South African Students Congress

A response to comrade China Dodovu

By SASCO President Ntuthuko Makhombothi

9 April 2015

“Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfils the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” Winston S. Churchill

Let me join the voices that have welcomed the discussion initiated by comrade China Dodovu. SASCO has taught us to accept every opportunity to engage especially where such engagement is critical and constructive. I do wish to state from the onset that having read comrade Dodovu's article, I'm satisfied that its intentions are to assist the student movement. Even tough at times he inflates phenomenon and arrives at conclusions based on unfounded premises. We don't blame him because of his natural distance from the student movement.

Every organization must preoccupy itself with its renewal and its ability to adapt to changing conditions over time. If it doesn't, it becomes casualty to complacency, decay and ultimately destruction. SASCO with its colossal history is not immune; this must be accepted and understood by both incumbent and former members. Naturally, its former leaders will become nostalgic and incrementally concerned as ‘their' organization undergoes changes, confronts new challenges and opportunities. On the other hand it is also possible that incumbent leaders blind themselves with the belief that the organization will inherently remain relevant and will always overcome challenges, after all it has done so before. This is what comrade Dodovu refers to as ‘basking in past glory.' Could it be true that the organization has reached a point where it has become moribund, meaning it has declined to a point where its death is eminent?

Let me attempt to respond to some of the substantive points being argued by comrade Dodovu, with an aim of answering the important question of what is the state of our student movement.

On the #RhodesMustFall Campaign

As comrade Dodovu points out, the decision by Chumani Maxwele to throw feces on the statue of British colonialist Cecil John Rhodes, elucidates the reality of our untransformed higher education system. It represents a much more significant point, then just an act of irritation with the statue itself and its location. This must be clarified because there are some elements that want to divert this moment to narrowly be about existence, location and removal of statues and other symbols of colonialism and Apartheid. The act was born out of the frustration of students, particularly black students with the slow pace of transformation. Our detractors want us to forget that institutions of higher learning were deliberately used by colonialism and apartheid to cement and support the policy of separate development. This therefore necessitates the very struggle for transformation of higher education and the very existence of the South African Students' Congress.

We must all welcome the broad unity of students from various racial backgrounds united behind the campaign which followed the heroic action of Chumani. It is also true that this campaign has united students even beyond political and ideological lines. SASCO has been amongst the organizations to form part of the broad front of students demanding the removal of the statue of Rhodes at UCT and the transformation of the university as a whole. Of course in the case of UCT, the Student Representative Council leads the campaign, which is not SASCO led (I will get to the topic of SRC elections later), and therefore the perception of an absent SASCO then arises. Of course we expect SASCO to be a leader of students struggles both in form and content. This is a burden SASCO should carry throughout its existence, and it is not unnatural to expect that developments in higher education will be led by SASCO.

The #RhodesMustFall Campaign has expanded beyond UCT and certainly began a conversation across the country on the importance of symbolism and the legacies thereof. I can assure comrade Dodovu and others that SASCO is playing a very critical role in this struggle across the country. And SASCO must play an important role in these struggles because its very existences rest in its ability to advance transformation in higher education and training in particular and society broadly.

I concede that we all would have expected that the banner of SASCO will be beaming high at UCT during these struggles. The question of course being raised by comrade Dodovu is where was SASCO all along before Chumani could bravely pour excrement on Rhodes. SASCO resolved to call for the removal of this statue in its National Congress in 2008 and I'm sure such a decision was echoing similar resolutions of past conferences. So why hasn't SASCO been able to wage campaigns around its agreed positions and resolutions? Has SASCO declined as a campaigning organization? Is this a microcosm of deeper problems as comrade Dodovu suggests or is it an isolated incident?

