David Maimela

About David Maimela

David Maimela is researcher at Mapungubwe Institute and a student of International Relations. He writes in his personal capacity

The current legal case challenging the constitutionality of ‘banning’ political student organisations from partaking in SRC elections at the University of Free State has implications for the political system in South Africa, higher education and our young democracy as a whole, at least in the long-term.

In this court case, the University of Free State’s (UOFS) management and student organisations are at loggerheads about the best student governance model for UOFS. In my view, essentially, the question is: are politics necessary in order to have a credible, legitimate and efficient (and inclusive) student governance system at the university? This question has also arisen in the University of Pretoria (UP) and indeed in other universities.
I contend that, this should not be a debate about legality but rather, a democratic debate about which ways to achieve better democratic outcomes!

Currently, the dominant model is the one where student governance is based on free political contestation by political student organisations. These could be student wings of political parties such as PASMA of the PAC or the ANC-aligned SASCO, the ANCYL, DASO etc, and others which are non-aligned.

In recent years, especially after 1994, an idea has emerged among some university managers on the right, especially in former white and Afrikaans universities, that, politicsand party politics in particular, should be removed from SRC elections and student governance. The following reasons are advanced to support this idea:

  • A student governance model based on political formations and contestation is divisive, exclusive and racially polarizes the student population and therefore the entire university community, this happens especially during the high season of SRC election campaigns. Indeed the same logic can be extended to the historically black universities,
  • National political party politics have a negative impact on the academic enterprise and institutional image and culture and; real student issues take a back seat as a result,
  • Social cohesion and integration in these universities is derailed because, political contestations assume a racial tone in many instances and the best interest of the university is ignored,
  • The concern whether, students who prefer not to associate with political student organisations have the right or are given sufficient space to decide who governs them at student governance level. This is based on the given constitutional right of every student to vote or be voted into leadership.

Analysed to its bare bones, the fourth point above makes the assumption that, the right and space of students who are not members of any political student organisation is impeded by the existence of political student organisations as composites of student governance and certainly, this cannot be true. Every student has a right to vote and be voted into SRCs. All models of student governance should allow this.

If students choose to compete in an organised fashion, in a normal democracy like ours, this practice should be allowed and promoted. After all, universities must promote plurality and the spirit of the Constitution of South Africa.

It is not wise to engage the idea of ‘banning’ politics purely on the basis of constitutionality or legality, simply because, this idea is itself political and thus; deserves to be assessed in terms of the merit of its argument.

Contrary to the view prevalent in UOFS and UP, there are positive benefits for a student governance model constituted by political formations for the university and more importantly greater returns for South African democracy accrue in the long-term:

  • For South Africa, this means that, in the near future, our political system stands potentially, to inherit a cohort of political and societal leaders who will not only appreciate, but have a greater commitment to the ideal, norms and standards of a democratic ethos. This bodes well for our political system and society as a whole.
  • For the university, because political student organisations tend to be critical and rigorous in their outlook, the transformation project especially at these former white institutions will accelerate and produce the long-term fruits of stability for the higher education sector, in terms of policy, access, success, demographics and so on. Only a university manager who fears the piercing questions that normally come from student organisations will not appreciate this because to him, this means challenge to authority.
  • In their very nature, universities are spaces where “a thousand flowers blossom and hundred schools of thought contend” (and ought to contend).
  • Again, if universities are a microcosm of society reflecting the societies in which they exist and even strive to make those societies better, then why is it a problem if students are politicized? Are we not a plural secular democratic society after all?
  • In any case, it is not possible in reality to achieve a depoliticised society. The idea of removing politics from universities is in all intents and purposes absurd and impracticable. Universities exist in a political society. And besides, nothing suggests that by mere existence of political formations, knowledge is politicised.
  • The fact that politicisation of workers in the form of unions is not raised as a problem, exposes the hypocrisy and duplicity of university managers.

From this account, it appears that for some managers the fear for political organisations arises out of two things:

  • The fear that a typical critical student organisation will challenge and upset managerial authority and make universities more democratic.
  • That daily, these political contestations, expose the deep seated problems of higher education in general and former white universities in particular, something that managers at these universities would rather keep under the carpet, for career-pathing purposes.

The consequences of the above is that we will have universities that subscribe to conformity rather than an open system of free flow of ideas. In other words, universities are likely to be authoritarian rather than democratic, something at odds with the principle of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and the Constitution.

But for South Africa, the long-term effects of this conservative policy (the policy to ‘ban’ politics in student governance in universities) are quite deleterious.

For the UOFS to even allow this policy matter to be adjudicated by the courts is actually a travesty of reason. Such matters, just like ‘dubul’ibhunu’ are not matters of the court. This new tendency to resort to courts to resolve political differences may signal the fact that we are gradually becoming a distant, quiet society instead of a converging society in dialogue.

As a matter of fact and interest, about half of the parliamentarians in Cape Town have graduated from student politics and cut their governance and leadership teeth in student politics, as we know it. Therefore, universities are undoubtedly a reservoir of future leaders in society and, it is important that our future political leaders are sourced from a mix of constituencies; students, community, church etc, better to reflect the leadership talent that exists across society.

The conservatism that comes with this idea to stop politics in universities is not in the strategic interest of building ours into a democratic and secular society, united in diversity!

