In the past few weeks, two major events of historic significance have taken place in our institutions of higher learning, creating a feeling of nostalgia about the relentless struggles waged by the students to transform our universities from ivory towers to peoples’ campuses.
Firstly, the heroic and stupendous “Rhodes Must Fall Campaign” unleashed by the University of Cape Town (UCT) students for the removal of the statue of arch-colonialist, Cecil John Rhodes has exposed the levels of hostility, animosity and disjuncture between white and black students at our universities on how they view our historic past, our current conjecture and the future of our higher education system.
Secondly, the humiliating defeat of the ANC-aligned student formation, South African Student Congress (SASCO) at the hands of the newly formed Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC) at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) has not only heralded a new epoch and dynamic in the student body politic for the contestation of power but equally has profound and far-reaching implications for transformation of in post-school institutions.
Before the dawn of the new constitutional dispensation in 1994, various student formations were established at tertiary institutions invariably to unite students around educational, political, social, and cultural issues which affected them and to ostensibly promote the students’ role as vanguards in the struggle for liberation.
As the student formations waged epic battles to fight academic repression, exclusions and expulsions, the ongoing skirmishes between the students and the campus authorities who mobilized the police and the army to deal with the revolts compounded the tertiary education problems which reached crisis proportions.
In 1924 the National Union of South African Students (NUSAS) was formed by students from English and Afrikaans-speaking universities as an umbrella student organization to exclusively promote the interests of white students and to serve as a forum where differences could be thrashed out.
After embracing black students in 1930s, NUSAS started to voice its opposition to segregation in tertiary education and gradually underwent a shift in its political views where in the 1980s it opposed apartheid measures in general, embarked in protest actions, adopted radical political positions, devoted its time to establishing democracy and embraced the Freedom Charter as a correct ideology to take South Africa forward.
The manner in which black and white students view issues like at UCT in the past weeks is not a new phenomenon for the university students in South Africa. In 1969, the majority of black affiliated universities led by Steve Biko, Aubrey Mokoena and Barney Pitjane among others, left NUSAS to form their own body, the South African Students Organization (SASO). They were irritated and displeased by the NUSAS’ liberal views and its political modus operandi at the time.
The formation of SASO radicalized the students who became a dynamo of military and activism at universities at the height of repression. Like the recent developments at UCT, SASO felt that the blacks’ students conditions and concerns and their interpretations where totally different from the whites students.
The formation of the South African Students Congress (SASCO) in 1991 which came as a result of the merger South African National Students Congress (SANSCO) and NUSAS, didn’t only consolidate an all-round struggle for transformation of education at tertiary level but also added a new impetus to a new education system towards in a democratic country.
At UCT whites students think black students are insane and behave like infants at a nursery school. In their view, Rhodes must be embraced because he contributed immensely and immeasurably by donating the land where UCT is built and in his honour, the Rhodes scholarships are provided to underprivileged students.
To black students, the Rhodes statue belongs to the colonial museum because he epitomizes land robbery, mineral resources deprivation and forced black cheap labour. They attribute their woes today like financial exclusions, institutional racism and academic marginalization to him and seeing his statue everyday in their campus, compounds their problems because it entrenches white supremacy.
The sole heroic act of Chumani Maxwele, a student who poured the human excrement on the statue and sparked the students revolt which galvanized their actions to remove it, reminisce the courageous act by Abram Onkgopotse Tiro, a student leader at Turfloop University in the early 1970s for his scathing critique of the Bantu Education system during the graduation ceremony. His heroic act, in the presence of the Minister of Bantu Education became an act of vigour, vitality and inspiration to SASO to spare neither energy nor effort in dismantling the dehumanizing system of Bantu education.
Like Tiro who hated Bantu education system with all his being which is a direct legacy of Rhodes, to Maxwele his statue symbolizes colonial and apartheid oppression and pouring it with faeces is a stark reminder that most black people particularly in ghettos and squatter settlements continue to live in places of lower environmental quality and suffer severely from inadequate shelter, lack of proper infrastructure and services, poor sanitation and polluted water.
On the other hand, the embarrassing way in which SASCO-led Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), a conglomerate of ANC youth structures, is monumental. The way SASCO is disfigured and badly bruised at VUT sends a cogent message that leaves no other interpretation that in the light of its weakness and paralysis, the students need alternative. It shows that the students are completely dissatisfied with the pace of transformation and the response to it by the ANC-inclined SASCO. Therefore they are resolute to determine their own destiny.
The outcomes of the VUT SRC is a microcosm of a bigger challenge SASCO is facing. It must be noted that since 2013, the signs are emerging that tertiary institutions are becoming a contested terrain of struggle between SASCO and the EFFSC, with SASCO losing some serious ground.
By resoundingly trouncing SASCO at VUT, the students were unequivocally expressing a statement that some thing is wrong perhaps including in the political landscape of our country. The election results has fell like a ton of bricks to SASCO and for a moment, pulverizing it into tatters and dizzying it to evaporate into oblivion.
