CHALLENGING THE LIBERALISATION OF THE SRC INSTITUTION BY RHODES UNIVERSITY by Malaika Mahlatsi*
(This article is available on the Rhodes University SRC site and is a response to former SRC President, Eric Ofei’s previous article).
One of the greatest leaders that the African continent has ever produced, Thomas Isidore Sankara, once said:
“A soldier without revolutionary theory is nothing but a potential murderer”.
This statement must be understood in its correct interpretation, taking into consideration not only the prevailing material conditions of the epoch during which Sankara led Burkina Faso, but also, using it to reflect upon the prevailing material conditions which define the constructs of Rhodes University as an institution of higher learning to which we all belong. As a Marxist-Leninist, Sankara understood too well the importance of revolutionary theory. Marxist-Leninists have always had an appreciation of the philosophies of historical and dialectical materialism which has informed their understanding of socio-economic conditions at different times and in different spaces, an understanding that to date, has not been proven fundamentally flawed even by the most respected proponents of liberal ideology. I want to dissect a problem with the Rhodes University SRC literature, using this reflection of Sankara’s to outline two critical issues: the question of the depoliticisation of the Rhodes University SRC as well as the question on whether or not SRC candidates must have some form of experience in student governance as a pre-requisite for being elected into the SRC institution. These two questions beg for critical analysis and it would be catastrophic for us to glibly dismiss them as we are doing currently.
ON THE QUESTION OF SRC CANDIDATES NEEDING EXPERIENCE
Former SRC President, Eric Ofei, made an interesting statement yesterday in a response to an open letter directed at the Dean of Students. The statement by Eric, that: “The notion that experience is a prerequisite to being an effective member of the SRC is flawed” needs to be debated, for I believe that it is flawed in itself.
While it is true indeed that: “Prior experience does not a good SRC member make” as Eric states further in his article, there is a fatal flaw in the failure to qualify this statement with substantial evidence beyond the personal experience that he highlights. This is a statement that must be dissected and supported with the employment of relevant tools of analysis that go beyond subjective personal reflection because I believe that it sets a bad precedence for the future of the Rhodes University SRC institution by portraying it as a field of experiment rather than a factory that manufactures great future leaders with an astute intellectual calibre. The SRC institution does not exist in a vacuum. It is an integral component of a broader matrix of representatives in a site of struggle that is under the threat of liberal ideology that seeks to perpetuate and accelerate the class, race and gender contradictions that are a barrier to genuine reconciliation and the creation of a prosperous South Africa. The individuals who get elected into the SRC are not just the face of the university. They are the face of the future of this country and it is a future that must never be taken for granted.
The SRC institution, which acts as a body of opinion for the university and a representative of the student body, must, if it is to achieve the objectives that are outlined in the SRC Constitution which is in line with the Constitution of South Africa as is required, be a body of capacitated individuals who will carry forth the mandate given to it by the student body as well as contribute significantly to the broader objectives of the National Democratic Revolution as the cornerstone of policy analysis of the Republic of South Africa. The Rhodes SRC Constitution, like the Constitution of South Africa and the NDR itself, has the responsibility of creating a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic Rhodes University. This is a herculean task that needs the most dedicated and most capacitated crop of student leaders. It is not a task for just any student who feels like they want to be in the SRC, for reasons that are often mercenary.
Four particular portfolios in the SRC need to be understood if we are to comprehend why there is a need for experience from SRC candidates hoping to fill them:
· The President
· The Vice-President
· The Secretary-General
· The Activism and Transformation Councillor
One of the roles of the SRC President is to “Liaise with the University Authorities on matters relevant to the SRC, the student body and individual students”. This means that the SRC President will be the direct line between students and the university management and Council. As such, this individual must not only have an in-depth understanding of the university literature (Constitution, Resolutions etc.), but must have a thorough understanding of student governance. This understanding, unfortunately, is not one that is transmitted through hours of absorbing university literature. It is a product of an interactive process that one undergoes with students as the primary constituency of the SRC institution.
The same holds true for the Vice-President, for whom one of the roles that he/she must act in is to “Represent the president when required to do so”. For this reason, the candidate for Vice-President must also be an individual with the same requirements as ought to be fulfilled by the SRC President.
Secondly, the office of the Secretary in any institution or body is one of the most important there is, for it is the nucleus that hold together the institution. It is not an accident of history that in all existing political organisations and civil society movements, the Secretary is full-time in the office. I want to highlight just two roles of the Secretary that ought to stress just how necessary experience is for this portfolio. Firstly, the Secretary “Fulfils all external activities involving the SRC including: Contact with other educational institutions, Overall South African political and social developments…” [Emphasis mine]. Secondly, the Secretary is: “Responsible for maintaining contact with SAUS”.
