Left and right anger at politics clampdown

August 12, 2005

A decision by the council of the University of Pretoria to depoliticise student governance has angered not only the nationalist Right, but also radical student groups.

The council has ordered that elections to the Student Representative Council, currently based on political factions, be replaced by a voting system based on constituencies. In future, its members will be elected from constituencies such as faculty organisations, hostels and other campuses.

The university said it wanted a more representative student council but, in its bid to convince South Africa that it has shed its conservative Afrikaans past, it would undoubtedly be pleased to remove the influence of the Afrikaner nationalist Freedom Front Plus (FF+).

The right-wing-controlled SRC opposes the electoral change. The issue has pitted university management against the youth wings of parties across the spectrum, from the left-wing Pan Africanist Congress to the African National Congress and its parliamentary opposition, the Democratic Alliance.

A survey of more than 1,500 students at the university (more than 800 white and nearly 700 black) found that while three in five undergraduates had heard of the SRC, fewer than a third were reasonably well informed about it.

Nearly two out of three students had never voted in an SRC election, while three our of four did not know any SRC member by name and were not aware of its portfolio.

Most students felt that the SRC had little legitimacy and nearly two out of three felt that it was not acting, or only slightly acting, in their best interests.

The survey was commissioned by the university and the SRC to measure student perceptions of the council and the role it plays.

Students, in general, said they "would prefer a non-political structure". They said they would prefer "a democratic election of individual candidates".

But the SRC attacked what it described as a plan to limit democracy on campus and "appoint" SRC members.

"The new proposed structure has constituencies identified by management forming a representative committee. This committee then elects an SRC," Cornelius Jansen van Rensburg, SRC president and member of the FF+, told reporters.

Osmond Mlonyeni, a local ANC Youth League leader, said that it too opposed the new structure. "Students should have the sole right to alter the nature or composition of the SRC," he said.

A joint statement by all parties on the SRC says that the current system is accessible to students: "We have an obligation to execute the mandate we have been given by the student masses."

Thierry Luescher, a student researcher at the Centre for Higher Education Transformation in Cape Town, believes the division of constituencies along spheres of student life, for example sports bodies, is a poor alternative to the one-constituency system.

But the University of Pretoria said the proposals had been negotiated with stakeholders including the SRC. It vowed to implement the decision.

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