces thus helping students re-discover Pan-Africanist and Black Consciousness literature (ideas and leaders) which have been “hidden” from the curriculum and mainstream political discourse. This “re-discovery” of Biko, Che, Fanon, Sankara and Sobukwe is shaping popular ideas and those seen to be inspired by these ideas are appealing to the students. Wits’ PYA backing out of a campus debate against the EFFSC on the eve of the SRC elections, outed them as intellectual cowards with no intellectual stamina, political theory and consciousness. A fatal mistake.

7. Successes of the 2015-2016 #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall campaigns decorate the jewel of radical, populist and Africanist student movements. They won concessions in two years which tertiary education elites had resisted for 20 years. Suddenly every university is removing colonial symbols, changing curriculums, recognising black and female scholars, in-sourcing security and cleaning services etc.

More importantly, like Rhodes, fees have fallen for all poor and lower middle-class students. The Student Command claims this as an incomplete victory whilst efforts of the PYA are undermined by movement leaders who speak with folk tongues on the issue of free and decolonised quality higher education.

Something can be said too about previous DASO (DA) & SADESMO (IFP) wins as well. For the purpose of this argument those we will call “right turns” – ie circumstances under which students previously voted for right wing parties – who can forget the near-recent scandalous DASO victory at Fort Hare, coinciding with the university’s jubilee celebrations.

With EFF Student Command making inroads in the past two to three years, we are now seeing “left turns” gaining ground as a push back against rising inequality, democratic indifference and colonialism.

8. As the EFF continues to capture national imagination and to grow in influence, so are the fortunes trickling or accruing to its Student Command. They are seen to be speaking truth to power, true champions of poor students. They have created an image of an organisation created to serve the people and challenge black poverty and deprivation. They are directly taking on white arrogance and reaffirming black self-worth. This is vital in that the conditions of students are seen as a consequence of political economy, not an isolated incidence of campus life.

By default, the PYA has largely been focused on campus politics, partly because of the apathy of its leader, the ANC Youth League.

Neither will we venture into what is to be done because everyone pretty much knows what ought to be done by the movement to reassert the hegemony of the PYA in order for SASCO to lead students at campus and national levels. Also, the age-old debate of the Youth League contesting SRC elections has to be decisively addressed. In the meantime, #FeesMustFall protests of 2017 have commenced in various Universities across the country yet again. This time the student leadership political landscape has drastically changed.

The EFF Student Command is winning the argument. DM

Wandile Ngcaweni is a research intern at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (MISTRA)

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