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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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  1. Tofolux Tofolux 27 June 2012

    @Jordan, I personally cannot stand liberals. You see, noting that you have mentioned Steve Biko, I will for this purpose draw on his wisdom and once again berate liberals for thinking that they always have the answers to all our problems. Steve Biko articulated the nuisance that liberals posed to our society in particular because he hated the fact that they think that blacks in particular did not have the mental capacity to deal with day to day problems or a global issue such apartheid and yet, for all their answers guess who, liberated this country? Also, when someone complains or criticise Sasco, I immediately try and seek a bias. And noting your credentials, the bias is omniscient. For clarity, there is a Freedom Charter that calls for the “the doors of learning to be opened to all”. In your honest assessment, can you tell us if this is the case. Also, there was a call some time ago, for institutions of learning to be transformed. My second and follow up questio is simply. Are all these institutions transformed and what do you understand by transformation?

  2. The Creator The Creator 27 June 2012

    Well, it’s hardly surprising that white-dominated parties’ student organisations get to take over the reins of historically white universities and then pat themselves on the back because they are so wonderful.

    However, the author is correct to say that South African student politics are essentially dead. SRCs are docile, administration-bought bodies which occasionally clown for the student body with some pretense of caring about them, but are, generally speaking, empty vessels.

    It is true that they sometimes still are capable of decent things — as when the Walter Sisulu SRC protested against the undemocratic clampdown on free elections by the university administrator there last month — but even then, it was likely that the SRC was more troubled by the fact that this would close off their cash cow, than by the actual destruction of freedom of thought or assembly. (Ditto Free State.)

    Where the students are not represented, organisations which focus on trivia (such as playing along with NSFAS — that’s supposed to be done by the administration) will get into power, just as police-backed “silly party” candidates often did quite well at white universities when NUSAS was weak in the 1980s.

  3. Wildcat Wildcat 27 June 2012

    universities are a place for education, not politics.
    There are many people who are not able to afford tertiary education, but not all of them turn into violent protesters.
    The behaviour of these hooligans is disgusting.

    If I go to PicknPay and cannot afford to buy the lamb chops must I break the shop down?

    What exactly do we want to teach these thugs? That violence is ok when things don’t go your way?

    How about working for 2 years after school? Saving that money and then going to university? Or is that too logical a plan?

  4. Brent Brent 27 June 2012

    Tofolux, what do you understand by transformation? I have occasion to walk around the UKZN Howard Colege and Westville campus and the student body, at a guess, is over 90% Black/Indian, please advise if this is ok or not?


  5. Jordan Jordan 27 June 2012


    My criticism of SASCO isn’t based on bias but what I have seen and observed through student politics. Although I hold a close relationship with Sasco members as I study with many of them they have clearly lost their way. When events don’t go their way they resort to violence or to spreading discontent. This was blantantly obvious if one looks at what occured at UKZN and there was even a similar incident at Tuks in 2009 when Sasco organised a strike and disrupted classes over the src elections.

    @the Creator and @ Tofoflux
    I find your statement about white-dominated organisations disturbing as it is uniformed. For years the SRC at Tuks had been dominated at Tuks by the VF. That only recently changed when we managed to install my friend Mthokozisi Nkosi as the SRC president even though as a organisation at Tuks we came third in the SRC election. That is the kind of transformation I have seen and been apart of because students came together to elect the right person for the job.

  6. SRCs SRCs 27 June 2012

    The majority of SRC members have a political agenda and see their office as a stepping stone in their political /party aspirations. They are also bent on lining their own pockets and positioning themsleves for jobs in their institutions. In my view they bring little demonstrable value to higher education and even less to the students whom they purport to represent. If anyone wants to test these statements just go and do a survey of voter turnout at SRC elections and see the pathetic support that they have. Quite frankly, if one were to try to jusitfy their existence along voter support lines, there would be none. The few good committee members are lost in a sea of (less than) mediocrity. SRC office should be linked to proven and demonstrable academic progress. Where there is none they should not be allowed to serve.