It is true that SASCO tends to be more stronger or hegemonic in historically black institutions, remaining a leading force in struggles of funding, academic exclusions, NSFAS administration, leading the call for infrastructure development and lecturing capacity in these institutions. But to what extent is SASCO able to raise fundamental issues of transformation that affect students beyond the bread and butter issues. Maybe this is the question we should rather answer. Maybe we need to consider SASCO's role in fighting against institutional and systemic racism that affects black students beyond just class. In fact, if you look at UCT and particularly the students involved in the #RhodesMustFall Campaign, many of them are unaffected by financial exclusion and are not even NSFAS beneficiaries, yet they continue to suffer because they are made to feel that they are not suppose to be in these universities based primarily on their race. Therefore the discussion about the national question within higher education is important.

What is the state of SASCO in historically white universities, particularly the ones that have stalled on transformation and have fewer black working class students? Linked to this question is to answer to the 1991-generation, comrade Dodovu and others on the question of what happened to the dream of a single non-racial student organization. Because, clearly today SASCO looks more like a single race student organization, why is this? What is the state of SASCO in Stellenbosch, Rhodes, UCT and University of Pretoria? I deliberately exclude Wits and University of Free State because in terms of access to black students, these universities have recorded significant results. I am asking these questions to suggest to all of us that the debate requires us to look at all these aspects in order to respond to understand and respond to the present conditions.

Let me also concede that SASCO's hegemony in historically black universities is not uncontested as evidenced in our recent defeat at the Vaal University of Technology (a point I will get to shortly). As a parting point on the #RhodesMustFall Campaign I wish to assure comrade Dodovu that we share his concern and desire that it should have been SASCO that initiated and led that struggle. But we find comfort that as the campaign expanded across the country in Rhodes, UKZN, University of Free State and soon other institutions, SASCO has been at the leadership of this campaign. We also find comfort that even at UCT it was SASCO activists who were able to save this campaign from merely being about a statue, but to elevate the discussion to what it should be, about the destruction of colonial and apartheid relations in higher education.

On VUT & SRC Elections

SASCO suffered a distressing defeat against the Economic Freedom Fighters at the Vaal University of Technology. At face value the defeat look worse than what it really is, at least in regards to the results. In as much as the defeat is embarrassing, I wish to put context by informing comrade Dodovu and others, that the electoral system used by VUT is a first-Past-the-Post approach and not proportional representation. I'm making this point not as an excuse but to contextualize the defeat and repaint the bloated picture created by the media and other social media commentators. The real numbers is that for our presidential candidates, EFF received just over 2300 votes and SASCO on the other hand received just fewer than 2000 votes. This picture is concerning nonetheless, and we have accepted responsibility for the defeat and are looking forward to reclaiming our ground in this institution.

There are many reasons that can be advanced about the reason for this defeat. They include organizational weaknesses, poor election strategy and under resourcing, the ills of incumbency, and certainly the strength of the campaign of our opponents, to mention a few. It was the highest voter turn up in VUT in recent times and even though our activists put up a good fight on the days towards elections, it was not to be. Elections are won throughout a term of office and not simple during an election week. For SASCO to win elections it must work for and with the students, it must be able to communicate and take mandate from its constituency. Of late our SRC's across the country no longer call regular mass meetings to engage with students, or even find innovative platforms of communication through the effective use of social media to propagate the views of SASCO. In some cases, SRC members are drowned into the incentives that come with begin in office and forget the principle task of representing and leading students. For instance, without blaming him for our loss, but the VUT former SRC President (SASCO), did not do justice to our course when he left for the USA during the critical registration period, when students needed us the most, in favour of the Obama leadership program for African youth.

Naturally comrades like China Dodovu and many others, who expressed their shock and disappointment at the VUT loss, expect SASCO to win especially in historically black campuses such as VUT where we have been always enjoyed hegemony. But is not true as comrade Dodovu seems to suggest that VUT is a culmination of an ‘emerging trend' that began with the arrival of EFF on campus in 2013. In as much as we must remain vigilant and concerned about SASCO's loss of power we must not be alarmist and act out of inflated imaginations. Over time, SASCO has been losing elections in various campuses, some may even argue that some losses were even more significant than others. And this is due to the weaknesses of the organization at a given time and at a given place. But should we just sit back and accept defeat as a natural process in politics and therefore continue as if nothing has happened? I don't think so. We must ask ourselves what has happened and answer honestly and move forward with renewed effort and conviction.

