Let students – not baby politicians – lead our country’s Student Representative Councils

Prof 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.

I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of KwaZulu Natal and I have seen firsthand the negative effects that political agendas can have on student institutions and students. I believe that political organizations have an important role to play on campus but that they have no place throwing their weight around in the SRC.

Firstly, student political organizations 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.

Secondly, allowing political parties to contest SRC elections grants them an unfair advantage over independent candidates. Youth wings receive funding from their national political parties. This funding 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 organizations are pressured to pursue certain agendas on campus – lest they lose their funding. It’s also ironic that their political activity tends to escalate in both quantity and quality come national election time. SRC election campaigns turn into displays of resources and the issues are ignored. Independent students who earn their seat on the SRC should be there 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.

Thirdly, allowing political parties to run in most cases means that a party list will be used when elections occur. At UKZN there were 10 seats on the SRC and when students went into the ballot box they would cast two votes – one for a party seat and another for an individual candidate. 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? The SRCs on campuses around the country should be concerned with student issues. Let’s leave the SRC to students who want to represent their fellow students’ interest. SRCs should not represent the first wrung on the ladder for career politicians.

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