The Rhodes debate: Exposing the gaps in our student politics
Although the watch word of the debate around the Rhodes Statue has transformation, the conversation has also thrown into sharp relief the nature of student activism in the country. It has shown important effects of structural deficits in our student politics. These gaps in student representation are at least partially responsible for the kinds of demonstrations we are currently seeing on our campus and it is worthwhile understanding what role they are playing.
Ever since the death of NUSAS and SASO in the early 1990's students have struggled to find a central voice through which to articulate their concerns independently on a national level. Student politics is marked by apathy with low voter turn outs for elections and SRC's have by and large been taken over by political parties which have the resources to contest these spaces. Opposition parties like the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO) tend to dominate in regions where the parent body is strong however most campuses are controlled by at least one member of the so called Progressive Youth Alliance, SASCO, the ANC youth league or Youth Communist League.
Politicised SRC's are not necessarily a problem for student governance but they do have their limits. Thankfully many party political campus activists are hardworking and passionate about youth issues. It is no secret however that SRC's positions also constitute an important first step for a young person wanting to gain a foothold in the national party structures. This means that SRC's also attract a growing number of careerists trying to make a name for themselves in their party as much as in the university community.
As a result SRC's tend to become battle grounds for internal party political intrigues and position jockeying instead of the foci of student centred governance. There is also a tendency toward a short term view of problems facing students. There is a notion that student politics is simple formula, in January you protest about fees, in June about exams and in December about exclusions.
This kind of approach is great if you understand the issue as a political party. It gets good headlines and shows instant concrete results by scooping up marginal students that may be just about to exit the system. It does not however do much in the way of dealing with deep set structural problems such as poverty, high dropout rates and financial exclusion. Instead of strong across the board national student advocacy we have a fragmented representation that differs in terms of campus context.
This fragmentation was one of the reasons that the #Rhodesmustfall campaign got such traction at UCT but less at similar institutions across the country. Take for example Wits. Like UCT the issue of transformation has been something that has bubbled along for sometime inside the university community. For many years various students have gotten together to debate the issue often in the form of ""black thought"" societies which have held discussions and gatherings on the topic. Last year they decided to insert themselves more directly into the debate by backing the Wits EFF branch in the student elections. The EFF specifically made name changes a part of their platform. This is a quote from a youth magazine covering the elections:
""Wits EFF is motioning for the renaming of Wits buildings in honor of struggle heroes. ""You have [buildings named after] David Webster, Olive Schreiner and Ernest Oppenheimer, but [the university] can't explain to us why we don't have a building named after Dr Robert Sobukwe; a revolutionary, a thought leader and a former lecturer at this university.""""
This discourse is similar to UCT except unlike Rhodes both Olive Schreiner and David Webster are exemplars of the anti-apartheid tradition. Those advocating for name changes are seemingly not very discerning, anything identified as ""white"" is a target, regardless of context. It also shows the terrific mismanagement of the naming issue by the university administration. Whilst the legacy of Nelson Mandela is well represented at Wits the EFF is correct to point out that there is very little relating to Robert Sobukwe.
This is the case even though he studied and lectured on the campus and that his historical papers are archived there. The administration thus allows groups like the EFF to claim him as a revolutionary in their nationalist image and a symbol that Wits is uninterested in transformation. Yet his historical legacy is heavily nuanced and could just as easily speak to the liberalism not just of Sobukwe himself but of the anti-apartheid contributions made by Wits during that period.
The Wits SRC elections showed however that the naming of buildings was the not the primary issue on the minds of the students. The focus of the election had much more to do with residence policy and financial exclusions. This showed in the eventual tally at the polls with the EFF gaining not a single seat on the SRC.
The result of the naming policy failing an electoral test meant that at the beginning of this year saw the Wits SRC pouring its efforts into securing funding and food for disadvantaged students coming onto campus. Whilst there has been some discussion and even support of the #Rhodesmustfall campaign the Wits SRC has generally been focused on more substantive transformation issues.
This has not been the case at UCT. Although the #Rhodesmustfall campaign has eventually garnered widespread attention it is important to note the role that poor SRC governance has played in its expansion. The SRC vote at UCT was contested between DASO, independent candidates and Aluta (a break away party from SASCO). DASO won a convincing victory in this year's polls with 11 candidates 4 independents and only three Aluta candidates. The Rhodes statue was not part of its immediate priority which was seemingly focused on financial issues and the university transformation admissions policy, again, more substantive transformation issues.
The SRC was not stable however and early this year a number of DASO candidates resigned allowing the more radical Aluta group to depose the elected SRC chair and replace her with one of their own members. It is only after this incident that UCT journalists started reporting on the presence of SRC members at protests surrounding the Rhodes statue. The #Rhodesmustfall campaign has been careful to organise itself outside the structures of the SRC however had the SRC maintained its composition there is a question as to if it would have achieved the moral authority it eventually held on campus.
On viewing the two case studies on Wits and UCT it is clear that transformation, however one defines it, is an important issue facing university communities. What form this takes and how disruptive the process, is likely to be the result of local conditions and the effectiveness of student institutions. As long as students do not have a proper independent national voice to articulate their concerns however the systemic realities facing any transformation agenda is going to be that much harder to address.
Benjamin Shulman is a former postgraduate representative on the Wits Senate