home Black Opinion, News Contesting Power in Tertiary Institutions

Contesting Power in Tertiary Institutions

By Thobeka Nkabinde

Higher education institutions in South Africa have been faced with students resisting against the eurocentric, anti-black, patriarchal, heteronormative, classist, able-bodied authoritative order in the fight to bring about a free, Black-centered Azania.

Higher learning institutions play a pivotal role in constructing black minds into minds that will sustain the neo-colonial system. The deconstruction of these hubs of knowledge into robust black conscious, African centered spaces, would help produce black people who are able to solve the issues of black people and assist in bringing about a black conscious African centered society.

During this time, student representative leaders have been in the hotseat. Their role in sustaining this oppressive order has been challenged. Non-positional collectives of student structures have emerged in order to bring about the change that “elected leaders” within these institutions have failed to give them.

However, there have been some SRC’s, or at minimum, individuals within SRC’s who have continuously pushed for the decolonial agenda.

Nevertheless, whether positional or non-positional, the narrative for these individuals is clear: Those who push for a decolonial agenda, suffer the backlash of the institutions by disciplinary hearings, interdicts, suspensions, expulsions etc. From the moment they use their “power” to gesture towards decolonizing ends, they are in jeopardy of having their character distorted and of being victimized by the institution.

The “power” of these student leaders is often questioned. “Are you able to bring about change in these positions?” “Is there real ‘power’ in these positions, or do you just become part of the machinery of these iron fist institutions?” I believe that if these leaders are staunch in their values, there are strategic moves that can be made by Student Representative Council (SRC) leadership within the universities. Such moves can undermine the system to bring about the structural changes we want to see, as well as change the face of leadership.

Coming from an institution that was “previously” Afrikaans, the move made by the University of the Free State (UFS) SRC to withdrew from ‘ser’ competition organised by ATKV (The Afrikaans Language and Culture Association [Afrikaans: Afrikaanse Taal- en Kultuurvereniging]), is an example of this. This Afrikaaner tradition that is enjoyed by previously Afrikaans institutions, and loved by the students was cancelled through the “power” of the SRC, based on principle.

They correctly believed that institutions cannot be enjoying “lekker cultures” from the Apartheid-era whilst their Black students are beaten up on a rugby field for the world to see, as occurred earlier in 2016. This decision taken by the UFS SRC displayed some sort of power by cutting ties with ATKV.

This year we see 8 Afriforum members standing for Stellenbosch University (SU) SRC, for reasons we can only assume. The “Language Policy” at Stellenbosch University is still under fire and this “Afriforum move” has a clear agenda that through their possible election, they seek to disrupt any ambition geared towards bringing about a decolonised institution.

At UFS, the SRC disrupted white institutional power and we applaud them. Yet in seeing this, I knew that this possibility ceases to exist at an institution such as Stellenbosch University as long as it exists in its current state. For too long, many of the SRC leadership were the face of the white, patriarchal, capitalist, heteronormative (and all that is oppressive) narrative. Seeing so many white faces on leadership structures at SU is normal– if you’re lucky, you may be able to find just a few speckles of Black. Unfortunately, the voices of the few Black leaders who formed part of SRC leadership were drowned out in the raging sound of whiteness.

Now in the SU SRC election period of August 2016 we see new faces being shown and new people standing up!

Black faces!

It is encouraging to see the amount of black people, especially black women and representatives of other marginalised bodies within the Black community making strides within leadership.

On the Tygerberg campus of Stellenbosch University we see black people being the only candidates for Primaria and Vice-Primaria of Huis Francie (a predominantly Christian, moral-demanding facilitator for gatekeeping patriarchy ‘female only’ residence).Hippocrates, the white patriarchal & myso towers of this campus also only have black candidates for Primaria and Vice Primaria. The TSR (Tygerberg Students Representatives) has predominantly black bodies contesting.

What does this mean?

I remember a 2015/16 TSR caucus, a leader (white-cis-het-man) was asked why minorities (that’s black people in SU) do not stand for leadership.

He replied (paraphrase), they come from bad schools where leadership is not valued, I came from a good school.

In 2016, the likes of people with such opinions have been silenced but obviously still speak out at braai’s. Some of our Caucasian counterparts caucus, “dit is nie meer lekker om n leier te wees nie”, “these blacks are too damn angry and want too damn much.”

They’re right. We are angry. And we want a whole lot more.

If the anger and disruptions of Black people have made white people find leadership uncomfortable and unpleasurable, then that’s great. We should all be uncomfortable. We welcome the new black faces that are contesting SRC leadership.

We are however reminded of Biko’s warning on the “non-white”.

“Non-whites do exist and will continue to exist for quite a long time. If one’s aspiration is whiteness but his pigmentation makes attainment of this impossible, then that person is a non-white. Any man who calls a white man “baas”, any man who serves in the police force or security branch is ipso facto a non-white.” Steve Biko once said.

We should never be manipulated into believing that black faces equal change. We must hold those who represent black people to a high standard, and measure them according to Biko’s words:

“Black people – real black people – are those who can manage to hold their heads high in defiance rather than willingly surrender their souls to the white man.”

We must always call for truth in leadership. The bar will always be high. The bar for black liberation can only but be high. SRC leaders should be held accountable and their leadership style should be like that of Thomas Sankara.

They must understand that they must serve the people. Just as The Upright Man, Thomas Sankara reduced government salaries, sold off luxury vehicles, inspired through hard work and was a true representative of the people; so our SRC leaders must reject any privilege that separates them from the people and always remember they are a representation of the people.

May these new leaders speak truth to power, serve the people in truth, walk with the people; as we collectively seek to see the backwards strata of institutions crumble.

Izwe Lethu!

Thobeka Nkabinde is a Member of Decolonise Tygerberg & Student at Tygerberg Medical Campus of Stellenbosch University

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