SRCs are to Students What Government is to the Country

2013-07-13 16:42

A close friend of mine who holds the SRC: Sport portfolio at my university, Tshepo Moloi, once said that the SRC is supposed to be “home” for students. He expounded that students must not feel like their elected SRC leaders are working in “opposition” to them as voters.

From this notion one conceives the analogy that SRCs are the elected governments of students. SRCs, like governments, receive annual budgets to serve students.

The mandate of student representative councils must be student-driven.

In character and principle, student leaders should embody selflessness, accountability, and humility to convince students that their votes were not in vain during elections. What was at the centre of their elections bid should continuously guide their work in student leadership just like a ruling party shouldn’t deviate from its manifesto.

The agenda of students must not be abandoned and swallowed up by the benefits SRC members get when in office. The budget allocated to SRCs must benefit students as voters.

Empty promises must be avoided. Rhetoric must always run concurrently with action.

If SRCs disappoint us as young people in institutions of higher learning, the betrayal is likely to transcend into how young people view government, compounded by the fact that it’s their votes which make up the SRC.

SRCs give us a near-experience of the politics of government.

It is a part of our human nature to use our past experiences to create expectations of the unknown, yet to be discovered. Our current ‘knowns’ become pre-emptive of our future (sometimes distant) unknowns.

Our perceptions, therefore, about different matters of life are guided by our previous experiences. This is what communication theorists refer to as ‘Comparison Levels’ (though in a different relationship context). Sipping on this theoretical whiskey distilled by communication scholars cements the views that our small worlds with our particular others can either make or break our attitudes towards the bigger world. Hopefully this will strengthen the assertions that student representative councils across different institutions of higher learning have the potential to shape up opinions of students about national government and prepare them to become engaged citizens.

Many students’ first time voting is during the annual SRC elections. Our immediate exposure to democracy is when we elect our preferred candidates for student governance.

Prior to the actual casting of votes, candidates campaign. They make promises. They present ambitious manifestos. They speak fancy English. They quote clauses in university policies.

However, it is in the aftermath of the campus elections that the real task of delivering on the promises begins.

When financially needy students are facing the cruel axe of deregistration, they seek intervention from the leaders they voted for.

When prices at campus stores are exorbitant and inhumane, students call upon their SRC leaders to negotiate a deal with off-campus supermarkets so that their student cards can be authorised to purchase there at reasonable prices.

When universities issue time-tables with late classes, off-campus students in institutions where the dream of shuttle services keeps getting deferred, run to the SRC for assistance in safety and security.

What happens when student representative councils fail to deliver students from these frustrations?

As the closest system of governance, the failure of SRCs to meet the needs of students has an impact on how students may view national elections. We may not want to trust anyone with our votes again.

In their approach, most SRCs can be dichotomously classified into radical and management driven types, with the latter often compromising the voices of students. In a management-driven style there is less difference, if any at all, between the university management and the SRC. Essentially, the SRC becomes the extension of management. SRC members become employees of the university, rather than elected representatives of students.

The student voice gets sold out.

It is this betrayal of the voices of students that generates general pessimism regarding national elections. If those with whom we attend classes sell us out, in whom can we still trust? It’s unlikely that as young people in universities we’ll expect quality service from a government whose officials we haven’t even seen when those who share the campus with us neglect our demands once in power.

The behaviour of elected student representatives is subject to scrutiny. Students don’t vote so that SRC members can embark on violent protests and destroy institutional property. We vote for leadership, not misguided militancy. In other universities, comrades in the SRC apparently dish out favours to one another on the basis of party membership. University cars get accessed by those who are ‘comrades’, as one of the social activists I met during the Students for Law and Social Justice (SLSJ) National Committee Workshop told me.

In the occasion of these favours, what overall impression is being created to an average student about the nature of elections, governance, and politics?

SRCs are to students what government is to citizens.

When members of the SRC appreciate this fact they will understand the importance of their positions as young leaders. The effectiveness of student representative councils potentially affects the voter turn-out in the region of young people – students and graduates to be specific.

Accountability is imperative – checks and balances must be maintained. Students that hold their student leaders accountable give us hope for an active citizenry that won’t turn an ignorant eye on poor service delivery and corruption. Most universities have legitimate structures, such as the student assembly, that hold the elected representatives accountable in their respective portfolios. Accountability to voters equates return to investors. That’s why it’s lamentable that some universities, mine included, don’t have these platforms where student leaders report back to the voters. Elected leaders get away with all their underperformances, sometimes protected by the universities.

What students think of their SRCs architects their opinions about government.

If students are failed by their fellow students close to them, we can’t be expected to register to vote for a distant government with unfamiliar officials.

Our misgivings will, therefore, remain solidified.

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