Students shift alliances in multiracial poll

October 11, 1996

A quiet revolution took place during South Africa's student representative council elections held on campuses over the past few weeks.

Students shifted party allegiances, voted for bread and butter issues, and indicated that they are weary of old tactics.

Lots of new groups emerged, most dramatically independent candidates aligned to Christian and democratic groups. Students voted in far greater numbers than in recent years, and more students stood for election.

At historically white English campuses, white students re-emerged after years in the political closet. White students now control the representative councils at the universities of the Wi****ersrand, Cape Town and Natal.

The South African Students Congress (Sasco), which has dominated student politics for the past five years, saw a slide in support although deputy secretary general, Kenny Diseko, predicts that when all results are in Sasco will still have 70 per cent of the vote.

Ron Carter, dean of students at Wits, is not surprised by the changes. He says that several studies have revealed that students, whatever their race or creed, want everyday issues addressed. While they remain committed to the issues supported by an organisation, they do not necessarily remain committed to its methods.

Sasco has been experiencing this shift and is reorienting its strategies to take account of what are now perceived as student priorities, for example, gender emancipation and campus crime.

There was a bigger student turn-out at the polls nationwide. At Wits, the percentage of student voters increased from 10 per cent in 1995 to 23 per cent this year - nearly 4,000 out of 17,500 students. Also, while only 16 candidates stood for 15 seats last year, making it pointless to hold an election, this year 40 students registered and 36 stood for election.

Dr Carter says almost every student group was represented, bringing in large numbers of people to vote. "It is good to have a multi-party campus," he said.

The South African Liberal Students Association (Salso) swept the board at Wits, with 43 per cent of the vote against Sasco's 12 per cent. New president Hennie van Vuuren says the election results are a dramatic turnaround. "We consider it vital to build up the SRC again. SRCs get a large grant, and it essential that it is used effectively in ways that benefit students."

He believes students have become disillusioned with the manner in which protest and negotiation have been taking place. "Students made demands, with threats in the background. We have to take a more rational approach to getting the best for students."

Salso was launched two years ago and describes itself as a non-aligned organisation founded on liberal values. Its president is Enoch Ngcongolo, a student at Rhodes. It has branches at the universities of Cape Town, Western Cape, Rhodes, Orange Free State, Stellenbosch and Rand Afrikaans, and is establishing one at Fort Hare and the University of the North.

Mr Van Vuuren says Salso does not see itself as a white liberal organisation. Instead, it is attracting people of all races: Salso's racial profile at Wits is 60 per cent white and 40 per cent black, more or less reflecting the racial profile of students, he says.

While SRC elections have not been overtly racial at English universities, race dynamics have played a role. At the University of Natal, Durban, white and Indian students banded together with the Pan Africanist Students Congress (Paso) to oust Sasco.

Sasco won all 12 seats at the University of the Western Cape, but got only two seats at the University of Cape Town, where the new president is Mzukizi Qobo, an independent candidate aligned to the Student Christian Fellowship.

He agrees that shifting student votes have to do with changing political terrain. "People have become less interested in politics."

Mr Qobo says former student leaders had failed to explain concepts such as the country's transformation to the wider student body.

Also, SRC members have been perceived to be advancing their own causes, with SRCs seen as a mini-compartment of the gravy train. "We need to clear these misconceptions and show that we are doing things for students," he said.

At Wits, the National Centre for Student Development and Student Leadership is setting up support systems and training programmes for student leaders, to help them be more effective in future.

The idea is to enable students to engage in negotiations, armed with the necessary skills and knowledge, to avoid the aggression that can arise when ill-informed students meet with slick institutional administrators.

Moemedi-Phillip Kepadisa, the centre's project coordinator and former national president of the Azanian Students Convention (Azasco) says: "In the past, students have been narrowly defined as learners in institutions. But in fact they enjoy considerable power.

"If we want to build academic communities based on multi-lateral agreements, students have to engage more effectively in policy development."

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