The glaring lessons and implications from the VUT episode is the proliferation of this trend to other institutions of higher learning with heightening tensions among student organizations and bleak prospects for the transformation agenda.
Undoubtedly, since its inception as a single non-racial student body in 1991, SASCO has played a pivotal role in the establishment of a single and non-racially coordinated system of education in a democratic South Africa. It also made important strides in the merger of various departments of education and institutions which existed prior to the new dispensation.
Rooted on the core principles of democracy, non-racialism, non-sexism, African leadership and working class leadership, SASCO has led students’ confrontational struggles against financial exclusions; the inequalities between historically black and historically white institutions of learning; and the admission policies, curriculum and qualifications at tertiary level.
The present challenges facing the moribund SASCO are self-inflicting. Part of the problem is that SASCO gradually departed from its core objective of being a vanguard of students at institutions of higher learning to entangling itself in power struggles both internally and in the ANC and its Youth League.
Within its ranks, SASCO detoured and off-ramped from one of its primary role of building a cadre to confront its challenges. In most instances, its leaders consume their energies in internal leadership battles rather than dedicating their time and effort in seeking solutions to resolving students’ problems such as academic exclusions and funding. During the recent UCT developments, SASCO was conspicuous by its absence and the students struggles had to be led by the “middle ground” and ultra leftists.
While its leaders are basking in its past glory, absorbed and coopted within the state machinery and the ministerial appointments to boards, councils and Setas, its members suffer from political poverty and lack the most elementary revolutionary discipline and commitment to serve the students and to protect their own interests.
With the re-establishment of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) structures after its disbandment, the current and previous SASCO leaders lined themselves for nominations like predators at the smell of blood, leading to the collapse of the National Congress because in the process, structures were not properly and duly established.
They gave disproportionate attention to leadership contestation and spent little time worrying about issues like building strong ANCYL structures, cadre development, youth unemployment, education and health. Serious political discussions were seen as waste of time and were replaced by nomination process which punted two or three organized groups within with completely different lists.
Instead of finding ways to bring healthy and constructive discourse back into SASCO, its leaders always fall back to paranoia, seek to blame counterrevolutionary forces inside and outside as the cause of their own troubles. Allegations which are also thrown into the election pot include the mobilization of state resources to internal squabbles and the promises of government contract and strategic deployment.
Lately, the only time you see SASCO’s presence is when it makes pronouncements about the ANC leadership preferences at national, provincial and regional level. In the process it is alleged that they even use underhand tactics and creating a bad culture of leaks and which-hunt, as well as engaging in public platforms to condemn the unwanted leaders and to glorify the wanted ones.
Pardon me for being nostalgic. I am feeling this way because to this day, I can give a full testimony to the events of the 1991 historic inaugural conference of SASCO at the Rhodes University in Grahamstown held under the theme: ” Towards a Single Non-racial Student Organisation”.
I remember vividly how the late Mike Koyana of UWC and Steve Silver of Wits, both Presidents of SANSCO and NUSAS respectively, captured the political significance of the merger. I fully remember how the late KK Papiyane, our Political Commissar, succinctly summarized the heated debates around the merger. And indeed how the conference after electing Robinson Ramaite as its first President, declared that as a vanguard student movement, SASCO will as a point of departure, shape the students unity for the battles ahead.
If SASCO has to get out of the political quagmire it is facing and return to its former glory, it must get out of its ivory towers of pontificating and provide leadership to the students. SASCO must be truthful to itself and to the students it is leading and never conceal or or hide its current state of affairs and the challenges it is facing.
Its leaders must not bury their heads in the sand but acknowledge these challenges. They must speak from the heart and take some of the blame. For me it is simple really (and for lack of better words), they should get out of their high horses and start to revive, organize and mobilize the students in the institutions of higher learning and take a lead in campaigns such as at UCT. If they don’t listen they deserve no sympathy.
It is my considered view that the PYA must review a decision to establish ANCYL structures on campuses. That situation has created unnecessary tensions, conflict and competition between the two organizations instead of complementing each other as alliance partners.
SASCO must realize that over the last few years, the emergence of antagonistic forces have shifted and changed the balance of forces at institutions of higher learning rapidly and drastically. This new conditions requires to adapt and make decisive interventions to propel the struggle for radical transformation and build bridges between black and white students
Inevitably, the new conditions require SASCO to exercise maximum vigilance against the new forces which seek to subvert and divert transformation at tertiary institutions. These forces will hijack the students’ problems for their own nefarious and counterrevolutionary agenda where their ultimate objective is to undermine the state and to indeed infiltrate, disorganize, weaken and destroy the liberation movement through both clandestine and radically sounding but empty propositions.
Therefore the primary role of SASCO remains to mobilize and unite students for fundamental change and transformation. This task is important to the future of SASCO, to the trajectory of the student struggle and the future post-school education system of our country, constituting an integrated whole in making SASCO once more, a formidable organization.
Comrade China Dodovu is a member of the ANC in the North West Province