When I read comrade Dodovu's intervention I felt like he was talking about another organization, more especially when he concludes that SASCO is in tatters and in oblivion. But I also remembered that over time I have heard similar concerns being raised by former leaders and leaders of the movement over time. I remembered a section of comrade Zwelinzi Vavi's secretariat report to the COSATU National Congress in 2012, where he also generalized on a decline of SASCO, based on our well reported defeat the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University during that year. He also went on to claim that COSAS is effectively non-existent. We had to clarify comrade Vavi and the congress that this picture was bloated and based on uninformed premises. In fact during that year we were in control of all almost all institutions with the exception of NNMU and a few others. Later we would be grateful about the exaggeration of comrade Vavi and other leaders like the SG of the ANC because we put all efforts to win back NMMU, University of Free State and UCT back from the DA Student Organization (DASO) and Mangosuthu University of Technology from IFP aligned SADESMO the next year.

But I have learnt a few things about the criticism we receive from election defeats, particularly from leaders of the movement. To most of them it is not a concern about the strength of SASCO and its ability to lead student struggles. To them it is about what these developments mean for the future electoral prospects of the African National Congress. Of course this is not an inherently bad thing, if it's a genuine concern about the strength of the movement and its hegemony in key sites of struggle in order for it to be able to advance the National Democratic Revolution. But if its divorced from the genuine concern of the state of progressive formations within the movement, their ability to champion transformation at their sites of struggle, it risks viewing these organizations narrowly as voting fodder and conveyor belts of the ANC.

I make this point because in South Africa and elsewhere in the continent political parties view the higher education political landscape merely important if it will result in narrow political derivatives for them. That is why in our country you have the likes of DASO, SADEMSO, PASMA, UDESMO, NASMO and EFFSC, who are directly affiliated to political parties. The movement has always maintained a position that independent formations such as SASCO are important in strategic sites of struggle like higher education and training. Some in the movement believe that SASCO is, or should narrowly be a student formation of the ANC. Others out of irritation of SASCO's independence and some out of opportunism, believe the ANCYL is best place to ‘defend the ANC' on campus. I will deal with this point later when I talk about the PYA and SASCO's relationship with the ANC. Suffice to say, when SASCO loses to SADESMO to them its not significant because the IFP is no longer a real threat to the ANC. But when it loses to DASO, like in NMMU or EFFSC in VUT, they become more concerned about the longevity of their occupation of state power and access to the loot, because the DA and EFF are seen as real threats.

I must however restate that I find comrade Dodovu's approach much different and genuine, because it concerns itself about a healthy SASCO for its self and its own survival and relevance in the transformation discourse in higher education. Many others unfortunately are locked in the crude logic that progressive social movements like SASCO and COSATU should exist narrowly for the ANC. They have not learnt lessons from our neighbors in Zimbabwe in the case of both trade union and student movements.

Let me assure everyone that SASCO continues to control the overwhelming majority of institutions of higher learning in South Africa and controls the majority of Technical Vocational Education and Training Colleges. We are confident that we will maintain our hegemony and that this will happen through struggle and hard work. This doesn't mean we should sit on our hands and not worry about losses like the one we suffered in VUT.

SASCO remains a vanguard of students

Comrade Dodovu makes a bold statement that ‘SASCO has departed from its core objectives of being a student vanguard.' I do not think he has really tested this assertion against objective reality in higher education and training today. This is of course the tragedy of his intervention as a whole and it is excused because we can't expect him to have an in detail understanding of SASCO today. However we would expect him to look closer as he has initiated a debate as boldly as he has.

I can boldly claim, with the limits of incumbency, that SASCO remains the champion of non-racialism on our campuses. I can mention numerous occasions during the past year where we have led the campaign again racism in our institutions. No other organization, including the EFFSC can claim to have been in the forefront of the destruction of racism in our institutions. Just this year at the University of Pretoria we occupied administration building decrying the racist exclusionary policies including the residence allocation policy, which still favours white students.

