To party or not to party
There is an important debate breaking in the national press about the place of student politics on university campuses.
The argument is made, and here I agree, that student politics is a vital component of the transformation of South African universities. A university is, without question, a place that should accommodate and give expression to the range of political ideas and ideals of the broader society. It is a place where such ideas should be articulated, defended and contested without fear. Indeed, student politics is and should be a mechanism through which to learn the habits of democracy and to learn the duty of service to the disadvantaged.
Unfortunately, the debate on the place of student politics in the post-1994 university is often drowned out by the loud and intolerant voices of the demagogues of our society. As a senior politician recently put it, "You can only reason with those who are reasonable."
Student politics should never be reduced to party-political activism. Universities enjoy a vibrant student politics that is not, organisationally, a mirror image of what exists in the parliaments or governments of a particular country. This is what party activists want, and this is what represents the real danger to the future of institutions of higher learning.
For a long time tertiary institutions such as the University of the Free State and University of Pretoria organised their student politics exclusively on the basis of political structures in parliament. So the only options for student voting were the DA, ANC, Freedom Front Plus, COPE and the like. Student politics outside of this party-political frame was not accommodated, so thousands of students simply abstained from participation - and that in part explained the low voter turnouts in student elections.
The results were disastrous. The weeks leading to the elections would witness the most racist, provocative and divisive campaigns in which universities would often have to seek relief from posters or campaign speeches besmirching the reputations of people or insulting one or other group simply on the basis of their race. The so-called student parliaments became a platform for racial hatred and race-based vindictiveness that contributed nothing to political insight or the resolution of real problems faced by students. In 2010, such behaviour almost derailed the hard work of student transformation at the University of the Free State.
The public needs to know that university campuses are in danger of becoming little more than recruitment sites for politicians in national and provincial politics.
Senior politicians deploy and fund students who take eight, nine or 10 years to complete a degree, doing one module at a time, and failing often, but carrying out their political duty to destabilise academic institutions, if necessary, should they not dominate the campus politics.
Where there is a time limit on a degree, the deployee simply shifts to another undergraduate degree to prolong their time as activists on campus. As they go along, mimicking destructive youth behaviour outside of the campus, they destroy the academic project of the university and they derail the project of building non-racialism within the student body.
A university is not and should not be reduced to an agent of party-political machinery outside the campus. There are already a number of institutions that have lost their essential mandate as places of higher learning through prolonged crises and contestations that have nothing to do with ideas but everything to do with positioning for political parties on the outside, and for the political careers of student leaders with such ambitions.
That said, students should be able to register their political organisations and participate in campus politics. In this respect, the students, academics and ultimately the council of a university decide how student government is organised.
There are at least three options. One option is to organise student elections only on the basis of external party-political referents. Another option is the so-called hybrid model in which students have the choice of either party-political or independent candidates to vote for. A third option is to have students stand as independent candidates on platforms not tied to a political party.
There are positives and negatives associated with each of the options, and some options work better in some universities than others.
To describe any one of these three positions as more or less progressive (or conservative) than the other is disingenuous. It is perfectly possible to have a progressive politics within each of the three models. A university has to decide what works best in its particular institutional context.
The party-political system destroyed race relations at the University of the Free State. It again racialised the student body by forcing students into white or black camps according to the racial dominance of a particular party.
It led to outright conflict, when dominant groups wanted to make a point not through reason and deliberation, but through physical violence and constant insult of those who looked or believed differently.
It was these on-the-ground facts that led a broad student transformation forum to recommend a policy that organised student government on the basis of independent platforms that could, in any event, be contested by candidates who came from one or other political grouping.
But there was another reason the council accepted this model: it provided for a broader range of student politics beyond what was available in the party-political structure alone. Students from cultural bodies, sports organisations, residence life and so on could all participate in student government without feeling they would be excluded if they did not follow the few party-political structures on offer.
It is this delicate relationship between the autonomy of universities and the interests of external political parties that must be kept in balance.