Azanian Students Organisation (AZASO)

Student Politics in the Era of Democracy

During the 1990-1994 period of political liberalisation and negotiations leading to the first democratic elections the South African Students Organisation (SASCO) continued the tradition of militant student politics of SASO and SANSCO. However, in the past decade there have been important changes in political conditions that have affected the politics and activities of SASCO.

First, whereas previously who was and what was the 'enemy' that stood in the way of education and freedom was fairly clear, today who or what is this enemy is much less clear. It is therefore not as easy to mobilise and organise students as it was before 1994.

Second, while some students have ongoing problems around financing and fee exclusions, and concerns regarding aspects of the mergers of institutions, many students don't appear to have much interest in important higher education issues at institutional and national levels, or in crucial political and social issues.

Some suggest that SASCO and other organisations have not been politically creative, organisationally innovative, or determined enough. Perhaps, but the reality remains that student mobilisation is much more difficult today than in the past and that student organisations are weaker and less rooted among students today than previously.

Third, in the period of mass opposition politics during the 1970s and 1980s, SASO and SANSCO didn't need to formulate concrete alternatives to apartheid. They could be satisfied with general ideas of freedom and demands such as a South Africa based on the Freedom Charter, in which 'the people shall govern', and in which 'the doors of leaning and culture shall be opened'.

In the post-1994 era of transformation politics, however, SASCO would exclude itself from the change process if its contribution were to merely restate the education and other ideals of the Freedom Charter. This means that SASCO has to engage with the complex and difficult problems and challenges of higher education change.

It should be clear that while student organisations and activists may have operated under dangerous and harsh conditions before 1990, politics was also in some ways much simpler. SASCO and post-1994 student activists face a much more complex and difficult social reality and much more formidable challenges.

SASCO has attempted to address policy issues related to the transformation of higher education and institutions, but with limited success. This is not surprising. Effective policy engagement entails addressing many difficult questions - the social purposes and role of higher education in South Africa; the ideal institutional landscape; appropriate transformation frameworks and policies; effective mechanisms and instruments for change, and for creating a higher education system that contributes to social equity, justice, economic development and democracy.

This a tall order for any student political organization, especially since transformation politics involves profoundly difficult policy issues, political dilemmas and choices and, in a context of resource constraints, trade-offs between dearly held principles and values. It should be hardly surprising, then, that SASCO has not been able to make any easy transition from a mode of opposition politics to a politics of transformation.

SASCO must, of course, try to make this transition and must be supported to do so. But if it does not do so optimally, this is no reason to marginalize it. Government and institutions must value the role and contribution of student organization s, respect their autonomy, and must hear their legitimate claims and consider these as part of political and policy decision making.

Transformation politics cannot be a concern only with affordability and means but must also address ends and legitimate expectations. There is no contradiction in a student organisation that both genuinely co-operates to find answers to problems and challenges, but also vigorously protests to draw attention to shortcomings and legitimate demands and needs.

Whereas in the early 1990s the major national youth and women's organisations became part of the ANC, SASCO significantly opted to remain independent. It pledged support for the ANC and the new ANC-led government, but also voiced its intention to advance student interests and, if necessary, to adopt a critical disposition towards the ANC and the policies of the new government. This means SASCO cannot shy away from holding government to the idea that the doors of leaning to higher education must be opened.

There have been many achievements in access and equity. Today, some 75% of students in higher education are black and 54 % women. Thousands of poor students are supported financially by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

However, black and women enrolments mask inequalities in their distribution across academic programmes and especially at higher levels of post-graduate training. It is true that for most South Africans that may aspire to a higher education the doors of learning remain firmly bolted, with currently little prospect of entry. It is also a reality that for a sizeable number who obtain access, the door rather than being fully open is a revolving one, since too many drop out and don't graduate.

The doors that lead to real learning, to becoming highly educated, and to graduating with real knowledge, competencies and skills, and as socially committed and critical citizens are all too often either closed or ajar only all too little. Too often there is also a confusion of certification with meaningful education. Only for some are the doors of higher learning and culture truly open.

It is right for SASCO to ask why the doors of higher learning are bolted or only partially open, and for it to insist that the doors must be opened much wider. It is SASCO's obligation to point out that the current investment in NSFAS is inadequate and that more must be done to provide real opportunity to talented students from working class and rural poor families.

Unlike in SASO and SANSCO's times, students are now citizens and voters, have guaranteed rights to student organisations and student representative councils (SRCs), and also participate in higher education governance.

It must be of concern to SASCO whether students are making effective use of the opportunities to participate in governing, whether they are fully equipped to participate, and whether their participation is meaningful or just formalistic. Certainly, student organizations face real constraints, but have they been sufficiently creative and innovate in participating in governance?

Political strategy for SASO and SANSCO was relatively straightforward: build national organisations; fight for SRCs; educate, mobilise, and turn higher education institutions into sites of struggle, and unite students behind the national liberation movement.

For SASCO it is not so simple. Unable to engage fully and effectively in transformation politics, and unable to undertake mass mobilisation and also win support from other social forces, the question of politics and strategy is a vexing one. What are appropriate politics and strategy, how should they relate to government, to political parties and civil society formations, what kind of alliances should they build, are all difficult issues for the current student movement.

There is no shortage of issues around which the student movement can mobilize and organise. If SASCO is, however, to play its historic role, it will need to be rooted among students, united, organised and disciplined. It will have to also creatively to push the 'bounds of possibility'.

A confident government will not fear a strong, active and assertive student movement. To the extent that the government vigorously pursues 'a better life for all' there is a strong identity of interests between it and such a student movement.

What SASCO does or does not do, on its own or in alliance with other forces, will contribute to shaping higher education and the new South Africa.