  7. Individual Individual 27 June 2012

    You’re talking about Long library hours have you been able to quantify the impact of these programmes in real terms, has the pass rate increased?, is UP poised to producing more graduates as a result of this?, has the average pass mark for an average student increased? How many students were registered in 2012, which would have been excluded if it wasn’t for DASO? sometimes knowing what was done is not enough, remember we do things for a purpose……delivery of programmes is not an end in itself, otherwise one starts to sound like SASCO.

  8. Thorne Thorne 27 June 2012

    Dear Individual, to answer your questions on the effect of DASO policy:

    Whilst Mthokozisi ‘Mtee’ Nkosi was the SRC Member for Student Finance in 2011, the following took place:

    • Reforming Financial Aid:
    Raised R24 000 to assist students who need financial aid. This is in addition to trying to make NSFAS more accessible.

    • Fighting Financial Exclusion:
    Sourced loans for 137 students, to prevent their financial exclusion from Tuks.

    • Ensuring Equal Access to Textbooks:
    R14 800 raised to assist students who don’t have textbooks. Instituted a campus-wide ‘Donate a Textbook’ campaign, which received sponsorship from major publishing houses and from students who were willing to part with their old textbooks.

    By 2012, the University had established a “Textbook Fund” which students could apply to. Furthermore, DASO continues to assist students with financial queries, by sourcing loans, linking students to NSFAS, etc.

    Other basic policies implemented on campus:
    –> Securing Our Campus: DASO fought for the creation of a safe ‘Green Route’ at Tuks.

    –> The SRC President Mtee Nkosi launched a series of controversial debates; we want to engage with students and to address issues that such a historically conservative university would rather us not discuss.

    –> Fighting “Panda Politics”: Fighting against the racism and divisive politics on Campus by presenting a positive and diverse alternative to the Sasco & VF/Afriforum

    (Thorne Godinho, Branch Leader…

  9. Thorne Thorne 27 June 2012


    In terms of basic improvements such as better (and safer) access to transportation, increasing the efficacy of frontline services like libraries, etc one should not ask whether these policies are worthwhile, simply because the services that were in place at the University of Pretoria were mediocre. Any increased capacity and/or better access to these services simply provides students with the quality of education and delivery that they (as voters, and consumers) deserve.

    Feel free to engage via twitter.

    (Thorne Godinho, Branch Leader of DASO Tuks)

  10. Activist Activist 27 June 2012

    “However, since the dawn of democracy we’ve experienced the gradual decline of ambitious student activism. ” Of course you have – because it isn’t democrcay that has dawned, but a totalitarian state. The huge joke is under the old NP, all the students were full of sound and fury, and protested about this and that the whole time. Why? Because it was easy, fun and trendy. Under the new Stalinist regime all the students are shit scared and dare not utter a peep about the gross abuses of power in the party state. So here’s the joke – the lefties in the 80’s protested so they could get a Stalinist regime that they are much too scared to protest about…..

  11. Tofolux Tofolux 28 June 2012

    @Jordan, it is incorrect to make a sweeping statement saying that Sasco members have lost their way and that they resort to violence. Are you saying EVERY one of them are “lost” and ”violent”? Point: that statement is not only untrue but blatantly biased and not only grossly insulting but ever so patronising. You do not know every Sasco member who resides in those structures, past or present. But ja ne, this campaign of sitting on priviledged structures and the obvious agenda of disinformation makes life easy for you. Also, you cannot say that because you managed to get your friend and you name him, only because you need to sublimally make a point (thats really crude tho) and tell me those institutions are transformed. You havent answered my question: What do you understand by transformation? I want to deal with your claim about campaigns etc. But I need you to answer my question first.

