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The vexed question of political party involvement in student politics

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Dr Sibusiso Chalufu is the Executive Director: Student Life at the North-West University (NWU) and the President of the South African Association of Senior Student Affairs Professionals (SAASSAP). He also serves on the Central Applications Office (CAO) as the non-executive Director and as a member of Universities South Africa (USAf)’s Transformation Strategy Group.

The polarisation of student politics along party political lines has come under intense scrutiny, with Professor Adam Habib, outgoing Vice-Chancellor of Wits University, calling it a ‘highly destructive force’. But there is another route that can be taken.

In 2018, I participated in eNCA’s Let’s Have It Out programme, focusing on the question of whether our higher education institutions (HEIs) should be de-politicised. The programme, which was part of eNCA’s series hosted by various socio-political commentators and influencers, tackled various topical and controversial issues, and provided a space – albeit limited – for critical public discourse.

The specific programme that I had been invited to be a part of was hosted by the former University of Witwatersrand SRC President, Nompendulo Mkatshwa, now an ANC Member of Parliament serving on the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology. During the engagement with Mkatshwa, the question was put directly to me whether I believed that our HEIs should be depoliticised, to which I provided my views based on what was then my 23 years of involvement in higher education, 13 of which had been in student affairs and services. 

The recent debate and discussion about the role and space of student politics in HEIs – particularly in the context of student representative council (SRC) elections – has again ignited the argument about this topic. Prominent among these is the recent Daily Maverick article by Habib arguing against the role of student political parties in universities in what he regards as a “hugely destructive force”.

The idea that we should de-politicise our campuses, or more crudely put, get rid of student politics in our student governance and leadership may seem attractive, given the intractable challenges that some HEIs have had to deal with over the past decade or so, but it is not in my view, the best way to go about dealing with these challenges and should be avoided at all costs.

While the point is made by the proponents of this idea that this is not an argument about getting rid of student politics in university campuses, there is an inevitable sub-text that speaks precisely to that. To be sure, there are some university leaders, due to incessant frustrations with the over-politicisation of student governance and leadership in higher education, who would love to see university campuses being “sacred spaces” where politics is not a major feature of their operations, if not totally eliminated. 

Perhaps the problem is not student politics per se, but rather how student politics plays itself out and our responses as university managers and administrators to its disposition on our campuses.

The often-destructive role of student politics on university campuses, cannot be belaboured. It is no secret that student political structures have often brought about major challenges to HEIs, resulting from internal micro-politics and external contestations. The often-fraught relationship between the campus-based student political structure and the national “mother body” has been responsible for many a political discord on university campuses, at times with very serious consequences.

I recall vividly in the late 1980s when I was a student at the then University of Durban-Westville (now University of KwaZulu-Natal), an incident where one student was stabbed to death in a conflict that had resulted from major political contestation. It threatened to spill into serious tribal warfare at a time when the province of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal), was experiencing internecine conflict between Inkatha Yenkululeko Yesizwe (later Inkatha Freedom Party, IFP) and the ANC-aligned United Democratic Front (UDF).

This is, of course, an extreme example, which I deliberately use to illustrate the deleterious consequences of what Habib refers to as the “politics of extremes”. Fortunately, over the years, an incident of this nature has not been replicated, save for some skirmishes which have been experienced without fatal consequences – thank goodness.

I have observed, firsthand, how some student leaders in the SRC have been forced to go along with the national political structure, even when the local internal circumstances dictate otherwise. At one institution where I served as the executive director for student services, our division had worked very closely with the incoming SRC president to organise the inauguration and swearing-in of the new SRC – an event in which the deputy minister of Higher Education and Training was scheduled to give a keynote address. 

On the eve of the event, at about 6.30pm, I received a call from the SRC president-elect, informing me that he urgently wanted to speak to me. As I was still in the office, I invited him to come over. To my utter shock and dismay, he informed me that the planned inauguration that was scheduled to take place in less than 24 hours should be cancelled. This, notwithstanding that a lot of time, energy and money had gone into organising this event.

In confidence, he informed me that this was due to the undue pressure visited upon him by the mother body to have the event cancelled because of internal politics that was at play. Suffice to say, we went ahead with the event in the absence of the SRC president-elect, who buckled under the pressure of the national political structure. Other examples abound.

The unscrupulous manner in which some of the student leaders with strong political leanings have operated – including using threats of violence and advocating for the “fall” of those who oppose their wicked ways – can neither be condoned nor ignored. But that does not mean that we must paint all student leaders with the same brush.

