At a time when the country’s political discourse seems reduced mostly to banality or violence through words, I want to consider how life under democratic regimes might require a different approach to student politics than the one demanded by politics under dictatorships.
I was born in Argentina and studied for my first degree in history at the University of Buenos Aires. The public higher education system in Argentina is free. Students do not pay fees and, despite the dependence of universities on the state for subsidies, they are autonomous. The state cannot interfere in a university’s academic or governance practices.
But that was not so between 1976 and 1983 when a military dictatorship ruled Argentina. For most of the five years of my undergraduate degree the country was under a military government.
This entailed military intervention in the governance of the university, a constant police presence and the banning of all political activity. Progressive academics resigned, were imprisoned and accused of terrorism, or fled into exile.
“Knowledge is power”
Under totalitarian regimes, whether of the right or the left, the meaning of the statement ‘knowledge is power” becomes almost transparent. The military dictatorship in Argentina created a skewed version of truth by banning books, movies, plays and songs it did not like.
The public university was a particularly important target because it was seen as the cradle of the left and nonconformism.The syllabuses of most of our courses were the manifestation of the power of the state in disguise, deciding what we could think, what deserved to be studied and what not.
Under those circumstances, what kind of student activism was possible? The greatest political resistance during that period was intellectual defiance. We wanted the knowledge that was banned. We wanted the tools to critique the rubbish we were being fed in the name of God, the Fatherland and Western civilisation.
We wanted the tools to uncover mediocrity and intellectual cowardice and their political consequences — to distinguish between active justification of the dictatorship and
At the age of 18 or 19, my best teachers and mentors were senior students who had had the chance of other teachers and other books. We organised underground study groups. The state of emergency prevented gatherings of more than two people. So at the weekends we travelled outside the city to a place where we could read and discuss texts.
Clandestine reading made us aware of old and new debates in history and the social sciences, and we realised what we could be taught. But we also talked politics, tactics and the future and what it would take to overturn the military. And when the situation was ripe we participated in all forms of mobilisation.
As the military government weakened, we organised ourselves and contested the first unauthorised student representative council (SRC) election, with the support of political parties, although not all student formations had a party political background. One task of the newly formed SRC in the humanities faculty was a review of the curriculum.
We constituted ourselves in discipline-based teams to review the undergraduate curriculum in our departments. We wrote documents arguing why the courses were dated, badly organised and poorly taught.
Under the extreme circumstances of the military dictatorship, the role of student activism was intellectual critique. That was the necessary preparation for the next phase of action. In our case, this was challenging and transforming the intellectual and educational approach of our lecturers and, foremost, transforming the role of the university in society. Students then acted by disrupting knowledge and the authority that came with it.
What we did at the university had been done before in Africa, Europe, the United States and other Latin American countries. The 1960s revolutionaries were the first intellectuals telling truth to power. Their truth was not limited to shouting anti-imperialist slogans. It provided a rational critique and a programme for action.
Rhodes University vice-chancellor Saleem Badat has distinguished between different generations of Black Consciousness leadership according to their intellectual drive and their ability to push the boundaries of thought and action. He has also pointed out that the ‘sushi and women generation” constitutes an intellectual and political betrayal of a tradition of heroic contestation and critique.
Before I came to the University of the Free State, I was involved in the quality assurance of our universities. With teams of academics, we visited many universities and met their SRCs and hundreds of students. We learnt about the very different circumstances of each university in the country and of the students.
Through this work, I met some of the future leaders of the country — committed, smart, informed and knowledgeable young people, whose conviction, honesty and dedication impressed and moved us. I am grateful to those youngsters who made us feel hopeful. I have seen students and lecturers working together in their own time to overcome disadvantage.
However, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of SRC leaders who could answer questions about the quality of the programmes being taught at their universities. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of students who felt that they had the right and the obligation to defend the university as an institution.