The fact that SASCO is able to year on year successfully drive an impactful Right To Learn Campaign to unlock the doors of learning for working class and poor students is true testament that the organization is not dead, and certainly has not abandoned its objectives to champion access, success and redress in higher education. Our convocants can bear witness to this fact. Every year, including this one, our activists return to campus on the first week of January, leaving the comforts of their homes to go and prepare for both prospective and returning students. This they do without incentive, and against great resistance of managers of our higher education institutions and colleges.

It was through this Right To learn Campaign that in 2014 we were able to force government to make a further allocation of a billion Rands to the NSFAS budget to unlock students with historic debt and expand funds for first entrants. This was a significant achievement led by the SASCO within a period of a week, and of course this is not enough. This year it was through SASCO that additional 2500 or so students were unlocked and allowed to register at the Tshwane University of Technology, after a relentless mass protest campaign. Was it not SASCO that ensured that NSFAS and Wits University settle the R30 million shortfall for over allocation of NSFAS? Was it not a SASCO led SRC at Wits that was able to fundraise additional funds for students to register and study. I can go on to register a number of achievements across the country that we have made through the Right To Learn Campaign, whilst we continue to demand Free Quality Education.

Is it not SASCO, which represents students in financial and academic exclusion committees across our institutions, ensuring that we fight to save young people from being condemned to poverty and joblessness? This no sign of a dead organization. Is it not SASCO that got rid of Fedics caterers at VUT when they failed to provide satisfactory services at student friendly prices?

SASCO has maintained its place as a critical contributor and leader in the transformation discourse in higher education, including at a policy level. The NSFAS Review Report in fact reflected the submission made by SASCO. Of course most of its recommendations have been gathering dust in the office of Minister Nzimande. SASCO has participated in the debates about the funding formula for public higher education and training. SASCO lead the debate on the abuse of institutional autonomy by universities, which led to the passing of the Higher Education Amendment Laws. Where were these other “emerging voice” and where are they as we are engaged in the dialogue about the new Post School Education and Training Act.

SASCO has expanded its presence in colleges across the country, in the last few years. This sector was largely neglected in the past, yet today in every college you find at least one branch of SASCO. Today SASCO is a leading voice for transformation of TVET colleges. SASCO has not only been a lonely voice in the discourse about the transformation of the curriculum of TVET colleges, which currently mirrors that of universities albeit with very poor quality.

SASCO continues to participate in the discourse of transformation broadly in South African society. We were amongst the first organizations to reject the macroeconomic fundamentals underpinning the National Development Plan. In fact the Diagnostic document released by the National Planning Commission failed to identify the neoliberal macroeconomic assumptions of GEAR as the basis for the current crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality. It was SASCO that rejected the NDP's deliberate attempt to protect exiting power relations in our country, particularly the patterns of ownership and control of the economy. It is SASCO that called for an egalitarian developmental trajectory. What should be said or emphasized is for SASCO to use its capacity to create programs around these societal issues, in order to mobilize students, the youth and society generally.

It is SASCO that has continued to struggle for the destruction of patriarchal power relations in our country. Today SASCO remains a leading producer of progressive gender activists across the gender divide. SASCO itself as an organization has through its own renewal program, adopted a 50% gender quota as an attempt to mitigate the prevailing power relations that ensure that women do not access positions of power and influence. This does not suggest that patriarchal relations have been eradicated in the organization. But there exist a deliberate program, though uneven, to ensure that we raise the consciousness of our members about gender inequality.

I must concede we have declined significantly at the level of international solidarity and cooperation. SASCO used to be an active participant in regional bodies such as the Southern African Student's Union (SASU), continental body the All African Students' Union (AASU) and the world structure the International Students' Union (ISU). These structures themselves have literally collapsed, but it is incumbent upon SASCO to actively participate and lead their rebuilding and reconstruction. Many other progressive international programs such as exchanges of students through SASCO, have been abandoned over the years. Our main solidarity work, it through the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS), is with the people of Palestine. SASCO must live true to its character as an internationalist organization.