It is equally true that there have been many instances where student leaders – informed by the views of a small segment of the student population, primarily influenced by some political posturing – have acted against the views of the majority of students.  

There are numerous student leaders coming from student political formations, who have played constructive roles in universities’ student governance and leadership, at times under immense pressure from the external mother body. Through thorough and constant constructive engagement leading to the building of trust with student affairs and services practitioners, these young leaders have been able to successfully navigate the treacherous political space while providing effective and courageous leadership in institutions of higher education.

Therefore, I would like to argue that, among others, it is about how we (student affairs, services practitioners and university leaders), shape the nature and kind of engagements, and relations that we have with student leaders. From experience, I have noted massive changes in the manner in which politically inclined student leaders address and deal with matters when they perceive supportive yet firm and fair “undertones” in their relationship with university management. 

So much so, that there have been numerous instances at various institutions where I have worked where student leaders would trust you enough to request your views in drafts advocating for particular approaches, which may be counter to the route and direction that the university is going.

There is a need to ensure that students are aware that beyond the day-to-day concerns about service delivery and the general welfare of students (which are important), there are a number of other equally important issues that require effective student leadership to champion.

It is equally true that there have been many instances where student leaders – informed by the views of a small segment of the student population, primarily influenced by some political posturing – have acted against the views of the majority of students. 

There have been numerous times when universities have questioned whether a decision, for instance, to shut down an institution through student protest, is, in fact, the decision of the majority or that of less than 5% of the student body who happened to shout the loudest and at times the most violently. This has called into question the extent to which some student representative councils are indeed representative of the views and aspirations of the students that they claim to represent.

I wish to argue, however, that the epic failure of a number of HEIs to attract large numbers of students to participate in the SRC elections is reflective of the institutions’ failure at effective co-curricular programming, with the SRC elections serving as an example of participative democracy in action with the aim of developing responsible and active citizenship focused on bringing about change. 

There is a need to ensure that students are aware that beyond the day-to-day concerns about service delivery and the general welfare of students (which are important), there are a number of other equally important issues that require effective student leadership to champion.

Instead of insisting, for example, that certain thresholds should be reached for the legitimation of student leadership following SRC elections, we should spend more time and effort conscientising the student body about the role played by the SRC in critical institutional matters and decisions that affect their lives as students, and the future and reputation of the institution from which they are destined to be future alumni. 

That way, students would see the need for ensuring that not only do they participate in the elections, but they also elect individuals who have what it takes to champion student issues. My point is that we should be more concerned about making SRCs truly student-issues focused and about ensuring that the SRC agenda is primarily student-centred.

One is inclined to be sympathetic towards Habib’s sentiments and the supporting evidence presented to support his argument – to a large extent I agree, in principle, with the proposed way of dealing with the broader systemic challenges, particularly at a more societal level (what he refers to as a social justice politics) and with two of the three recommendations that he proposes to deal with the challenges in question. 

It is the suggested approach to dealing with the challenges at the higher education level – mainly encapsulated in the third recommendation, i.e, basically excluding student political structures from “canvassing for SRC elections” and therefore organising these elections on the basis of individual participation and contestation – that I have a problem with.

Over the years, various institutions have experimented with a number of variations through the amendments of SRC constitutions – such as having both individual candidates and student political structure candidates being allowed to contest SRC elections, or having students who stand as individuals, but are supported by a student political organisation. 

While I agree that there is a need for SRCs which are not constituted on party political lines – what Habib refers to as “non-party designated SRCs” – I do not believe that this can be achieved through the manner suggested by Habib. It is true that we need to have SRCs which derive their mandate from the general student body and not from a section of the student body or its derivative proxy made up of external influencers and marionettists. However, that should not be done through the elimination of student political structures from contesting and participating in SRC elections.

A few years ago, Professor Jonathan Jansen tried a similar approach when he was the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS), with limited success. From engagements with colleagues who were privy to circumstances leading up to the decision to forbid political student structures from contesting the SRC elections, the indication is that there was a critical incident which took place, propagated by a SASCO-led SRC, which was the proverbial straw which broke the camel’s back. 

Although this decision was implemented on one of the campuses of UFS, it would seem that SRC elections were still contested along student political structures on the other campus. Anecdotal evidence indicates that the resultant consequence of Jansen’s decision was that the stature of the SRC elected out of this process diminished substantially, as one of the colleagues indicated, with the SRC being treated more “like prefects” resulting in “substantive student matters not being addressed”.

