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Universities must realise their former student leaders...

Defend Truth


Universities must realise their former student leaders and architects of change are an untapped resource


Bongani K Mahlangu is an independent economic analyst, commentator, and social activist.

Many student leaders who have graduated are now unemployed. But despite the fact that they have intimate knowledge of university structures, culture and transformation needs, it appears universities would rather hire people with no attachment to the institution and no vision for the future.

Growing your own timber just to discard it. This has been the fate of many former student leaders who have in the past been highly productive, progressive in the main, and now languish at home crippled by the rising youth/graduate unemployment corps of which they are now a part of. Faced with this reality, they are unable to articulate their immediate socioeconomic challenges; lack the necessary financial capital and government support to venture into entrepreneurship; and as a result have been left stressed, dejected and battling depression daily.

Beyond student leaders, this is the reality of many young South Africans today.

The institutions they once held in esteem have got rid of them, and with time the various skills once used to steer the country’s higher education in the right direction have been forgotten alongside their value, efficiency and proposals submitted to decolonise post-apartheid higher education institutions and decrease the barriers of entry which remain more or less intact.

These are student leaders who have contributed fully to the democratic project envisioned by this country and played a crucial role in the governance of higher education through various governance structures such as student representative councils, councils, senates and institutional forums – recognised by the Constitution and satisfying sections 27(4)(f), 28(2)(f) and 31(2)(f) of the Higher Education Act of 1997. 

Through their contributions and commitments, these student leaders have ensured that proper governance is actioned for the stability and growth of their institutions and the higher education sector at large.

As members of senates, they have ensured that the academic enterprise (studies, instruction, assessment and research, etc) is never compromised while striving to ensure the academic project itself reflects the transformation objectives of the Higher Education Act and of the broader country.

As members of the institutional forums they have grappled with some of the country’s sociopolitical complexities, often playing a crucial role in uprooting institutional historical patterns of racial, economic and gendered exclusion, and by doing so opened up important conversations about the kind of South African universities that should exist today.

They have participated in the recruitment of senior staff to ensure the correct people are seconded to the correct positions, since they understood that a mismatch has the potential to reverse institutional gains.

These student leaders understood their fiduciary role and operated in accordance with that understanding. They have been agents of change who have propelled institutions to provide the necessary support required for access and success of their student bodies. While much still needs to be done, it is the foresight of such student leaders that has helped accelerate some of the transformation objectives envisioned in the act and placed higher education institutions on the correct growth trajectory.

For example, it is through vigorous student awareness campaigns, projects, proposals and agitations that student support services across campuses have developed infrastructure and resources to ensure that students who face challenges with mental illness are given the necessary help, and that students who are differently-abled receive the necessary institutional support. These leaders have gone to great lengths to influence progressive policies that do not discriminate against people along the lines of race, sex, gender and nationality, among other forms of oppression.

It is through these positive contributions from hard-working student leaders that throughput rates have been on the rise; the quality of education is geared towards progression; and that the rights of students are protected and the academic enterprise is guarded jealously from falling into the trap of regression.

Moreover, while the country grapples with high levels of corruption, financial mismanagement and poor governance competencies, without the necessary skills and capacity training, student leaders have demonstrated their capacity to lead and provide sustainable solutions to complex matters to which the state and institutions have failed to respond over the years. They have managed big projects aimed at generating huge amounts of money for students and improving everyday student life on their campuses. They have met these responsibilities within the parameters of their budgets and have efficiently spent the general budget provided to them.

Administratively, they have mobilised funds to help financially struggling students to the tune of millions; engaged members of the community to ensure availability of beds for students and income for landlords; mediated in disputes and resolved conflicts between students, staff and, at times, the community; and brought academic staff, administrative staff and labour unions together as co-managers of universities to ensure the smooth operation of the institutions’ business affairs. They have done this and more with little incentive and training from the universities, the Department of Higher Education or any other structure or government department.

Higher education institutions that have known prolonged periods of relative stability have forgotten who the architects of that success were. With their legacy and value contribution at their institutions, these student leaders find themselves idling at home with no opportunities and no plan. Meanwhile, the universities they’ve contributed so much to have moved on and forgotten them.

On the political front, they have demonstrated agency and foresight. Using new ways of organising students and challenging the status quo, these young leaders have raised sharply the many contradictions that characterise the higher education experience, and have also provided the solutions – often without credit – for some of the advancements that have unfolded across universities today.

It is through such means and expertise that we have witnessed an increase in government spending in the sector and increased university focus on streamlining student issues effectively. This implies that the more government spends and the more institutions listen, the lesser the burden on students to agitate and the fewer fee-related protests, thereby decreasing disruption of the core business.

The real advantage for them is that being in leadership is an opportunity for self-development that only a few students might experience during their stay at a university. It teaches first-hand the university value chain and affords the privilege of taking part in its everyday operations. In this sense, a leader, throughout their term, will be fully apprised of the university’s culture, strategy, vision and mission. It is progressive student leaders who can add value, identifying areas to develop efficiency to ensure good governance, competitive advantage and expansion and to improve quality.

Through executing these fiduciary obligations, student leaders are sometimes victimised and sabotaged by institutional administrators using systematic tactics. Interestingly, some ideas proposed by many student leaders have been implemented after their term of office or their expulsion and the rewards thereof claimed by university functionaries. Yet these ideas were initially resisted.

Higher education institutions that have known prolonged periods of relative stability have forgotten who the architects of that success were. With their legacy and value contribution at their institutions, these student leaders find themselves idling at home with no opportunities and no plan. Meanwhile, the universities they’ve contributed so much to have moved on and forgotten them.

Instead of absorbing young students into administrative roles to help accelerate identified areas of improvement, institutions of higher learning would rather employ people with no attachment to the institution and no vision for the future – individuals who are just there to draw a paycheque. This is happening at the expense of those who have sacrificed the most to ensure that higher education is accessible to students and leaders who built the legacy systems these institutions now enjoy.  

Student leaders have presented ideas and plans and proposed and established structures for operational efficiency that have enhanced the student experience, championed social justice and cohesion, improved curriculums, positioned and strengthened universities and generated funds for them, established sound consequence-management mechanisms and solidified the universities’ competitive advantage. And yet universities have failed to sustain the value contribution they need so much to drive our country’s institutions forward. DM


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All Comments 3

  • Activists generally do not make good managers/leaders. Activists campaign and put pressure on a single issue through conflict. Managers/leaders need to balance multiple goals aspirations to create an environment an environment of growth.

  • Bongani sounds if he has been overlooked or rejected for some vacancy he applied for. The so-called student leaders of late showed a lack of insight in public affairs and only tried their level best to lay their hands on money that they have not earned.

  • It’s unsurprising that many student leaders find themselves unemployed. Their views lack nuance/depth about reality. While I am for the reform of the system, the students have fought for SOME students rights, and as Nzimande has said, it’s stealing from Peter to give to Paul.

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