By Kate Omega Wilkinson
Prof Jonathan Jansen over at University of the Free State has been given a hard time about the fact that he wants to limit political activity on the Student Representative Council (SRC). I just want to give him a pat on the back. I think that it is a step in the right direction and should become common practice across all South African universities. While political organisations have an important role to play on campus, they have no right to throw their weight around SRCs.
Student political organisations receive a mandate from their national counterparts. That mandate instructs them to do one thing: garner support for the national agenda. These youth wings then spend their time doing just that. Their mandate is not to pursue student issues like funding, exclusions or housing shortages. Rather these student issues become the means to forwarding their national agenda. They use, for example, the lack of funding available to students to garner support for their respective political party. They rally the troops, create a fuss, make promises and maybe stage a protest — and all the while, all they are saying is “look at us, we have support!” Most of the time the real issue falls by the wayside — forgotten or ignored. The students are then left with a shirt on their back and that niggling feeling that they are no better off than when they started.
Allowing political parties to contest SRC elections grants them an unfair advantage over independent candidates. Youth wings receive funding from their national political parties which goes towards their administrative costs, election campaigns, posters, transport costs, banners and the aforementioned T-shirts. Compared with this level of funding an independent candidate can’t compete on an equal basis. This funding also creates a situation in which student political organisations are pressured by their national parties to pursue certain agendas on campus — lest they lose their funding. SRC election campaigns turn into displays of resources and the issues are ignored. Independent students should earn their seat on the SRC because they have shown the student body that they are committed to their issues. Seats should not be won by flashy grand standing funded by national movements.
Lastly, allowing political parties to run in most cases means that a party list will be used when SRC elections occur. When the party comes to fill the number of seats they have won, they are able to choose who to place in that seat. This system does two things: it rewards party loyalty and reduces accountability. If members of a student political party know that their seat is dependent on being chosen by party leaders then their loyalty will be to those bosses. It will not be to the students that they are meant to represent. The SRC is meant to be accountable to the student body, but if the students don’t know the names and faces of the representatives who will fill the party list seats how will they be able to hold them accountable?
Prof Jansen’s suggestion seems legitimate considering the above. Do we really want baby politicians throwing their weight around SRCs around the country? Or do we want to offer students the opportunity to learn about leadership free of national agendas and undeclared funding? Let’s leave the SRC to students who want to represent their fellow students’ interest, they should not represent the first wrung on the ladder for career politicians.
Kate Omega Wilkinson: I am currently at the University of Cape Town completing my honours in international relations. While I was completing my undergraduate at the University of KwaZulu-Natal I was involved in student politics and the Student Representative Council. I have a strong interest in open and accountable government and currently volunteer for the Right2Know Campaign. I keep a blog, Social Vomitary, where I offer my thoughts on issues ranging from South African politics to my experiences at university.