Over the years, various institutions have experimented with a number of variations through the amendments of SRC constitutions – such as having both individual candidates and student political structure candidates being allowed to contest SRC elections, or having students who stand as individuals, but are supported by a student political organisation. 

Throughout these efforts, students have always found some loopholes which they have exploited, resulting in the same outcome of having political-structure led SRCs. This, to me, is indicative of the fact that we are treating the symptoms instead of addressing the real and deep issues around the role of student politics in student governance, and leadership in our institutions.

How else can we deal with the situation in our campuses which can clearly be destructive with long-term adverse implications for both our institutions and our country at large? I wish to propose the following three areas of focus:

Firstly, any change in the manner in which student governance and leadership is practised in HEIs invariably requires a serious rethink of student governance and leadership in the higher education sector in general. It is for that reason that there is a need for the development of a student governance and leadership framework in South Africa which will provide some guidelines and, among others, also outline some rules of engagement in the sector. 

This framework should also include minimum performance standards and codes of conduct to which student leaders need to be held accountable. Each institution would be required to ensure that, as part of accountability measures, every SRC has an annual performance plan, which is aligned to institutional imperatives and most importantly, student needs and aspirations – in a similar way that university leadership and university council members are held to account. 

The framework could also require that, as a matter of principle, each SRC should develop a programme of action which is geared towards addressing students and institutional concerns, aligned to the institution’s areas of strategic focus, and approved by a broad representative student structure (such as a student parliament or similar structure), to which the SRC is accountable.

While the SRC is a critical statutory body whose “supremacy” in student governance cannot be undermined, our conception of student leadership requires a fundamental change. 

The good thing is that at a sub-sector level and through the leadership of the South African Association of Senior Student Affairs Professionals (SAASSAP), plans are afoot to look into, inter alia, rethinking and reimagining student affairs and services in general, and student governance and leadership in particular, working with various strategic partners such as NASDEV (the National Association of Student Development Practitioners), SAUS (South African Union of Students), USAf (Universities South Africa), and others.

Secondly, what HEIs see as the role and place of student affairs and services (SAS), needs to fundamentally change. Research has long shown the critical role that is played by SAS, not only in support of the academic project, but also in the holistic development of students as well-rounded, innovative, creative and socially responsible, and active global citizens and leaders. 

The fact that in most institutions, SAS departments are either marginalised or at worst serve as a dumping grounds for staff who are deemed problematic or unproductive elsewhere, militates against all efforts aimed at the professionalisation of this sub-sector. It is only when student affairs and services practitioners are empowered, and allowed the space to contribute effectively in the development of our students that they can play a constructive role towards working with and supporting young leaders towards better outcomes.

Thirdly, there is a need for us to ensure that we turn the negative effects of destructive student politics into something positive and constructive on our campuses. This implies that we have to fundamentally change our conception of student leadership and the way that we support, and empower students in general and student leaders in particular. While the SRC is a critical statutory body whose “supremacy” in student governance cannot be undermined, our conception of student leadership requires a fundamental change. 

Apart from recognising and providing support to various layers of student leadership in our institutions, this implies that our efforts should also be aimed at strengthening and empowering various structures where student leadership is practiced. For example, through effective support and development provided to academic student structures, we are likely to fundamentally change not only the quality of student experience, but also the nature, and type of student governance and leadership that is obtained in our institutions. That way, we may even begin to ensure more student-centric SRCs.

I have always been a proponent of empowering student political structures to allow them to focus on the task of conscientising their constituencies around, for example, economic and sociopolitical aspects affecting their lives and futures. Apart from the conflictual nature of student political structures alluded to earlier, one must acknowledge the critical role that they have often played – through various engagements including inviting political leaders – in raising our consciousness about issues of exploitation, subjugation, social justice, etc. which propelled some of us to get involved in community-based campaigns and struggles for liberation.

Therefore, I support the institutional empowerment of student political structures such that they can play a more constructive role to lead and drive critical discourse about issues of concern to the youth, and the future of our country, continent and the world.

Obviously, there are a number of other initiatives and approaches that need to be given consideration in order to turn the current situation around. Tinkering with student governance policies will, in my view, merely deal with the symptoms without addressing the fundamental structural, and conceptual aspects which are critical towards ensuring fundamental and long-term change in the student governance and leadership of our higher education institutions. DM

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