The current legal case challenging the constitutionality of ‘banning’ political student organisations from partaking in SRC elections at the University of Free State has implications for the political system in South Africa, higher education and our young democracy as a whole, atleast in the long-term.

In this court case, the University of Free State’s (UOFS) management and student organisations are at loggerheads about the best student governance model for UOFS. In my view, essentially, the question is: are politics necessary in order to have a credible, legitimate and efficient (and inclusive) student governance system at the university? This question has also arisen in the University of Pretoria (UP) and indeed in other universities.

I contend that, this should not be a debate about legality but rather, a democratic debate about which ways to achieve better democratic outcomes!

Currently, the dominant model is the one where student governance is based on free political contestation by political student organisations. These could be student wings of political parties such as PASMA of the PAC or the ANC-aligned SASCO, the ANCYL, DASO etc, and others which are non-aligned.

In recent years, especially after 1994, an idea has emerged among some university managers on the right, especially in former white and Afrikaans universities, that, politics and party politics in particular, should be removed from SRC elections and student governance. The following reasons are advanced to support this idea:

·         A student governance model based on political formations and contestation is divisive, exclusive and racially polarizes the student population and therefore the entire university community, this happens especially during the high season of SRC election campaigns. Indeed the same logic can be extended to the historically black universities,

·         National political party politics have a negative impact on the academic enterprise and institutional image and culture and; real student issues take a back seat as a result,

·         Social cohesion and integration in these universities is derailed because, political contestations assume a racial tone in many instances and the best interest of the university is ignored,

·         The concern whether, students who prefer not to associate with political student organisations have the right or are given sufficient space to decide who governs them at student governance level. This is based on the given constitutional right of every student to vote or be voted into leadership.

Analysed to its bare bones, the fourth point above makes the assumption that, the right and space of students who are not members of any political student organisation is impeded by the existence of political student organisations as composites of student governance and certainly, this cannot be true. Every student has a right to vote and be voted into SRCs. All models of student governance should allow this.

If students choose to compete in an organised fashion, in a normal democracy like ours, this practice should be allowed and promoted. After all, universities must promote plurality and the spirit of the Constitution of South Africa.

It is not wise to engage the idea of ‘banning’ politics purely on the basis of constitutionality or legality, simply because, this idea is itself political and thus; deserves to be assessed in terms of the merit of its argument.

Contrary to the view prevalent in UOFS and UP, there are positive benefits for a student governance model constituted by political formations for the university and more importantly greater returns for South African democracy accrue in the long-term:

·         For South Africa, this means that, in the near future, our political system stands potentially, to inherit a cohort of political and societal leaders who will not only appreciate, but have a greater commitment to the ideal, norms and standards of a democratic ethos. This bodes well for our political system and society as a whole.

·         For the university, because political student organisations tend to be critical and rigorous in their outlook, the transformation project especially at these former white institutions will accelerate and produce the long-term fruits of stability for the higher education sector, in terms of policy, access, success, demographics and so on. Only a university manager who fears the piercing questions that normally come from student organisations will not appreciate this because to him, this means challenge to authority.

·         In their very nature, universities are spaces where “a thousand flowers blossom and hundred schools of thought contend” (and ought to contend).

·         Again, if universities are a microcosm of society reflecting the societies in which they exist and even strive to make those societies better, then why is it a problem if students are politicized? Are we not a plural secular democratic society after all?

·         In any case, it is not possible in reality to achieve a depoliticised society. The idea of removing politics from universities is in all intents and purposes absurd and impracticable. Universities exist in a political society. And besides, nothing suggests that by mere existence of political formations, knowledge is politicised.

·         The fact that politicisation of workers in the form of unions is not raised as a problem, exposes the hypocrisy and duplicity of university managers.

From this account, it appears that for some managers the fear for political organisations arises out of two things:

·         The fear that a typical critical student organisation will challenge and upset managerial authority and make universities more democratic.

·         That daily, these political contestations, expose the deep seated problems of higher education in general and former white universities in particular, something that managers at these universities would rather keep under the carpet, for career-pathing purposes.

The consequences of the above is that we will have universities that subscribe to conformity rather than an open system of free flow of ideas. In other words, universities are likely to be authoritarian rather than democratic, something at odds with the principle of academic freedom, institutional autonomy and the Constitution.

But for South Africa, the long-term effects of this conservative policy (the policy to ‘ban’ politics in student governance in universities) are quite deleterious.

For the UOFS to even allow this policy matter to be adjudicated by the courts is actually a travesty of reason. Such matters, just like ‘dubul’ibhunu’ are not matters of the court. This new tendency to resort to courts to resolve political differences may signal the fact that we are gradually becoming a distant, quiet society instead of a converging society in dialogue.

As a matter of fact and interest, about half of the parliamentarians in Cape Town have graduated from student politics and cut their governance and leadership teeth in student politics, as we know it. Therefore, universities are undoubtedly a reservoir of future leaders in society and, it is important that our future political leaders are sourced from a mix of constituencies; students, community, church etc, better to reflect the leadership talent that exists across society.

The conservatism that comes with this idea to stop politics in universities is not in the strategic interest of building ours into a democratic and secular society, united in diversity!

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