Student leaders recently attended an indaba with the department of higher education and training on leadership and values.
The purpose was to “significantly contribute towards the establishment of a safe and conducive learning environment at institutions of higher learning”.
“It was also envisaged that the event will promote the strengthening of a culture of positive peer accountability, where students will among themselves support ethical and constructive leadership and hold each other accountable for their actions.”
Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor delivered a beautiful speech, as did the University of Johannesburg’s vice-chancellor, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, and Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia, the chief executive officer of the department’s HIV programme.
And then it went sour. It was painful and embarrassing to watch the manner in which some student leaders responded to the speeches.
I have been disturbed by the way some students have been conducting themselves as we try, not only as department but also as a country, to find solutions to the problems in the higher education sector, particularly about student funding.
So much has been communicated by the department about what is being done to arrest these problems.
The government has policies to reverse the racial inequalities in education and provides funding to ensure that poor students are afforded an opportunity to study, graduate and break the cycle of poverty in their families and ultimately to contribute to the economy.
I watched with disgust the conduct of some student leaders at the indaba. The student leaders did not show any sign of remorse about the manner in which they handled the gathering. They couldn’t care less about the tone they used. Credit goes to the few who respected the event. It’s a pity their valid contributions were drowned in the chaos.
It would seem anger was the only thing the student leaders wanted to display. They showed no interest in the topics. What a lost opportunity.
It made me ponder: What role are our parents playing in instilling respect among our youth, beginning at home? Maybe an unfair question?
What I saw at the indaba is the opposite of what the event intended to achieve. It was naked disrespect, something taboo in African culture.
“When the erosion of the distinction between young and old among [the] black elite is transferred to university campuses, you have the makings of a toxic bourgeois radicalism that despises its own African values.” These are the words of Professor Xolela Mangcu who, in one of his writings, questioned how young people should conduct themselves when talking to their elders.
Students need to start electing representatives who understand the issues affecting them. Students need to elect leaders who are not only vocal but also know what they are talking about; leaders who will represent their constituency well and with dignity.
We cannot reduce every disagreement to chaos. The fighting has to stop. The insults have to stop. The empty militancy has to stop. There is no need for heroics.
What we need are debaters and communicators. We need listeners. We need respect, not only for our elders but also among the youth. We need, all of us, leaders who understand what it means to be a leader.
Our student leadership and their constituency need to introspect and face reality — which is that the education portfolio continues to get the attention of the government, regardless of the tough economic times the country is facing. The reality is that all the decisions made are informed by economic and other factors.
The reality is that we need to find a better way to communicate. Chaos and disruption won’t take us anywhere.
Someone once said: “Respect your elders. Learn from the people who have walked the path before you. Respect them. Because someday, and sooner than you could ever imagine, you are going to be old, too.”
William Somo is with the department of higher education and training. These are his own views