On SASCO, the ANCYL and the broader movement

On the matter of the relations of SASCO and the ANCYL, I we raised this matter again with the ANCYL at its National Consultative Conference. Really, I think the question of existence of the ANCYL on campuses is a matter the ANCYL must honestly decide on, for some time we have engaged the ANCYL on this question. However, SASCO will not be constrained by the so called “PYA narrative” which aims to conceal the existence of SASCO and its independent identity. SASCO should and will continue to be in alliance with the ANCYL, YCLSA and COSAS. We believe that the PYA is an important vehicle to lead youth in our country and champion youth development. However, SASCO is an independent organization that contests for hegemony in the higher education and training site of struggle. This includes contesting SRC election. The “PYA narrative” suggests that SASCO must continue to subject itself to the abuse of the ANCYL and in some instances the ANCYL, who want power sharing or else they contest SASCO. This approach leads to some institutions such as Wits for instance, where during SRC elections, students are told to vote “PYA” instead of SASCO. This approach has resulted in relative peace, where in the said institution, the ANCYL does not contest SASCO. However it diminishes SASCO independent identity and its right to contest elections as a student organization in its own right.

Members of the ANCYL must be members of SASCO and contest elections on campus as members of SASCO. And also members of SASCO should become members of the ANCYL in their communities. SASCO should be allowed to lead student's struggles and champion the objectives of the National Democratic Revolution on campus. But so long as the Youth League is active on campus, SASCO will work with those structures, where they contest SASCO, we promise them ‘resounding trouncing.' There are many instances where the Youth League has members but the contest as members of SASCO and very healthy relations exist. This must be welcomed. The united of the PYA is sacrosanct albeit not at the expense of SASCO or any of the allied organizations.

SASCO as long as I have known it has always denounced entrysm and practices that seek to involve it in the internal matters of other organizations. SASCO has never pronounced itself on the leadership contestations in the ANC, ANCYL or any other organization for that matter. We have always warned against this practice and encouraged members to participate in the ANCYL and ANC as bona fide members of these organizations.

So the statement by comrade Dodovu that the ‘only time you see SASCO's presence is when it makes pronouncements about ANC leadership preferences at National, Provincial and Regional level' is unfounded. Of course within the movement we have seen COSATU, SACP and COSAS pronounce their leadership preferences in the ANC and ANCYL in the case of COSAS. We regretfully disagree with the position taken by these formations of the broader movement.

From time to time we have seen opportunistic leaders of the movement seeking to rent space in SASCO platforms for their narrow political ends, this has always been condemned and happens in very rare instances. SASCO platforms are not for sale. The other reason is that generally there is minimal political ground to gain from opportunists in SASCO platforms, because we have a tradition of open engagement with all our guests. This leads others to run very far away from SASCO platforms.

Again, comrade China Dodovu makes a very pointed accusation when he says ‘Current and previous SASCO leaders of lined themselves for nominations like predators at the smell of blood. Leading to the collapse of the ANCYL National Conference.' This statement comes short at accusing SASCO and or its leadership of collapsing the ANCYL conference.

Let me restate that at no point did SASCO leadership pronounce any preferences for the ANCYL conference and we will not do so in the upcoming conference. We allow the ANCYL as an organization independent of SASCO to handle its internal affairs without undue influence by SASCO. We expect the same from other organizations and individuals, when it comes to SASCO. It is natural that members of SASCO, who in majority are members of the ANCYL, will have an interest on the ANCYL as their own organization. It is natural that in an ANCYL conference you will find former members and leaders of SASCO present and contesting for election. This phenomenon is evidence to the organic relationship SASCO enjoys with the ANCYL. This has been happening throughout the life of the ANCYL since its unbanning and re-launch. We can mention the contestation between comrade David Makhura and Malusi Gigaba and many other cases. If in fact you look at the previous NEC's of the ANCYL you will find former SASCO members and leader all the time. They don't go there as SASCO members, they emerge from their own ANCYL structures.

