Why we need militant and radical student leaders

The higher education summit convened by Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education, in April gave us an opportunity to engage on matters that have been elbowed out of the national agenda since the advent of democracy in South Africa.

The blame cannot be put only on those charged with governing the country—there is a well-entrenched tendency within civil society and stakeholders generally of self-censorship and a preoccupation with political correctness that hinders our ability to point out shortcomings and take a lead on important struggles, such as the transformation of higher education.

Many participants at the April summit lamented that it was too short to discuss adequately the serious issues raised there.
This could suggest one of two things: either we viewed the summit as though it was meant to be an end in itself or we felt that everything would go off anyway to Sol Plaatje House for implementation and monitoring. Both these assumptions are wrong.

We are all expected to play a meaningful role in carrying forward the mandate and declaration that the summit produced. As the student leaders of this country, we went to the summit not to take advantage of a free platform to criticise university managers or lament the systematic closure of space for democratic participation by students and other stakeholders in institutional governance.

We went there to enrich our own understanding and to help us generate new, creative ways of opening up democratic spaces, even in institutions that remain openly hostile to the active participation of students in governance. This year we have again seen huge waves of student protests across the country, making many claim that students have lost sight of why they are at university. This is misguided.

Students come from communities with many different socioeconomic conditions. It is only natural that the majority of the students engaged in struggles are from black, working-class backgrounds (though it is also true that, at some universities, students from Indian, coloured and white communities have involved themselves in struggles). This must trigger the most uncomfortable question: Is it a good reflection on university management that every year brings exactly the same set of crises?

To assist armchair critics, let me point out why it is that all students should be involved in struggle. In South Africa today it is not uncommon to find that in disciplines such as medicine, engineering and accounting, African students do not finish in record time. These are students who are not active in sports, religious groups or even student politics.

The reality of racialised academic exclusion still haunts our black students. But the right to organise is thwarted by university managers and on their side they have the police and the university disciplinary committee for those “who cause trouble”. That is why the rules at most universities say that if students want to protest, for example, to get hot water in their residences, they must write a letter requesting permission to protest.

Students then have 14 days to request permission from the police to hold a protest. But the police can grant that only if the university authorities have agreed to it. This is a systematic suppression by universities of the rights of assembly and freedom of expression—the oppressed must ask the oppressor to grant them the right to speak about injustices.

The spirit young people possess to correct the wrongs in our society is being killed because they have to be preoccupied with how self-appointed judges of political correctness will view them. Examples here are the Durban University of Technology (DUT) and the Mangosuthu University of Technology, where management refuses to honour agreements that in some cases date back years. It is unbelievable that these authorities expect students to be peaceful.

No one can justify why some students still have to bath in cold water, why windows are not fixed and why showers in a residence with both men and women have neither doors nor curtains. DUT’s council decided four years ago to address all these issues but managers have not implemented them. Would you find this in predominantly white institutions? The answer is a resounding no.

Some claim that the political environment has changed since 1994 and so students should not engage in protests. But this is a childish understanding of politics and unfolding social struggles. In our many meetings Nzimande has emphasised that peaceful protests are welcome but not vandalism to property. We agree with him on that.

However, we are saying that there are universities—such as Wits, Cape Town and Free State—where protests have never drawn police brutality. But, at predominantly black universities, the involvement of police in protests has only worsened the situation. We cannot afford to militarise campuses and turn them into small Gaza Strips in the name of law and order.

The reality is that university managers are cowards. When they do not implement their own decisions and know that they will not win arguments with students on such occasions, they turn to the police. This is a political strategy aimed at instilling fear in student leaders and using arbitrary arrest and suspensions to isolate those who are making a noise. But the bottom line is that the issues remain unresolved. This is the sad story of the so-called progressive vice-chancellors of today.

Most of them claim to be products of the student movement and when they go around lobbying for appointment they never stop telling us how we have lost our militancy. This is hypocrisy of the worst order. The struggle for free education has never been more relevant than now. Access to education is at the core of the disputes between students and management.

First, university admission policies do not consider hundreds of thousands of the young people in high school—the tendency is to admit only the cream of matriculants. This marginalises those from rural schools who struggle to meet the point requirements for admission.

