Chic young turkshave a dream

August 15, 1997

EXPOUNDING articulately on how students should organise themselves, using her hands to emphasis points to her audience, 21-year-old Rikky Minyuku looks nothing like the popular image of a South African student leader.

She is bright, reasonable and chic, her perfect English spoken with a slight American twang. She is not unruly or troublesome or, apparently, interested in vandalism as are some of her peers.

Ms Minyuku is vice president of the student representative council at the University of Cape Town. Born in Thembisa township and educated at Sacred Heart College in Johannesburg, she has a first degree in social sciences and is studying for a masters in democratic government.

So who are the young people, many of whom will go on to fill important positions in society, that South Africans sometimes see wreaking havoc on university and technikon campuses? Where do they come from, what do they think and what is it like to be astudent leader today?

An opportunity arose to find out at a student training conference in Durban, which was organised by the South African Council of Churches and the University of Durban-Westville's African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes.

The conference was attended by student leaders from universities around the country, and was aimed at building the management and negotiating skills they sorely need on today's transforming and conflict-ridden campuses.

It will result in a training manual for student leaders, 16 students being intensively trained to impart conflict resolution, administration and management skills to other leaders, and possibly a broader "national conference" of student representative councils (SRCs) at which all tertiary institutions would be represented.

The worst thing about being a student leader, Ms Minyuku says, is stress and the workload involved in doing both SRC and academic work. "The academic side suffers, not because we don't want to work but because it is simply impossible to do both SRC and study work properly," she says.

Trying to juggle both responsibilities can lead to the situation of not being able to attend meetings you have called, adds Pandelani Ramawa, 23-year-old SRC president at the University of Venda, who is in the third year of a bachelor of education.

Students are highly demanding, he says. "If you don't attend to SRC work, there are lots of complaints."

Hennie van Vuuren, SRC president at the University of the Wi****ersrand and one of only two white students at the conference, concurs that leadership pressures are great. But the political studies honours student, who was born in Klerksdorp, has a more sinister story to tell.

He complains of threats to free expression on campuses and says his experience as a member of a committee formed to select a new vice chancellor is an example. Disagreeing with other students led to death threats, and the same thing is happening to academics.

"A lot of work needs to be done keeping debate alive on campuses and tolerating different views," he says. More also needs to be done about student attitudes towards women, says 22-year-old Bridget Mohlala, a member of the University of the Western Cape SRC. Being female adds to the already heavy pressures of student leadership, "because people still underrate the strength of women".

Mzukisi Qobo, a 23-year-old Langa-born final-year social science student who is president of the University of Cape Town SRC, says being a student leader is a steep learning experience.

"We learn to deal with everything from administration and politics to conflict resolution. This helps prepare us for the greater challenges we will face when we leave university and begin making a contribution to the country."

All agreed that the most pressing issue facing students and universities is transformation, which they broadly define as making institutions more accessible, friendly and relevant to an increasingly diverse student body.

"Transformation is the priority," Mr Qobo says. "Our institutions need to change in synchronisation with the rest of South Africa. There needs to be changes in institutional and student governance, curricula need to be re-evaluated, and universities need to be restructured." The students expressed doubts about the effectiveness of broad transformation forums, which have been set up at universities around the country. Their purpose is to include representatives of all campus interest groups in institutional change.

However, Sam Thobakgale, the 22-year-old president of the University of Natal SRC, explains that forums often do not have enough power and their advice is rejected by university councils.

The different pace of change at institutions, he adds, is often related to how much muscle forums possess.

The most prominent day-to-day student issues are financial - the perennial battle many bright students face securing a loan, the unjust exclusions that result, and paying for services such as food, transport and accommodation.

South Africa's history, cultural diversity and increasing number of poor students, have led to the politicisation of service issues, forcing student leaders to play a more political role.

Ms Minyuku believes that aprimary job for leaders now is to help students learn the skills that are essential to academic success and to encourage greater student participation in university life.

"For if we can't get students involved in what's going on on campuses, how will we ever get them involved in society?" she asks.

Students are angry about the government's perceived lack of commitment to financing its national student loan scheme, which leads to campus conflicts over exclusions and also leaves many young people who have earned places in universities out in the cold.

Mr Van Vuuren, meanwhile, worries about declining government funding for higher education in general, and the attendant threat to the quality of degrees. Increased funding for student loans should be new money, he says, not money that has been taken from university budgets either by the government or by institutions.

Finally, some student leaders highlighted as a major problem a crisis of leadership among their peers, in university and in government.

"The crisis within the student movement as a whole is very serious," Mr Ramaw says.

He adds:"It is essential that student leaders start putting their political differences aside and build a powerful movement with common goals. We tend to forget that our job is primarily to serve the needs of the student body."

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