Earlier this year, AfriForum clashed with the university over its admission policies in the Faculty of Veterinary Sciences and more recently, the SRC has been petitioning for a student rate for the Gautrain. Last week, DASO voiced its concern about the lack of student anonymity on SRC voting ballots. However, these activities go unnoticed by some students. This week, Perdeby investigates students’ attitudes towards political issues on campus. Do these issues matter to students, or do they fade into the background as students concentrate on other aspects of life at university that they regard as more important or interesting?
“I’d say the general student population isn’t really interested in the workings of student politics,” says SRC President Mthokozisi Nkosi. “We have over 45 000 students on campus and we have less than 7 000 students who participate actively or vote.” According to Mothusi’s estimates, this means that only 16% of students make an effort to involve themselves in campus politics. That fact that the SRC is voted in by such a small percentage of students may lead people to question the legitimacy of the structure.
Michael Matlapenge, a member of the 2011 SRC, says, “I think there is an interest but from those students who are affected and feel connected to the causes the SRC deals with. The things that happen on campus are influenced by politics, even if you don’t recognise [that] directly.”
“The workplace also has politics so even if you are not interested in politics now, it’s an aspect of life you will encounter at some point so exposure to it earlier may help you understand how it works later. I also believe that people who only study and don’t participate in campus organisations (political or not) are the ones who are less inclined to appreciate the differences made by the SRC,” he adds.
Common words and phrases that students used when asked to describe politics were: “corrupted”, “boring” and “personal ambition of the few”.
Some students come from backgrounds with strong political affiliations. This can be a driving factor when they make the decision to become involved in politics – whereas those who come from more politically neutral homes may not feel compelled to participate.
There is also a generally negative portrayal of politics in the media which could affect perceptions students have of politics. Timothy Ramabulana, ANCYL Tuks Branch Chairperson, says, “During elections, people will use what happens in the parent party’s affairs and not realise that that a party on campus is still there primarily to serve the students regardless of what may be happening externally.”
Tshepang Ratlhogo, a second-year BSc Geology student, says, “I am interested in campus politics because I’m aware of the important issues they raise, like the current youth wage subsidy discussions.”
The youth wage subsidy is a current political topic that revolves around the idea of providing jobs for unemployed youths by giving tax incentives for employers who employ young, inexperienced workers. Ratlhogo continues, “The decisions made by them eventually filter down to us to so it’s best to know how they are made and how we’ll be affected by them before their implementation. My complaint, though, is that it can be difficult to follow what they talk about because they use a lot of jargon.”
Nkosi responds to the issue of jargon: “How a political organisation communicates is linked to the identity of the party.” Matlapenge says, “We are in a learning institution so we expect students to be familiar with certain terms and if they are not, they should see it as an opportunity to learn something new which is empowering. Vocabulary and articulation are important in politics and the words used help to keep debates lively.”
Second-year mechanical engineering student Phadima Ledwaba says, “Last year, I voted because my friend was running and the adverts say voting is good. There’s no intrinsic reason why I did it. Voting doesn’t seem to change anything essentially so I understand why so many don’t do it.” Ledwaba’s statement highlights an issue mentioned in The Independent newspaper which comments that “the reason [that] politics doesn’t appeal to [the younger generation] is because it seems very egotistical and superficial. The politicians appear to want to do what’s best for the [institution], but they will say anything as long as it gets them votes and into more powerful positions.”
Nkosi says the SRC spends over R100 000 in marketing but the problem is that communication is a two-way street and students are uninterested in that communication. Ramabulana says, “We recently had a debate on the youth wage subsidy issue and the venue was not full, but if RAG held an event at the same venue, there probably would have been a stampede. Students are not interested until it affects them personally, then they humble themselves and want help from the political organisations. A lack of involvement affects other students because when you try to change things at a policy level, you get defeated by the implied attitude that students don’t care.”
Illustration: René Lombaard