Following the peak of student activism during the 1970s, where the issue was appropriate access and tuition in preferred languages, which were then exclusively available to white students, my idealistic, younger self, imagined that the universities were running in a manner that did not require student activism since the dawn of the South African democracy. I was grossly mistaken.
I once had very hopeful ideas about how previously white-only institutions accommodated their new demographic, which now included students from groups that were not previously allowed at those institutions. I had imagined that students from previously excluded and marginalised groups had access to these institutions that also took their history, sociology and politics into consideration. I also hoped that the residual economic effects of the apartheid-type social engineering would be tackled energetically so that universities could centralise themselves in painting a new South Africa – where the most marginalised are given the mighty education tool to work themselves and their families out of poverty.
Student activists on campuses now have a struggle that is long-standing, and if it is changing, it is changing very slowly. Firstly, there is the financial struggle regarding South Africa’s highly income-based quality education access, then follows the accepted culture at institutions that requires upper skill-level assimilation from students coming from previously excluded and marginalised groups. Therefore, student activists are busy throughout the year trying to first make these institutions accessible, and secondly trying to make the experience of the institutions bearable for those that are fortunate enough to have gained access.
Most of the student activists that I have come across have been those who faced challenges regarding access to the institution and finding a comfortable place within a student life with an exclusive campus culture. These students commit to working towards mitigating the blow for other students that might face the same issues, and they work tirelessly, navigating through the university status quo, to make the university experience accessible and manageable.
I have noticed a trend in how student activists are dismissed as ‘rowdy’, ‘radical’ and sometimes ‘militant’. These adjectives are never used in a positive light, but rather as the equivalent of being called a communist during apartheid. Contemporary student activism has become, according to the observation I have made of the people with the power to assist the situation, a headache, an irritation, something worth dismissing. One can only imagine how this further frustrates student activists, because beyond the dismissal the problems persist.
When we can do better, we should do better. Because universities that help students by positively affecting their access and putting work into their student success help themselves, by way of increasing retention of students and having more students reaching graduation, and also help reshape the socio-economics of South Africa. Instead of dismissing student activists, university management should be finding a way to establish functional relationships with the activists, mainly for assistance with diagnosing the university campus ‘ecosystem’ that they manage.
It should never be a norm to label people pointing out challenges as ‘rowdy’, ‘radical’ and/or ‘militant’. This approach will never work as it continues to frustrate those with the agenda to move universities forward, and allows for the continuation of the dysfunctional relationship that student activists have with university management country-wide.
Ultimately, student activists and universities (according to university expert brand management and marketing) are on the same team. The chief priority of this team is to fashion a better future for all and to nurture diverse talents to contribute to the team’s agenda. I am hoping that universities do not continue to rob themselves, and the world, by holding dearly onto the status quo, lest student activists become really militant and radical in thought, and never interested in a functional relationship with the powers that be.
I could be idealistic, but I believe that so much can be done when university management and student activists work collaboratively. Frustration will seize the choke-hold it has on student activists, and the environment of a reformed higher education sector will lead South Africa in the best direction regarding optimal progress.