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Do we need to bring the silkscreen poster back?

“The purpose of engagement,” said Kate Philip to a small but packed lecture theatre at UCT’s Hiddingh Campus this weekend “is to change the world, a world that is shaped by power. Power itself is not random, it is organised, and therefore to tackle forms of power, one must be organised as well”.

This was an interesting comment coming from someone who was head of Nusas at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in the early eighties and now works alongside the presidency. Philip was addressing those students currently at UCT who head up various projects that, in differing ways, fundamentally attempt to address the inequality of South African society. Most do so through tutoring interventions in under-resourced high schools in the broader Cape Town area, some through medical services or legal advice, and others through art and music.

Each week, more than 1 000 students descend from the slopes of the university and attempt to define and address the amorphous “enemy” that has taken the place of the apartheid government in terms of student activism, action and attention in the past decade. There are no longer caspers in the streets, the Constitution is humane; on paper at least, we are a democratic equal-opportunity society, but it is very clear to anyone who cares to look that the battle for equality is by no means won.

And so …

From Friday to Sunday, 70-odd students came together to talk and to think with an intensity, a rage and an enthusiasm that will, I suspect, make many ripples in the coming period. Titled “Students in/and Community?” the conference opened up a space for critical reflection on core issues that face all students in South Africa today, but particularly those who leave their campuses to attempt to teach, to share skills and to build the resources of underprivileged areas. Though the conference was focused on UCT, students attended from CPUT and UWC, and delegates came from throughout SADC as well as the US, Bangladesh and UK.

The conference was organised loosely around four core themes and included presentations from civil society, academics, government, the professions and recent graduates, all with question and answer sessions. Students then broke into small groups to discuss and debate the presentations and the ways in which they spoke to the practical challenges and theoretical dilemmas facing students in South Africa, before coming back to the plenary to continue to unpack the implications and possibilities that are opening up at the current socio-political moment.

The first theme was that of engagement. How do we engage? With whom? How do we choose? What does it mean to engage? The principal of a primary school in Ocean View spoke of a wall that they have recently erected to help remember all their pupils who have died while still at school. A wall for dead children? Do we live in a war zone? Well, yes, in fact — some of us do. The principal was very gentle, very patient, and very enthusiastic about the energy and willingness of students. She did have one request though, and that was that before students come to Ocean View and other areas, they do just a little of that magnificent research that takes place within universities. They need to make sure they understand why there is such a wall at the school, and what that might mean for the children who sit quietly painting in the afternoons. They need to have a sense of what they will be able to achieve, and what it would take to achieve more.

One of the conference delegates made the telling comment that his high school prepared him for university, but not for being a South African. It was only through his work in various spaces beyond the southern suburbs that he began to understand what being South African really meant with all its ambiguity, complexity and historical undertones. But rather than learning through interaction with people in places like Ocean View, should this preparation not be the role of universities? Being South African, of course, is also attending places like UCT, so how do children from that primary school grow up to get there?

The second question that was explored at the conference was that of cooperation. Students themselves play a relatively limited role in society, as their skills are limited and their attention often divided between studies, activism, socialising, work, family and other interests. There are organisations both within and external to UCT, however, who can form partnerships with student projects that capitalise on the time that students have and assist them during the freak-outs that occur when a first-year English and Art History major finds herself in the position of needing to create the financial policy documents of a mid-size teaching organisation. How to find those organisations? How to link with other students? How to overcome political, personal or inter-project differences in order to teach better or build better houses?

Then there is the issue of the curriculum. What students are taught at university filters throughout their lives. If graduates emerge who are conscious of their privilege and committed to using it with integrity and for the betterment of society, then South Africa can look forward to the full working lives of thousands of individuals devoted to addressing injustice. While it is perhaps challenging to shift the status-quo, it is not impossible. Almost every discipline has practical application, and the conference marked a moment for students to think deeply about what and how they are taught, and whether or not there is overlap between the lecture hall and the outside world. The space of the university, it was stressed again and again, is one of ideas — and students need to occupy those ideas, demand that the ideas they are presented with are those with which they can ethically live and ensure that the ideas inform a desirable future.

Finally, the conference addressed the question of transformation. Often a topic that is skirted around by students, the new dispensation both academically and politically has called strongly for a reconsideration of this process. Listening to the discussions emerging over the weekend, it was refreshing to hear the nuance of student’s arguments for and against, for example, enforced “representativeness” in committees. It was clear that diversity is no longer simply that of skin colour but of background as well, of socio-economic status, of political affiliation, of religious or ideological bent and of patterns of thinking. Transformation entails a move from homogeneity to multiplicity. It involves the inclusion of languages and articulations that are not simply questions of speech but also of comportment and of thinking; it involves linking social circles and geographic space, not moving in separate arcs around each other in the same small room.

Is there a difference between the activism of the eighties and the volunteerism of the present? By volunteering instead of acting, are we ultimately shifting responsibility for delivery onto the government, because it should, or are we saying that militancy must be replaced by a willingness to listen? Do we need to bring the silkscreen poster back? Could such a poster help the thousands of eager young people with little chance of viable employment “trickle up” to bring their insight to a changing university on the side of the mountain? What else do we rely on to instigate real change?

Intelligent and careful thinking is essential when trying to organise and trying to define and work either with or against those who wield power. We were lucky, with this conference, to receive support from the highest levels of the university. Max Price, the vice-chancellor, spoke of the need to produce graduates who are socially responsive, engaged and aware. Jo Beall, the deputy vice-chancellor in charge of ensuring that this actually happens, chaired the transformation session. Both took many questions and listened carefully. Whether or not that will contribute to significant change remains to be seen, but it certainly showed that it is still possible to imagine a slightly different world. Varkey George, the man largely responsible for shifting the Students Health and Welfare Centres Organisation from a charity-based initiative to one that focuses on sustainable development and skills-sharing, made the pithy remark that a recognition of the value of science and technology got humans to the moon, so surely a recognition of the value of social entrepreneurship and unselfish living might get us at least an equalised education system. He suggested what we need to cultivate is a Richard-Branson-and-Mother-Theresa combination. The progeny of that would be quite astounding, but by no means impossible to conceive.