I have met student leaders more concerned with the first-year bash, their cellphone allowance and their access to budgets than with the kind of knowledge they were being fed at their institutions. I will never forget a young man who, when asked about the SRC’s spending on bashes, said he was a poor rural boy and did not know other ways of having fun. His answer was devastating.
Reproducing an apartheid model
Firstly, his reply was an indication of system failure. The university was proving unable to disrupt his values and help him to identify and critique the problems he was facing. Secondly, his reply enacted the helplessness and lack of hope of an individual deprived of agency. Thirdly, here was a student leader reproducing a deficit model inherited from apartheid.
Blaming the system, whether it is apartheid, the lack of progress in our schooling system or the lack of deeper socioeconomic development in the country, is not going to help. We need to understand why this is happening to be able to act. It is in the connection between our understanding of reality and our actions that universities have a huge responsibility to developing students as leaders. But the university can only do one part of the job.
I believe that in many respects our society and our higher education system are at a crossroads. The next 10 years will be crucial in deciding the future of this country. There are things that need to change if we want the future to be meaningful and students to play their role.
What kind of agency needs to be exercised to reverse the tide of mediocrity, superficiality, egotism and violence that we often witness in this country? The struggle for liberation is over only in the sense that people can vote and that we have a Constitution and excellent legislation on many fronts. But, in its deepest sense, the liberation of South Africa is a work in progress.
We are in crisis and students need to choose how to engage with the task of liberation under today’s circumstances. Their struggle is not the heroic armed struggle: it consists of mustering the daily heroism necessary to unpack the intellectual and political elements of our crisis.
Concerns that need to be added to the list
Let me make a few suggestions of things that need to change. The list is not comprehensive and it reflects the things I see from where I sit as a higher-education manager, an academic and a parent. There are issues that are vital for students: access to universities, funding, housing and health. These cannot be ignored but they need to be deepened, and other concerns need to be added to the list:
- Once you enter a university you need to be able to enter the knowledge the university offers, critically and thoughtfully. You need to hold the university accountable. But this accountability is different from the one I see practised by students at most institutions. This accountability is not about complaining because the lecturer did not tell you what pages to study for the exam. It is the opposite. It is about complaining because the lecturer told you that you only needed to study five pages to pass a test. It is complaining about lecturers who do not prepare for their classes, who do not teach you to read and review different views but teach you out of a single textbook.
- Refuse to be tarred by mediocrity. Argue with the lecturer who encourages you simply to pass a subject. Almost everything is available over the internet. Use this as your attempt to disrupt knowledge and relationships at universities.
- Use the knowledge you acquire to be critical and think independently of the government, party, church, family and university. This does not mean either disloyalty or neutrality. It means that, when a party proposes policies, you examine them with all your knowledge and intellectual ability, in terms of meaning, consequences and consistency.
I think technology is amazing and needs to be used more and better, but knowledge requires reflection and thinking that cannot be twittered. Challenge yourself to think longer and more complex thoughts than the ones prescribed by technology.
Leaders are role models. Students must ensure their actions and words challenge the insidious racism of our society, gender violence, the cynicism of accumulation, the disregard for the environment, the injustice of the lack of redistribution and the lack of representation of those without a voice.
But, above all, they should challenge themselves. In a country in which only about 20% of the appropriate age group access university education, students are a privileged minority. This creates a special responsibility for them and for the university.
The university has the responsibility to provide them with an education that will allow them to earn a living but also to do their jobs with integrity. The university has the responsibility of making them not only competent professionals but also discerning human beings.
The university is responsible for teaching them a profession or a subject and also to unleash their potential to do other things. The university has the responsibility to teach them to do useful things and to help them to be good.
However, no university can do all this alone. A student is the knower, the agent of change, and only students can help the university to succeed in its mission. Students are co-constructors of the quality of their education in the same way as the university is a co-constructor of the quality of its leadership.
Dr Lis Lange is adviser to the directorate for institutional research and academic planning at the University of the Free State. This is an edited version of her address at the national student summit on October 6 and 7, organised by UFS students with the support of the university’s International Institute of Studies on Race and Reconciliation.