  12. Peter Joffe Peter Joffe 28 June 2012

    I see student bodies as having an end goal of getting the best education for all. Unfortunately many of these bodies become ‘governments in waiting’ and meddle in all sorts of things that they should only worry about once they are qualified. Student bodies should keep their eye on the ball of assisting good universities to tertiary institutions. Yes they can have their say here and there but as soon as they start meddling in the affairs of state, right or wrong, they lose sight of what they should be doing and that is creating good and educated future leaders. The reality of the world in general and South Africa in particular is that there are never enough tax payers to provide for so many who need services and, of course the theft and corruption of self serving politicians makes things worse. What happened to the “Article Clerks” of yester year who worked during the day and studied or went to Varsity at night. I did this because my parents could not afford the fees needed! Many of today’s top notch lawyers and accountants, for instance, started this way and did not rely on hand outs from any source to help them. “Never have so many demanded so much from so few”!

  13. MLH MLH 28 June 2012

    I beg to differ, Activist. At DUT, students have killed security guards, severely compromised courses by completely trashing science laboratories; all for the sake of demanding branded condoms and I’net connections they knew were coming as soon as Telkom got its act together.

  14. TM Luescher-Mamashela TM Luescher-Mamashela 28 June 2012

    Dear Jordan
    So its the “death” of student politics? Strange, for you politick throughout the blog taking cheap stabs and denouncing SASCO; that is being as manipulative as starting out with Steve Biko and ending with Tony Leon as great examples of SA student leaders. Wake up, Steve would be SASCO today!

    It may come as a surprise to a privileged student from privileged Pretoria University, but SASCO has a proud ‘service’delivery record’ on many campuses, including my own at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). Thankfully, here SASCO does not need to engage with the FF+ and its allies in futile discussions, but can focus on the core issue of representing and assisting students.

    And nationally, – unlike DASO – , SASCO remains virtually the only student organisation to consistently provide input and respond to policy proposals and participate in national policy forums. Why? Because it is aligned with the ANC? No, DASO also has that opportunity but fails to do so. It is because SASCO has done so since its establishment as the merger of SASO/SANSCO with NUSAS in 1991. SASCO has consistenly engaged with those who are meant to deliver the services – i.e. institutional management, academic staff, and the national departments, DHET and DST, and their agencies, like NSFAS, in a critically constructive way.

    This comment has been edited.

  15. Rich Rich 28 June 2012

    I once had an encounter with protesting students. We were in a lecture close to exams (all were 3rd year BSc students). A bunch of hooligans burst in rudely demanding that we join the protest. We politely told them that we could not as time was critical and we needed to be in the lecture. They then started jumping around and swearing, pointing fingers, singing and demanding (like three year olds in a tantrum huff). I got up and said that we lived in a democracy now and our class had voted to stay in the lecture so could they please F*$K OFF! I herded them out and, in a counter revolutionary way, slammed the door.
    How dare they impinge on my right to education! Their rights seem to have prominence over others’ rights. A genuine cause looses its currency when hijacked by personal greed and ambition. Now doubt some of them are now in parliament while most of my class are professionally employed or are employing others through their own businesses.But heck – we are all Bad Capitalists after all.

  16. Ian Ian 28 June 2012

    On your question on who liberated this country: the west.
    Deal with it

  17. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 28 June 2012

    The death of student politics can only be a good thing. We need less people who are politically minded and more people with problem solving skills.

  18. bernpm bernpm 28 June 2012

    @Tofolux: “Are all these institutions transformed and what do you understand by transformation?”

    I do appreciate your youthfull enthousisasm and standing up for what you believe is “your right”.

    “what do you understand by transformation?” As a mangement consultant I have often asked the same question in organisations when “transformation” was thrown into managerial meetings as a panace for all problems.
    To be honest: I am still waiting for a clear answer. By experience, I have defined “transformation” as “change” from something an individual does not like into something this individual wants to happen.

    Hope you can answer with a definition that fills all use of “transformation”.

  19. Tofolux Tofolux 5 July 2012

    @Bernie, I want Jordan to answer me on this one and he really seems to be having great difficulty. tik tok..tik..tok…

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