The fulfilment of activities involving the “Overall South African political and social developments” is not a role that must be given to someone without an in-depth understanding of the political, geo-political and socio-economic landscape of South Africa. If it is, then it defeats the purpose of why this role was created in the first place. The importance of experience comes in the point that the Secretary is “Responsible for maintaining contact with SAUS”. The South African Union of Students (SAUS) is a very political umbrella of student bodies. SAUS “is pledged to facilitate a situation where all students are provided with equal opportunities, and embraces institutions of higher learning a statutory obligations to guarantee an environment free of racial, sexual, religious, cultural and physical discrimination” (see SAUS website on www.saus.org.za). As such, it is an umbrella of student ACTIVISTS as opposed to mere academics and ideologues. For this reason, the SRC Secretary, who is tasked with engaging SAUS on student governance issues, must him/herself be an activist who is tried and tested through experience on the ground. It is unacceptable to conceive that any random student can fulfil this obligation simply on the basis of theoretical understanding of university literature which has not been tested through implementation and experience.
The Activism and Transformation Councillor must also, as a necessity, be an experienced individual who understands the labyrinthine constructs of South African politics as well as the nature of activism. There is a misconception amongst Rhodes University students that the work of a Transformation Councillor is purely academic and as such, that the best person for the portfolio is an individual who can analyse the university (and society) and diagnose its problems. In his “Theses on Feuerbach”, father of scientific Socialism, Karl Marx, puts it most aptly that: “Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways. The point is, however, to change it”. That is the role of an Activism and Transformation Councillor: to CHANGE the institution, to fight against the pathologised race, gender and class antagonisms that exist, albeit subliminally. The individual who contests this portfolio (and i must point out that I will be doing so in the upcoming elections) must be tried and tested in the terrain of political or student activism. This individual must have some kind of experience in civil society movements, in the Non-Government Organisation sector, in volunteer work or in the student movement. The work of an activist - and I speak with the experience of one who , for two years after completing her matric, went to work in various NGOs across the country – is not easy. It requires more than just revolutionary theory, especially at the level of SRC. At that level one cannot be a novice, because the constituency that he/she represents is an important strata that is going to be tomorrow’s leaders. Not with our country’s future can we take such a grave risk.
The insinuation that the SRC must make allowance for novices to contest in elections as well as lead students is troubling, because it fails to locate the SRC institution in the broader politics of the society that it belongs to. (I will elaborate in my next point why the refusal to locate our SRC in the broader politics of the country is a problematic position). Understanding the prevailing material conditions in our education system and in the socio-economic constructs of our immediate society, it is clear that there is a great task that lies ahead for our SRC candidates. This is not a task that must be left in the hands of people who have had no prior involvement in the terrain of activism.
ON THE QUESTION OF THE DEPOLITICISATION OF THE SRC
I will be brief on this point, but I want to state categorically that I am HIGHLY OPPOSSED to the statement by Eric that:
“I think that in future any student at Rhodes that utters the words “party aligned candidates” or anything in that realm should be shot on sight. There are a myriad of reason why the party aligned candidate system is not a good idea and has not worked at Rhodes. The minute you have parties involved you no longer have individuals. It is party politics which are in play. The view of the party are expressed and not the view of the individuals candidates. Additionally having parties’ means creating clear and distinct division in the student body…”
This statement is a vivid economisation of truth that must be arrested at its infancy. Firstly, it is problematic that the metaphor: “any student at Rhodes that utters the words “party aligned candidates” or anything in that realm should be shot on sight” is used in this contest, because it has elements of creating a hostile situation for students who are aligned to student organisations. Eric uses the term “party” incorrectly, as though it means the same thing as “movement” or “organisation”. I want to elaborate on this assertion by using an example that corroborates my view.
The South African Students Congress (SASCO), is a student organisation which is a component of the Mass Democratic Movement, which was a product of revolutionary struggle in our country. Founded in 1991, SASCO is not a political party and contrary to popular view, it is not a student wing of the ruling African National Congress. The ANC Youth League is a youth wing of the ANC, the ANC Women’s League is a women’s wing of the ANC. But SASCO is not a wing of the ANC. Rather, it is an independent component of the MDM and part of the Progressive Youth Alliance which includes the ANCYL as well as the Young Communist League of South Africa, both which are themselves party aligned. The ANC is not the mother-body of SASCO in the way that the Democratic Alliance, for example, is the mother-body of the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation. The policies that SASCO advocates for are those that are in-line with the objectives of the National Democratic Revolution and the Freedom Charter, which are not just for the ANC, but inform policies of the South African government in its entirety (which does not exclude opposition parties and minority parties). So for Rhodes students who are members of SASCO (and other political formations) to be categorised as being “party aligned” when their organisation is a component of the MDM and not a student wing of any political party, is unfair and politically unprincipled, for it perpetuates an untruth that has already found a home in the minds of young people who are politically unconscious. SASCO candidates are not a threat to the SRC of the institution and must never be treated as such. This unprincipled stance by Rhodes University must be annihilated.
The debate must continue…
*Malaika Mahlatsi is a first year Bachelor of Social Science (Geography) student