In our last issue, we had welcomed new and returning students and reminded everyone about the uses and purpose of a university.  This issue reflects on the re-emergence of undemocratic protest and populism an anti-thesis for the exercise and advancement of democratic protest in a constitutional democracy. This is mainly occasioned by a wave of student protests in our instructions of learning and the recent protest by our own students. 

In the context of a democratic dispensation it is important to briefly examine the nature and character of protests we have witnessed in the recent period as well as their underlying paradigms.

As a premise, it is essential to state that one of the attributes of a constitutional democracy is the co-creation, execution and renewal of a shared development agenda, common values, rules of engagement, establishment of institutions and election of leadership to oversee and act as champions and trustees of our collective aspirations and vision.  All of these are premised on the collective needs and will of the people. The foregoing is buttressed on the collective needs and will of the people. It is needless to state that in a constitutional democracy, the constitution is an important foundation where all the rights of citizens are protected and all commit to co-exist in peace and harmony as well as to shared prosperity.

South Africa has chosen the path of a constitutional democracy -  the constitution is the supreme law of the land and is binding to all its citizens.

Our constitution, amongst others enshrines the right to protest. However, the exercise of protest is a choice. People may choose to participate in a protest or not to participate it. A protest becomes undemocratic when those who have elected not to participate are coerced to participate by the protesters or their right to freedom of movement like attending classes, going to work is indiscriminately inhibited. Once the latter occurs, the protest becomes undemocratic. The recent protest in at our university characterised by class disruptions and the blockading of roads and gates by some protesters who masked their faces, is an affirmation on their part that indeed their protest was not based on the will of the students but on the imposition of their will as protesters under the pretext of activism. 

How do you organise a protest that seeks to advance the interest of students, without a direct mandate from those students in the form of a properly convened and constituted general meeting? It is this and other forms of undemocratic practices that are an affront both to the values of our constitution and what the University stands for – equality, social justice, ubuntu and excellence amongst others.

The emergence of new tendencies of undemocratic protest has also reinforced populism.   Some of the key features of populism are, absence of appreciation of objective facts and conditions obtained at a given period which give rise to particular actions and responses; a narrow and simplistic view to complex challenges;  thriving on creating and sustaining antagonistic relationships with the perceived ‘enemy’ or the establishment; replacement of rationality with emotions with the resultant emergence of the cult of personality and failure to tell the truth to those led in fear of reprisal and or in favour or in the interest of self-preservation. Populists also believe that people are a homogeneous group – and do not believe in diversity and freedom of choice.  Populists also exploit the genuine concerns of the people and proffer unsophisticated, rudimentary and short-sighted  solutions to historic, structural and systemic problems and that’s what makes them popular. 

These attributes (some of them) were evident in the recent protest at our university:

  1. Disrespect for the rule of law that provides for a democratic protest.
  2. Deliberate refusal to abide by established university protocols of engagement with student organisations.
  3. Organisation of protests arbitrarily without testing the views and will of the general student body.
  4. Attempts at dislodging the SRC as a legitimate student representative body duly elected by students through an open, free, fair and credible democratic process.
  5. Disrespect for outcomes of engagements arrived at meetings between the management and the SRC and thus delaying implementation under the pretext of a [un-]democratic protest.

We created this platform in 2019 as a discursive and reflective space on the quality of student life at our university.  It’s a space to reflect on actions that help bring about progress in the broad arena of student life and development and those actions that are likely to retard or reverse the gains made.  Populism and undemocratic protest are anti-progress and are an anti-thesis to the existence of a university as a space for the germination and contestation of ideas. 

The development of recency – “recognise us now, according to our own rules and whilst in action. Our path is principal”- in student politics at Nelson Mandela University by student organisation is aimed at dislocating and discrediting the instruments co-created with students to ensure democracy and student representation are meaningful and efficacious. For instance, the Policy Framework on Strategic Engagements with students demarcates power relations in student governance between student organisations and that of the SRC. The intention of the framework policy is to delineate representation responsibilities for the smooth running of student governance and widen compulsory engagements as part of promoting good governance as well as advancing the ideals of a student centred university. The SRC remains the supreme representative of students. The University will remain steadfast in respecting this as a matter of course. 

 Mandela University firmly believes in the power of dialogue and engagement.  We are committed to this as a matter of course and principle. The University will continue to allow democratic protest within the framework of its policies and the law. What will not be allowed is the deepening of the tendencies I have referred to in the foregoing under the pretext of authentic grievance and the usurping of mobilisation and representation of students by unelected and unrecognised structures.  All student organisations are enjoined to take up issues of students through the SRC as the only official representative of students.    

Finally, difference, contradiction and divergence are necessities for progress. Development and progress are a product of ideas.  The University as a centre for knowledge generation,  knowledge transmission and community engagement ought to cultivate and produce graduates with knowledge and skills to advance the development of society.  It ought to produce graduates who are critical and strategic thinkers adequately empowered to change the world.

What we are and should continue to be about is the discourse regarding possible futures of our society and the role our university should play in this regard.  We should also discuss ways of renewing the social life of our students so that it can be vibrant, dynamic and value enhancing to the academic enterprise of the University and thus contributing to developing a new kind of graduate that is fully prepared to be re-integrated and take their rightful place in society.

We thus encourage intellectual contest in the construction of new futures of the University as we begin vision 2030. Nelson Mandela University is a space for intellectual activity and not a space for populism and violation of human rights. Let us all exercise our freedoms responsibly and without violating the rights of others. I thus call for activism that is about:

  1. Raising social consciousness amongst our students;
  2. Cultivating and reinforcing the determination to think;
  3. Capability to identify and offer lasting solutions to societal challenges;
  4. Action that is grounded and embedded amongst the people -  collectively shared and is concerned about humanity.

As Enersto Che Guevara (1965) counsels us, we should have “a large dose of humanity, a large dose of a sense of justice and truth in order to avoid dogmatic extremes, cold scholasticism, or isolation from the masses”.

If we fail to heed the counsel, the following words by WB Yeats may become our lived reality:

Things Fall Apart;

Turning and turning in the widening gyre;

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Mandela University will choose a transformative and sustainable developmental trajectory - just for the sake of truth and posterity.

Luthando Jack

Dean of Students

Posted on 04 March 2020 10:05:06

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This platform serves as a reflective, discursive and connecting space between myself and the entire student community of our beloved university. Through this platform, we converse with our students and broader stakeholders on all matters of student life, wellbeing and development at Mandela University.

Luthando Jack, Dean of Students