Second, universities increase fees every year and rarely consult with students beforehand. Instead, every December during the holidays students are surprised to receive letters saying their fees for the coming year have been increased. To make matters worse, universities usually claim this has been agreed with student leaders.

When students discover this is untrue and protest, university managers call in the police. This is theft committed under the nose of the department of higher education and the whole government, but they claim they cannot do anything because institutions are “autonomous”. This means that poor students can be robbed and left naked but the minister will seek to convince the nation that his hands are tied because of “university autonomy” and that the issues must be “resolved internally”.

The minister and many others have frequently expressed concern at skyrocketing levels of corruption in universities—as well as corruption in which students themselves have been implicated as never before. I have always said that my responsibility is to represent students but I agree that some student leaders have been as guilty as university managers of self-enrichment.

You hardly notice some student representative council (SRC) presidents in senate meetings—they are either not present or remain very quiet. But you can guarantee that the same presidents will attend tender meetings—and be vocal. There is one explanation for this. Business people notice the power of student leaders and realise that their own ambitions can be realised if they lobby SRC members and give them what I call “tokens of appreciations” for their efforts after a tender has been awarded.

That is why some student leaders go to extremes to ensure that certain service providers are appointed. This is a reality. In some cases university managers responsible for procurement give service providers the names and contact details of influential figures in the SRC. This also is a reality.

Corruption is wrong, whether on the part of politicians or student leaders. It must be fought vigorously. But compared with university managers, student corruption is tiny. Managers all too often award huge infrastructure projects, such as building residences, without following the procurement procedures of the universities themselves, not to mention the Public Finance Management Act.

If the minister wants to investigate corruption at the universities, his first step must be to look at the executive managers of these institutions. But this does not mean students must be allowed to get off the hook. If we are to transform higher education we need militant and radical student leaders who understand that protests are not a substitute for negotiation but are a last resort. But this is possible only in a free and democratic environment.

Authoritarianism in universities is sometimes worse than under apartheid. University authorities and academics frown at criticism, no matter how constructive. They might agree that there is racism in universities but are not brave enough to agree that it is happening in “my engineering department”.

We need to ensure that the credibility of our struggles remains intact. Student leaders must remain exemplary—SRC members cannot use the SRC as a justifi cation for poor academic performance. Student leaders must move away from advocacy and be representative. This means that more student consultative forums must be created and the democratic participation of students must be ensured.

Debates on racism and race relations must be deepened in all faculties—they should not take place only in the social sciences. The graduate output of universities must reflect their enrolment, both in strict numbers and in demographics. There must be a deliberate effort to retain young graduates and encourage them to take up postgraduate studies so that we can have a second layer of academic leadership in institutions.

The phenomenon of an ageing professoriate is beginning to have damaging results in academia and we must address this, especially by training black women postgraduates.

We need to open a new debate about the role of non-statutory bodies, such as the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants and the Engineering Council of South Africa and others, that accredit academic programmes and set standards for institutions without the mandate of our people. This is an uncomfortable issue but we need to tackle it head on, because when it comes to these bodies suddenly no one talks about “institutional autonomy”.

We also need to consider standardising curriculums. It is not acceptable that a level-one law module from Wits is accepted at the University of Cape Town but the same module from Zululand is not accepted at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. If left unquestioned, “standards” will reproduce apartheid patterns and relations in academia.

Now is the time for us to move with speed to ensure that one resolution of Nzimande’s summit—to establish a stakeholders’ forum—is implemented. The summit must become an annual event while the forum monitors the implementation of resolutions.

The summit was clear in noting universities’ lack of preparedness for the type of students who are now enrolling—language remains a huge barrier, classes are still too large and facilities for disabled students are inadequate. Institutional forums must be strengthened—they must be more than advisory bodies to councils. And council members must be made to keep in touch with all stakeholders in universities.

Council members are not like shareholders: they cannot rely only on reports. Finally, we need a hands-on ministry, not one that, like an ambulance, acts only when institutions are besieged with problems. The summit was a positive start and students will support this initiative and continue picking up struggles on the campuses, where the effects of transformation must be felt and seen.

Sandile Phakathi is president of the South African Union of Students and a master’s student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

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