SOUTH AFRICA: New dynamics in student politics

A convincing win for the opposition-aligned Democratic Alliance Student Organisation in recent student representative council elections at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University suggests that South African students may be tired of having their interests overshadowed by intra-party politics in a more complex post-apartheid political environment.

Political analyst and University of Johannesburg Deputy Vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Habib, told University World News that it was "simply a matter of time" before students started to look for alternatives to the ruling party-aligned South African Students Congress (SASCO) associations which, he said, have allowed "intra-party battles" to overshadow student interests.

SASCO has dominated student politics on South African campuses for more than two decades, since before the end of apartheid.

Habib said the erosion of the congress' position at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) situated in Eastern Cape province, the historical heartland of South Africa's ruling African National Congress, was telling.

"I am not surprised. There have been indications of this on other campuses, although the congress organisations have also lost to other independent associations. But for this to happen in NMMU is politically significant," he said.

The official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) was quick to extrapolate from the success of its student wing, the Democratic Alliance Student Organisation (DASO), at NMMU. It won 10 out of 18 seats on the student council in September.

DA provincial legislature leader Bobby Stevenson called the victory a "major shift in student politics in the Eastern Cape". Lindiwe Mazibuko, DA spokeswoman and parliamentary leader, drew attention to the seizure by DASO of four seats on the Rhodes University student council.

But not all campuses have become DASO strongholds by any means and SASCO and its allies retain a significant influence in student representative councils (SRCs) at most.

For example at the University of Cape Town, an historically a white institution under apartheid, SASCO turned the tables on DASO by winning seven seats to DASO's three, out of an available 17 in recent student elections.

And at the historically white University of the Witwatersrand, where the DA claims DASO support has grown by 573%, all seats in this year's student elections, including that of SRC president Feziwe Ndwayana, who was reportedly found guilty this month of disrupting classes and blocking traffic during student protests in 2009, were taken by the Progressive Youth Alliance made up of SASCO, the Young Communist League, the ANC Youth League and the Muslim Students' Association.

DA National Youth Director Aimee Franklin admitted that campus politics "changes quickly and is often a bit unpredictable", but said the party had "definitely seen a broad shift since the inception of DASO" and that its support had been growing.

This was in spite of what she said was "a significant rise in the number of independents contesting SRC elections and eating into political party support", and an increase in the number of institutions wanting to ban the political contestation of SRC elections.

"I think that this [win] signifies a shift in the minds of young South Africans in particular. These young South Africans did not know apartheid - those born in 1994 [the end of apartheid] will be eligible to vote for the first time in the next national election in 2014. They are not voting for emotional reasons but rather for a party that delivers and that offers them a compelling vision for the future."

Part of the DA's excitement stems from the fact that DASO is a relative newcomer to the university scene, starting the first of its branches, which now number "almost 30", at Cape Town in 2005. There, according to Franklin, it enjoyed three years in control of the SRC, which paved the way for branches at other institutions. At NMMU, DASO is just over a year old.

Franklin said DASO offered students a viable alternative to SASCO. "Students have grown tired of the militant style of organisations like SASCO, [which] generally have a very small but very vocal base on campuses and are known for violence and regularly shutting down institutions for days on end with their protests," she told University World News. "Organisations like SASCO are synonymous with the extravagant spending of SRC funds on parties and the like," she added.

Another reason young people were attracted to DASO was because it was multi-racial, said Franklin. "The race politics of the ANC doesn't work on these young people." The NMMU election poster sent by Franklin shows that out of 33 DASO candidates who stood for the student election, five were ostensibly 'white' students. Franklin said the overriding issues affecting students were access to funding and accommodation.

Judging from a lengthy analysis of the elections posted on the SASCO website by regional secretary of the western region of the Eastern Cape, Zuko Godlimpi, in some quarters race is still a big underlying issue in student politics.

Referring to DASO as a "predominantly white liberal and sometimes right-wing organisation that also finds refuge within Indian, coloured and the liberal sections of black students", Godlimpi argued that DASO's election success lay in its targeted recruitment drive of "elements within the residence leadership structures that were willing to be the faces of their campaign in exchange for positions in the SRC and obviously, MONEY!"

He said while the defeat provoked "sorrowful tears" in SASCO quarters, it was met with "relative joy" among some sections of the academic community and staff, "most of which are white and obviously conservative forces".

Godlimpi wrote that the common feature of the groups that had contested and won student elections in the past were that "they were all formed mostly by white people pursuing a purely liberal agenda". They sought to 'depoliticise' the SRC: "By this they simply mean that it must quit taking up matters of working-class students and rather focus on building parking lots and more parties than before."

Stellenbosch University political analyst Professor Amanda Gouws told University World News that post-apartheid student politics in South Africa was still "very racialised" and had been aggravated to some extent by the integration of historically white campuses.

"Campus cultures changed and white students viewed themselves as the losers. Not all of them but quite a lot." She said black students still felt marginalised on historically white campuses and were afflicted by real issues. "Many can't pay their debt and are angry for what they feel is a lack of government support," she said.

However, despite this polarisation, the University of Johannesburg's Adam Habib said there were also wonderful cases on campuses of "boundaries being blurred and this should be encouraged by the leadership. In our debates on issues like language, we need to think of identities not as exclusivist, but rather as inclusivist. You can be Afrikaner and South African, white and African, Muslim-Christian-Jew and human.

"Too often our higher education leaders inadvertently undermine the possibilities of such an environment. They tend to deal with the politics of the contemporary moment by taking shortcuts, playing to the politics of race or other chauvinist identities for short-term gains. In the end they implicitly segregate our environments with racialised consequences," he said.

Habib argued that contrary to the idea that student politics was in decline, the idea of what it means to be political was today more complex.

"The political leadership's view of politics is party politics. It is about issues of race, equity, party control of institutions etc. Younger people are repelled by this, especially the careerism and greed that seems to be masked in this language. Their politics is about the environment, about identities that meld rather than being exclusivist, about being South African, and also African and global."

However, he said that rather than trying to move away from party politics on campuses, a recent step at the University of the Free State where the elections were constituted on the basis of independent candidacy, it would be better to 'pluralise' campuses and create the conditions for students to choose alternatives without feeling they were betraying the cause.

"If we can do this, we create checks and balances in student politics. The negative effects of party political activism would be managed through the democratic process itself."