It’s Thursday, 4 September 2014. Camera and notepad in hand, I stand at the fawn-coloured steps of Wits University’s famed Great Hall. The results of the number-one university in Africa’s SRC elections are about to be released and tensions run high. All around are singing supporters, party affiliates and representatives of the three parties that contested the elections: the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) – an amalgamation of the ANC Youth League, the Young Communists League and national student body SASCO; Wits EFF, the Wits contingent of Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters and Project W, a Wits University-specific student activist movement that resents party politics, recognizing it as a threat to a solutions-orientated approach to student issues. Anticipation grows with each minute.
Looking confident and self-assured, Jamie Mighti, the charismatic leader of Project W, stands approximately 100 metres and 200 people away from the tall, imposing & bearded figure of Vuyani Pambo, the spirited yet gentle leader of Wits EFF. Near the bottom of the steps anxiously paces one of Jamie and Vuyani’s biggest rival candidates from the incumbent PYA, Mcebo Dlamini. Each of the three young men a strong, resolute leader of their distinct cohorts, all agree on one thing: the Wits SRC Elections are in their social dynamic, rhetoric, current state and areas of contention a microcosm of emerging South African politics. Where they differ, however, is as to why.
Ten days prior to that scene, I’m at WITS Medical Campus on Tuesday 26 August 2014, where campaigning by the candidates, having begun ten days prior, is in full swing.
Here to meet Jamie, the leader of Project W, I approach a large gathering of students listening to each candidate expound over the crackling boom of the microphone. Questions abound: is this where the next generation of political leaders will emerge from? Could the Wits SRC Elections – a university that has nurtured such political icons as Nelson Mandela, Ruth First and Joe Slovo – present ebbs of political thought that will inform the policy frameworks of future South African politics? More importantly, are these young people critical enough in their assement of today’s politicians not to inherit the same bad habits tomorrow?
Despite having coming out of a debate just moments earlier, Jamie shows little sign of weariness as we get seated for our interview. “You see the youth population in South Africa is massive,” he begins. “There are 932 000 students in tertiary education, and those numbers matter. The unique thing about the university population however, is that they set the intellectual agenda,” he adds, reminding me that during apartheid, the ANC and greater liberation movement needed institutions like the University of Cape Town and Wits to gain true intellectual traction. Motioning with his hands, he insists that this should continue today, particularly where the transformation of access to tertiary education is concerned, but does not play out in the way it must. A 3rd year LLB Law student, Zambian-born Mighti asserts with an obvious pride that his party, in its non-partisan approach to student activism, allows them a better angle from which to approach the campus’s complex socio-economic and racial challenges; one without the mudslinging that often characterizes party politics. Project W, he further reveals, has in fact been the best and most innovative fund-raiser for the Humanitarian Fund – a student-run financial aid program meant to assist students vulnerable to financial exclusion cope with the financial demands of university life. They hope to bring Rihanna to SA for a fund-raising concert.
Set up in 2010 by a PYA-led SRC body, the Humanitarian Fund is critical in the view that according to a Human Sciences Research Council Student Pathways report conducted between 2006 & 2007, the primary reason that 70% of students drop-out before attaining their degrees is due to financial difficulty – with most students coming from poor backgrounds. This stifles the broader imperative of transforming tertiary education and heightening skills development, which are in turn at the epicenter of South Africa’s ability to negotiate challenging youth unemployment and skills development hurdles. The Humanitarian Fund, thus, is pivotal. PYA’s Mcebo Dlamini certainly finds a correlation between heightening access to tertiary education and the transformation of the economy as a whole, positing that students are “citizens first before they’re academics” and that the economic disparities that play out in greater South African society replicate themselves sharply within this paradigm. “Many students sleep in libraries due to being unable to afford student accommodation,” he explains. Jamie knows this all too well – disclosing that he, too, had to sleep in the university library in his earlier days as a student; and thus understands the socio-economic context that most Wits students face – having battled to gain NSFAS funding – even once here. He concludes that without the right levels of support for students, the country will never achieve genuine transformation because blacks students will continue to fall by the wayside in first year. Peaking, he tells me that Project W’s impressive fundraising ability, however small, could be critical to this. Still, at a university such as Wits, recognized as a proud bastion of South African liberal, progressive and democratic thought, the transformation of tertiary education lies not only in the numbers, but also in symbolic value, according to leader of Wits EFF, Vuyani Pambo.
