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The death of South African student politics

by Jordan Griffiths

South Africa has a proud tradition of radical and innovative student politics. This is the country of Steve Biko’s SASO, the National Union of South African Students (Nusas), the detention and banning of student activists like Patrick Duncan and Ian Robertson, and the rise of student leaders like Tony Leon – who challenged both the Left and the Right by promoting a dynamic liberal alternative to the Cold War status quo. However, since the dawn of democracy we’ve experienced the gradual decline of ambitious student activism. “Moscow on the Hill” is a part of our history, and those who have taken on the responsibility of fighting for students’ rights have looked on whilst more and more stumbling blocks are placed in front of the average student – blocking equal access to opportunity.

The media often report on political groups burning tyres and protesting outside our tertiary intuitions, but they hardly report on the root causes of these protests. There is a lot to be angry about when students cannot afford accommodation and sleep in university bathrooms at night, when students with distinction averages are financially excluded by uncaring bureaucrats, and when we have a government that is unwilling to reform financial aid so that it works for students. But the protesting groups, by virtue of their political affiliation, lose all moral legitimacy when they are a part of the problem. These groups, like the ANC-aligned Sasco, do not have a clear record of service delivery at any of our nation’s universities.

Sasco is very good at drumming up popular support by running campaigns like “One Laptop, One Student” and promising students pipedreams which our universities will never implement. This stale rhetoric is supplemented by ineffective Student Representative Council (SRC) governance and violence. Violence, as radical as it may seem, has become the weapon of choice for student groups that simply don’t deliver. This violence, which disrupts the pursuit of academic excellence, is used to evade questions of delivery and innovative solutions. Whereas the DA Students’ Organisation (DASO) at the University of Pretoria implemented progressive policies such as a textbook fund for indigent students, we have seen the ANC-aligned student movements calling for the nationalisation of mines or the promotion of divisive and racist politics – as seen at UKZN, Tukkies, and elsewhere.

So little attention is paid to the plight of our nation’s future intellectuals, accountants, doctors and engineers. We need to have students who stand up for their rights, we need to return to the days of meaningful activism on our campuses; yes, that means we need to start fighting against the tertiary institutions who have banned politics, and show students that they don’t need to turn to violence to achieve radical ends. At the University of Pretoria, Mtee Nkosi was elected as the first DASO SRC president, after fighting to ensure that poor students weren’t pushed aside by administration and the ritual ineffectiveness of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). During 2012, students at this institution received the SRC they deserved – one which promoted the extension of library hours, safe bus routes to other parts of Pretoria, and placed a greater emphasis on ensuring one’s background and financial status did not preclude one from a good education.

It is innovative and liberal policies such as these that will spearhead the re-emergence of the young person who cares, who dares to stand up for real access to economic and educational opportunities. South African students must realise that they own their futures, and they must continue pushing for the implementation of meaningful change. After so many years of decline, that is radical!

Jordan Griffiths is the SRC member for transport, justice and constitutions at the University of Pretoria. He formerly served as the chairperson of DASO Tuks, and is currently in the running to become the provincial chairperson of the DA Youth in Gauteng.

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