Meanwhile, Universities Are Sucking The Life Out Of Activism On Campus

2014-06-24 14:24

They’re not your friends. If you’re an activist for any cause on campus, you will soon find that members of University management are not your friends. There is an escalating culture of repressing activism of any kind on our campuses around the country and the architects of this not-so-new (albeit escalating) tendency are the management personnel at our Universities.

Considering our history and current reality as a country (one where the little man has and should have the ability to stand for what he believes and express his pain in the form of protest), such a tendency has the potential of being detrimental to our society later on. Allow me to show you how this degeneration of protest culture happens and why it poses a danger to the very fabric of our society in future.

University management has two major mechanisms of silencing protest and activism on campus. Firstly, they employ aggressive strategies like charging students with (often vaguely-defined) misconduct. They victimize student activists by removing them from residences and class thereby jeopardizing their very studies. In some cases they expel them from student governance structures and even the university. Underpinning this aggressive strategy is a disciplinary system that would have jurisprudence experts in stiches as they laugh at its immaturity. The disciplinary system at our universities effectively has the Vice-Chancellor’s Office act as the witness to the crime, the prosecutor of the crime as well as the final arbiter of one’s fate. This is in addition to the same Vice-Chancellor or his Office performing functions such as summons and transcribing the actual hearing. Further underlying this aggressive strategy is a brilliant PR campaign that paints the student activist as a failing, renegade rule-breaker. She is bandied about as a dim-witted, academic failure. As if that is not enough, some universities’ appeal procedures leave much to be desired. (Oh and by the way, Wits University does not have appeal processes). Essentially, the student activist is victimized in class, at res, in society (as a result of an effective PR campaign) and during the actual hearing. My God, there’s just no hope for you, Student Activist.

Secondly, universities also employ tacit, if not subliminal, strategies. With this strategy we see the University portraying the non-activist student as the ideal, perfect future leader of the country. Those campus activities that don’t speak truth to power are well supported by management. They support these non-activist by funding their conferences and posting the achievements of the non-activist on the University website. But controversial activities of organisations like Amnesty International, Palestinian Students’ Committee and South African Students’ Congress (SASCO) are less supported if not demonized and discouraged. (I won’t mention the University of the Free State and their silencing of political student activity). The activist student’s activities don’t receive as much funding and if they succeed in a campaign (to, say, get more funding for students from NSFAS or reduce academic exclusions) their successes are not lauded by the universities and are blatantly ignored.

With these two strategies, universities manage to crush activism. Many students on campus see their fellow students being suspended or expelled and victimized and become less inclined to protest for more parking spaces or high fees or extra cheese in their sandwiches from dining hall (anything really!). Also, because of the more tacit strategy of glorifying non-activists, students see activism as a less appealing and dangerous way of venturing an opinion  on anything.

Do we not see how dangerous this is for an emerging country like ours? How dangerous it is for an elite group in society (for that is what university students are) to be incapable of challenging the status quo? Is it not dangerous that university management can increase fees exhorbitantly while students just fold their arms and keep quiet? How is it normal that a group of students would prefer to eat below-par residence food rather than register their dissatisfaction? How is this good for our country?

Activism is two-fold. It is the ability to stand up for what you believe and also the ability to give more of yourself for another person you probably don’t even know (be it a needy student or an citizen of an oppressive regime). Naturally while protest must be done in a peaceful manner, reasonably disruptive protest is not only a concomitant circumstance, it is also oftentimes necessary and unavoidable.

What universities today are building is a student that can type great psychology essays, calculate the earnings-per-share of a multinational with ease and perform delicate surgical procedures, but all at the expense of basic activism and humanity.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh here. I mean, one might argue that it can’t be that bad. I want to argue that it is, indeed, that bad. Look at any protest in the past two years in any university and you will soon see that students either got expelled or suspended. University of KZN activists, Wits University activists, Central University of Technology activists, University of Johannesburg activists, Vaal University of Technology activists, Tshwane University of Technology activists, to mention a few recent cases. It is that bad.

Indeed, and without doubt, we are building a future citizen that cannot stand up for their beliefs and a citizen that cannot care less about the wellbeing of fellow less-fortunate citizens. This herd-of-sheep mentality is a crisis for a country where corruption is rampant. Whether this is unintentional or is by design as a result of a liberal agenda, one thing is for sure: this culture is engineered with brutal efficiency and enthusiasm by a small, insignificant cohort of university heads. Who are not our friends.

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