5 days before the election, the sun beats down harshly on the tables and chairs of the Matrix, Wits’ privately owned foodcourt and center, where I’m set to meet Vuyani Pambo for the second of three interviews for this article. He’s soft-spoken and polite on the phone, far-removed from the posture of aggressive revolutionary that he so strongly delivers when campaigning. We agree to speak somewhere quieter and without the threat of people approaching him for handshakes and questions. “Wits University still resembles a university of 100 years ago,” he begins once we’re seated, ever radical. Which is why, he imparts, Wits EFF is motioning for the renaming of Wits buildings in honor of struggle heroes. “You have [buildings named after] David Webster, Olive Schreiner and Ernest Oppenheimer, but [the university] can’t explain to us why we don’t have a building named after Dr Robert Sobukwe; a revolutionary, a thought leader and a former lecturer at this university.” That, Vuyani believes, is the type of representative university Wits should be, but isn’t yet. “The symbolic speaks to why we’re here materialistically,” he continues. “The fact that the university does not represent those that it serves, those that have served it and those that it seeks to serve is problematic. In essence you don’t see the contribution of the black professors – which speaks to the professors that are here now. Most of which are white,” he testifies. Mcebo Dlamini of PYA laments the lack of black professors too, claiming – with equal aggression – that there are not enough black lecturers or professors at Wits by a long shot.
It’s Wednesday 3 September 2014, the second of the two election days, and I meet PYA candidate, Mcebo Dlamini at the Great Hall. As I drag him away from the polling station toward the Matrix for our interview, he warns that he could miss out on votes by not being at the polling stations. “Things here are very populist, you see,” he explains. I’m immediately worried. Surely students at a university with as rich a political history as Wits would have better, more critical cause to cast their ballots than a friendly smile or the folly of having shared drinks with a candidate? That’s not the case, he reluctantly discloses. “Populist politics is how some people get elected, unfortunately. People sometimes vote according to who is the most beautiful candidate or who throws the best parties, it’s very shallow!”
We arrive at a table. Having come here hoping for signs of critical emerging political thought, we begin to speak about whether Wits students engage enough in debates around South African politics outside of SRC elections season. Dejectedly, he responds, “No [we don’t], the manner in which the university is structured, in terms of academic syllabus, doesn’t allow for that,” he begins in earnest. “Firstly, as intellectuals we are not allowed to engage outside of what we’re learning in class. Secondly, I think it’s because they’re trying to kill student activism.” Curious as to how – generally – race relations plays out against the backdrop of the socio-economic context of the university community, I ask him if students often debate racial issues. “No. We don’t do it enough.” he again flatly responds. I ask him if this is healthy, given the fact that in addition to academic skills, a university community should offer students a well-informed social frame of reference. He admits that many of the core issues at Wits do revolve around race and socio-economic background, but “poor and conscientised” students, who are the majority, are often seen as a nuisance for being activists and protest-ready. “Students are far removed from each-other and it shows when we are campaigning,” he continues, “you have first-year students that drive Maseratis and post-graduate students that sleep in the library, so it’s very difficult to talk to both sets of these people about what the common context is for them, because when one guy asks about who will provide laptops for students, the next guy will want to know about PYA’s plans for parking.”
Many observers from Wits Vuvuzela, the campus newspaper, recognize Project W’s Jamie Mighti as the biggest threat to incumbent party, the PYA: which has won every election since 2009. The EFF’s performance in the SRC election remains difficult to predict, discloses Nqobile Dludla, a journalist at campus newspaper, Wits Vuvuzela. Confident that Project W will win the SRC elections, eating into the ANCYL-backed PYA’s constituency, Jamie believes that Project W’s impact on Wits’ politics is partly reflective of the ANC’s diminishing ability to attract the best (black) intellectual talent. “My analysis is that Project W will win this elections, and that’s going be the beginning of the toppling down of youth structures in the ANC, he boldly declares. PYA’s Mcebo Dlamini, remarkably, somewhat agrees. “Yes, there is an element of truth there – there is danger of the ANCYL no longer attracting the best intellectual talent because of what’s happening at the top,” referring to how students often ask him piercing questions about Jacob Zuma during campaigning. “I don’t want to say it but because of how the media has portrayed him, we’ve now reached a stage where I can say Jacob Zuma, for the sake of our image, needs to go.” He maintains that President Jacob Zuma, despite numerous scandals, is in fact a great leader, but simply a victim of a media agenda to take him down.
The prevailing narrative surrounding post-apartheid youth – and student politicians – suggests they would have a stronger affinity toward impartiality in their critical assessment of contemporary politics, even where concerning their own parties and leaders are concerned. Jamie, however, isn’t so optimistic. “Yes, [we should be critical of contemporary politics] but that’s the danger of the PYA & EFF! They [PYA] openly defend Jacob Zuma and some [EFF members] will even say the craziest things to make Julius look good even when it contradicts themselves. You find students defending the indefensible instead of focusing on student issues.”
