The sad state of activism and student leadership on campus

2019-05-06 11:51

2019 has been a riveting, busy and grossly packed year of concerning events, decisions and activities that have been taking place on our campus at Stellenbosch University. Living in our small, strange bubble of a town that has a multitude of issues that have yet been solved. Whilst it should not just be the responsibility of students to initiate conversations and change, students do have a role to play. However, it has become clear that thought leadership is lacking, and activism has consequently become stagnant.

The Plight of Leadership and Mental Health

As previously mentioned in a piece for HuffPost, mental health has been plaguing our university campuses and spaces, and it has hampered student leadership as a result. There have been a number of cases, this year alone, where students have had to resign due to mental health reasons. This issue needs to be discussed on two fronts: one being pre-election mental health awareness, and the other being post-election mental health awareness.

Before a student considers availing themselves for a position or is currently in the process of campaigning, they should be made aware of the expectations, functions and role of the position that they are applying for. This is beneficial in the process of preparing that person for the position, if elected. In addition to this, it will give the leader the responsibility to consider where they are mentally beforehand, so that they can focus on taking themselves, if need be, or to continue pursuing the position they are campaigning for.

In terms of post-election mental health awareness, it should be noted that student leaders, under immense pressure, stress, including personal issues, have the possibility of encountering mental health difficulties and unfortunately, mental illnesses may develop. Student leaders should be given the support that they need, through services such as the SSVO at Stellenbosch University, and proper workshops so that they have training to fulfil their roles and expectations.

Moreover, there is a concerning trend of students, who lack the skills and knowledge of a position, being elected into those positions and are thus, reducing the effectiveness and functions of it and the overall leadership body. Whether the student’s intention was good or not, it is a leader’s responsibility to be able to learn and grow in a position whilst upholding the functions of that position. Incompetency results in students losing faith in the credibility and efficiency of a group, office or organisation.

Activism, Slacktivism and the Culture of Apathy

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of trying to achieve positive change on campus is trying to convince people to become active citizens and to get involved in fighting issues and providing solutions. True activism at Stellenbosch University has been decreasing since the time of #FeesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and #EndRapeCulture, movements which truly united and mobilised students to tackle crucial injustices and issues on our campus.

Instead, we have a select group of students who are constantly engaging, constantly present at socially conscious events, and that group does not seem to change. It is always the same people. Whilst residences and PSOs have been making attempts to engage through portfolios such as “critical engagement,” it has not played a pivotal role in reviving thought leadership on campus, and some have argued that it has created a one-dimensional, political view of ideas, issues and thought on campus.

There has also been a rise of slacktivism on campus. The notion of slacktivism is the practice of ‘activism’ but only on social media and online platforms. It is perhaps the easiest route to take in the modern world as it requires less energy compared to on-the-ground protest action or discussions. Slacktivism may create a situation whereby the human aspect of people is ignored and it simply becomes an activism based on having the most ‘clout’ or people agreeing with you. It is something that students must take into consideration when handling campus issues.

The greatest challenge for student leaders and transformation on campus is the task of dismantling the culture of apathy at Stellenbosch University. This applies to students, staff and the general response to issues. The view of “this doesn’t affect me, not my problem” seems to be ingrained in many students, and it clearly manifests when a major injustice is being raised, and the call to solve it, and hold stakeholders accountable takes place. The problem is clearly rooted in the amount of privilege we have on our campus and the idea that Stellenbosch University is “not like other universities” in its nature of protests and activism. This culture of apathy will have to be disrupted in order for activism to be increased, but it will take much energy and effort to initiate this.

Ideological Clashes and Stagnation

The current state of ideologies at Stellenbosch University seem to focus around two views. The one view is based on the university’s Transformation Office’s “Talking Transformation” guidebook which seeks to inform students of tackling injustices through an equitable, just and socially democratic lens, whilst taking into consideration the experiences of marginalised groups on campus. The opposing, or alternative view, is Dagbreek Men’s Residence’s “Inkululeko” booklet which provides a libertarian, freedom-focused and individualistic view on transformation on campus.

As a result of the two guidebooks, debates began, focusing on the idea of what transformation really is and whether the university or Dagbreek had underlying intentions with their documents. It reached a point where outgoing Premier, Helen Zille, who is in favour of “Inkululeko”, argued that transformation on campuses is being used to promote a Marxist, closed society agenda. In response to this, Professors Botha and Slade, of Stellenbosch University, critiqued Zille and Inkululeko, stating that the document disregards transformative constitutionalism and the historical, social context of Stellenbosch University.

At the end of 2018, Netwerk24 published an opinion piece by newly elected SRC member, Marine Bothma, which essentially criticised social movements on campus for perpetuating the idea that marginalised groups are victims and that this view is debilitating for students. In response to this, Paul Joubert, Priyanka Govender and I provided academic sources, information and objective evidence that countered Bothma’s use of Jordan Peterson as a credible, valuable source to disregard marginalised groups’ lived experiences.

Since the end of 2018, there has not been enough meaningful, impactful debates regarding ideologies and social injustices. However, there has been a repeated notion on campus that people should “empower themselves” in order to be alleviated. With few resources and a lack of privilege, one would find this view to be ridiculous and insulting to marginalised groups who constantly feel like they are battling a hopeless system with what they do have currently.

It is clear that activism and leadership on campus need to be revived and quickly, before bureaucracy and authority overtake the remaining fires of those who uphold the constitutional culture of justification and transformation. Currently, it seems that the culture of apathy is overtaking campus and inhumane, unjust decisions are taking place without much opposition. Furthermore, mental health awareness and capabilities of student leaders need to be called into question to ensure that student leaders’ well-being is maintained whilst effective, credible leadership structures are being productive too.

Read more on:    stellenbosch university  |  campus  |  students
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