/ 11 May 2001

Cosas needs to do its homework

Pule waga Mabe

‘Through positive and creative campaigns, you are showing that when you mobilised for militant action against apartheid education, you did not see this as an end itself. When you refused to succumb to apartheid’s jackboot, it is because you knew you had a role not only in eradicating racist education, but also in the introduction of the new system,” said former president Nelson Mandela in an speech to the Congress of South African Students (Cosas)in 1995.

Six years later questions are being asked about whether Cosas is still relevant. This comes in the wake of the organisation resorting to violent protests to register their demands. During a recent Cosas march in Johannesburg, there was widespread looting and theft, particularly from pavement hawkers.

It has become evident on numerous occasions, especially during mass action, that student protests get infiltrated by thugs, who have selfish intentions and compromise the integrity and image of those organisations.

Take the incidents in Springs-Kwathema in 1998, where the Pan Africanist Student Organisation (Paso) and Cosas had gun battles until the Ministry of Education intervened and banned them from operating in schools on the East Rand.

It appeared at that time that there were squabbles among individuals who used the student organisations to promote themselves.

When Cosas was launched about 22 years ago, anti-apartheid political leaders agreed it was necessary for the organisation to use destructive militancy to help attain freedom and fight the Bantu Education system and many other unjust laws.

But Cosas has apparently not learned as other militant organisations have that as South Africa became a democracy there was no longer place for violent protests.

This week the Minister of Education Kader Asmal was quoted as saying: “Government policy won’t change by threats of direct action or of violence.”

His statement comes after the newly elected Cosas President Julius Malema reiterated that his organisation would revisit the anti-privatisation campaign, where they threatened to march on Model C and private schools and disrupt schooling.

What was shocking was that Cosas claimed it was launching this campaign in the interests of the “have nots”, but had not checked whether the government was subsidising private schools. If the organisation had done its homework before making a lot of noise, it would have discovered that most private schools do not receive a cent from the government.

If Cosas’s intention was to use the “anti-privatisation” campaign to mobilise support for the organisation, its ship is likely to sink before reaching its destination.

Student activism will continue to decline and membership of organisations representing the youth or students will dwindle in the absence of vibrant programmes that attract mass support and are responsive to the needs and desires of the learners.

There are problems at schools and there are reasons that organisations such as Cosas should exist and thrive. Academic and financial exclusion is one such issue burning across the country but Cosas appears blind to this.

They could speak to their constituencies about these problems, they could approach school managements to deal with them they could even ask Asmal for a meeting to address these problems. Instead, Cosas marches.

School maintenance is another issue affecting hundreds of thousands of learners. Cosas could engage the government on this problem, they could do a survey of how bad the problem is across the country they could even come to school over weekends and help rebuild them.

Rape and sexual abuse of female students is a major problem. What is Cosas doing to address this?

There is a need for a paradigm shift. The public won’t listen to a national student organisation promoting unsustainable and uninformed campaigns largely driven by emotions and illusion.

Despite the Department of Education’s commitment to the principles of collective governance, which gives learner representative councils the power to participate in decision-making processes, student activists today lack the skills to deliberate and defend their points of view in boardrooms.

Young people are easily swayed by mass hysteria, endorsing decisions by their leaders to bring schools to a standstill, and therefore need educated and responsible student leaders.

Cosas’s leadership is in dire need of political education. They should be taught when it is best to embark on mass action and when it is best to argue their case in a meeting. They need to understand where their organisation came from and they urgently need to find out where they are going.

I left Cosas’s national congress at the weekend shocked and disturbed, because some members of the organisation do not even know what the acronym NEC means (national executive committee). They obviously do not understand what the NEC’s role should be.

It was also clear at the congress that some members of Cosas do not understand why the organisation exists. This is the kind of basic education that Cosas should intensively engage in before taking to the streets.

There is still a need for student movements, largely because almost everything in our democracy is stakeholder driven. The education department needs to hear from learners before they draft new policies, choose lists of textbooks or raise school fees.

But until student movements start developing better strategies and good tactical approaches, they will not win the hearts of many in the country.