Mcebo somewhat agrees. “Yes, people ask about Nkandla everywhere we [ANCYL and PYA students] go and it’s hurting us.” He quickly refers to the case of EFF spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi, a former Wits PYA stalwart, to make his point. “Mbuyiseni [Ndlozi] is an ANC member through and through. He’s simply working a 9-5 job at the EFF. That’s all. He needs to eat. It’s like a Kaizer Chiefs fan playing for Orlando Pirates – the man is working. But if the ANC is not careful, we will [continue to] lose intellectual talent such as Mbuyiseni.”
Where the transformation of tertiary education is sharply concerned, if elected, a Vuyani Pambo-led SRC would lobby for campus buildings to be renamed to honor struggle stalwarts, Mcebo wants more black lecturers in the university while Jamie believes a “better” Wits University for first year students is by extension a better university for black students too. Interestingly, the university is currently locked in an intense debate surrounding Vice Chancellor Adam Habib’s proposition to reserve 35% of beds at Wits University residences for white students. Neither Vuyani, Jamie nor Mcebo however, like the idea.
Professor Adam Habib, the relatively newly-appointed vice-chancellor of Wits University, tabled a contentious policy proposition in July that would effectively reserve 35% of beds in university residences for white students, starting in the 2015. This, according to Habib, is in the interest of promoting diversity and cross-racial interaction on campus. It’s not how either of Vuyani, Jamie or Mcebo see things, however. “This shows what we’ve known all along, Wits University is a racist university,” exclaims Mcebo, “most students at Wits are poor students, how can you prioritise white students, for any reason, over people who need the opportunities to better their lives?” he concludes. “This [proposal] shows how insensitive and impervious the university context remains to the life circumstances of black students in the university,” Vuyani posits – suggesting that Wits University aims to please its funders far sooner than it prioritizes meeting the needs of students. The EFF leader closes by saying that the need for “diversity” cannot supersede the need for intellectually talented and financially vulnerable students to gain the opportunity to further their studies and better their lives. All three youth leaders express disappointment that a policy meant to better racial relations so disproportionately approaches the matter. Finding innovative ways of granting “free tertiary education” and bettering access to resources for students should be the focal point of Habib’s administrative energies, Mcebo laments, not advocating for superficial race relations proposals. The kids at Wits University, it seems – an institution that is traditionally, critical to advancing South Africa along the pathway toward being an opportunity society for all – are not alright.
“Where is the intellectual agenda now for your generation of politicians?” I ask all three young men in conclusion. “We’re no longer protesting in the streets, we’re not fighting for visibility in the streets anymore, we’re fighting for space in the minds of people – it’s an intellectual battle,” Mcebo swiftly affirms. Vuyani believes so too, reminding me that like the EFF in parliament, the EFF at Wits, in its radical approach, is the best vehicle through which to approach the awkward yet necessary conversations South Africans need to have, thoroughly.
The atmosphere grows electric as the show begins. Three to four hundred young people stand at the foot of the Great Hall, each waiting for the results to be announced. The sun sits directly above us and with each call of a winning candidate,, cheers from the PYA contingent of the crowd gets louder. With every odd call, cheers arise from the Project W contingent too. Never from the EFF. We now have a winner. Of the total of 15 seats available on the SRC, 9 seats are awarded to PYA, 6 to Project W. Nothing for the red-bereted legion of EFF young.
The polling result, now rubber-stamped by the fifteen PYA and Project W representatives standing at the top of the Great Hall steps high-fiving, hugging and jubilant, raises fascinating questions. The EFF’s inability to secure a single seat is the biggest surprise of the election, given that the 6% tally of the national vote the party won in May was largely attributed to “the youth vote.” Surprising also, is the non-participation of Democratic Alliance’s student organisation DASO in the election, contradicting the DA’s upward trajectory in the national elections. The ANCYL-backed PYA remains dominant, perhaps debunking another popular notion: of youth disillusionment toward the ANC. The strong performance of Project W, in its similarities to civil society, may hint, albeit subtly, at a growing affinity toward activism, as opposed to party politics, in the approach of issues.
Critically, the areas of contention and topics of interest for the university’s politicians consistently provide an interesting gauge of where South Africa’s transformation mission resides. The key area of contention for all the leaders of the three parties – 2 elected, one not – is to make Wits University a more equitable, friendlier environment for black students as a preamble to transforming greater South African society. They certainly differ in approach; but each hopes for more rigorous debate between their parties to transform Wits into the type of preparatory environment that would enable students of all races, classes and backgrounds to engage, in 24 carats, on issues of identity, transformation and privilege when deconstructing larger (structural) issues for students – both on and off campus.
Leaving the excited mass of students, activists and politicians behind, the principal question remains: do this generation of politicians give glimpses of a more equitable, accountable, consistent and intellectually sound political dispensation in the future?
It’s hard to tell.
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