The topic students and politics is quite broad and dynamic and so is the discussion on youth and politics especially when one considers the important role that students and youth play in propelling society forward. And for this reason the topic is always contentious and I expect a great deal of diverse reactions to this opinion article.
When do we actually say the human being is apolitical? Is it possible that the human being can be apolitical? Can politics be replaced by something else in the life of humans? What is an apolitical being?
I don’t want to assume that the reader knows what politics are all about, both in general and specific terms. My conception of politics which I consider useful for this discussion is that: politics is about how do we, as human beings, attempt in various ways to organize society. The exercise of ordering or organizing society can happen by commission or omission; to an extent that, choosing not to vote is in itself a political deed, it is a considered political move. With accumulated centuries of the development of human society, such an exercise has become a contested phenomenon in society by various forces who normally contest for power and influence. Political parties are one way through which this contest takes place since, in real terms they (parties) are an expression of the contending ideas for power on how best to organize society. In universities student organizations such as SASCO play a similar role as well, that is how best to organize student life. Therefore, whether under organized structures or individually, human beings live politics daily, just like we live science daily. It is like second nature!
With this context, which recognizes the human and her or his interaction with society; being apolitical would mean (effectively) not to exist or something else which would be impossible to conceive because, as we can see, at no point in life is the human being apolitical. Loosely put, being apolitical implies total absence in consciousness of anything that is political and which subsequently translates into inability to think, speak or act in a social way and eventually, politically. However, it is possible for people including students to be politically apathetic, which simply means, lack of interest in politics, and again here the emphasis must be put that I mean active politics.
I would rather discuss political apathy amongst students of South Africa. I want to argue, our yearning for yester-year methods of mobilizing and organizing students should not blind us and think that nothing is happening in our campuses. I do not know of any dedicated research study that speaks to the trends in campuses in so far as students’ activism in politics is concerned. I will speak from experience and also from a point of privilege of being President of SASCO who visits almost all campuses in the country.
The Macro-Social Trends Report released by government last year tells us that “The percentage of young people (18 – 35 years) who registered for the 2004 elections was 44,5%, which is less than their proportion of the adult population of 56%. It has been argued that the fact that they constituted the highest number of new registrations shows that they do respond when mobilised”. And furthermore contrary to many predictions by the so-called political analysts, the percentage of youth participating general elections shows a stable rate in all the general elections since 1994 and our youth participation rate compares well with other well established democracies in the world. And normally, the tertiary education youth’s age ranges between 18-35.
But political activism cannot be determined in quantitative terms. The general trend is that students are interested in what happens to their lives while on campus. For instance, during our Right to Learn Campaign, which is our campaign dealing with access to education, students come in large numbers to support our activities. Students are also interested in getting quality student services so as to enable them to succeed in their studies. And in between them attending to their studies, they do find time to attend mass meetings called by either SASCO or the SRC. In these meetings students make critical and qualitative inputs which in turn guide the mandate and actions of SASCO and the SRC on a range of issues.
However, even if this is so, the continuing battle of ideas finds expression in our campuses too. There is a wave especially after 1989 (collapse of the Soviet bloc) and if you like after 1994, aimed at depoliticising the minds of young people. You find this wave in the media and other areas of society. In the instance of educational institutions, it is worth recalling the words of one professor who once said to me in 2006: “The struggle is over, we are now engaged in an intellectual revolution, so you must stop politics” and when I analyse the statement itself, there is nothing intellectual and worse revolutionary about the statement. These are the ideas transmitted to our students in class daily. NO it’s a big fallacy and propaganda, the struggle is not over, in fact it has just begun, ours is even more daunting than before because, we face the challenge of constructing a future that we mostly theorise about, our predecessors were faced with an enemy they could easily identify, characterise, and destroy.
My belief is that we need more positive messages about youth and student politics. Messages that will encourage and not discourage students from being active political being and by so doing we will be building a better future for everyone and surely this is in the best interest of all. We need the media as a partner in executing this important task!
David Maimela is the President of SASCO in SA and a postgraduate student at the University of Pretoria.