Of course their SASCO credential play a role in them being accepted and supported by members of the ANCYL, some who were even led by them during their SASCO years. The same applies to COSAS, and this should not be condemned so long as it happens organically. In fact most of the candidates who were being discussed and canvassed towards the abandoned ANCYL conference were former SASCO and COSAS members. Who should lead the ANCYL, if not progressive youth coming from progressive student formations and community structures? The manner in which comrade Dodovu demonizes this phenomenon is as if he views the emergence of SASCO members and former members in the ANCYL as inherently in bad taste. What we must watch carefully against is entrysm, but we will continue to encourage our members to join and actively participate in their own right in the ANCYL.

As for our relationship with the ANC and the bourgeois democratic state, it was the generation of 1991 that answered this question for us. It was this generation that said we should apply a Complementary and Contradictory Approach. This is the guiding principle of our relationship with the ANC led government. It is this approach that informs our interactions with the current Department of Higher Education.

Sadly, comrade China chose to accept a baseless story by a Mail and Guardian journalist accusing SASCO leaders to be in the pockets of government. If he took time read the response we gave to these malicious statements, he would not have written in some instances with great irritation about the leadership and therefore arriving at wrong conclusions about SASCO. I refer comrades to our response on this matter, suffice to say, that deployments of SASCO cadres to NSFAS board or Council of Higher Education has been a practice over years and if you read the law, you will see that we are invited to nominate. All deployments are done through the National Political Deployment Committee of SASCO; they are not cherry picked by comrade Blade Nzimande. In our statement we give examples of previous deployments where the then incumbent leaders were deployed and served in these structures. I would if I had time, mention the qualitative interventions and gains recorded through this in favour of students.

We are not in the pockets of the Department of Higher Education and Training and we will not go to pains to prove this by throwing insults at individuals in order to sound revolutionary and militant. SASCO remains the only organization in the whole higher education landscape that challenges the department without fear or favour and consistently. We shall continue to do this and history shall judge us.

The state of the organisation

As my final bite in this important discussion, I wish to deal with the state of the organization. SASCO's organizational challenges should not be viewed outside if the organizational decay evident in the broader democratic movement. The organic relationship between the structures of the movement has made it easier for trends and tendencies to be inherited from one organization to another.

SASCO has become a victim to institutionalized factionalism, abuse of organizational machinery and politics of the palace. This is as a result of its inability to deal with emerging trends for a sustained period of time. Today the manifestation of these trends is more overt than in the past, but it certainly not a dramatic and sudden development. There are many parallels that can be drawn between the emergence of certain degenerate trends in the movement broadly and SASCO. Of course having said this, it is no excuse to the inability of SASCO to reverse and isolate these tendencies and renew itself.

Of course in the case of SASCO the internal power struggles are about the control of organizational machinery in order to determine deployment into SRC's. Today's SRC have access to vehicles, money and other incentives. The current set up creates an elite within the student populace, which enjoys social power and control on campus. Higher structures in SASCO in Provinces and nationally leverage their authority to gain favour and access to the resources held by these SRC's. With massive privatization of ‘non core services' in our institutions and the participation of SRC's in adjudication committees, tenderprenuers have compromised many SASCO leaders and deployees. Instead of waging struggles against the privatization of services, some amongst us are more concerned about when the next contract for services will be released. This is amongst the many contributors to the decay we see in the student movement today.

It is also true that political education has become a casualty of the emergence of subcultures that are degenerate within SASCO. Without political education the organization cannot reproduce its cadreship, and the result is the reproduction of dominant factions and quality compromised. If left unattended these subcultures will become institutionalized and soon we will see closer similarities between SASCO and other formations within the mass movement who have become battlefields for factional groupings scrambling for control at the expense of the revolutionary program of transformation.

These developments did not just suddenly befall on the student movement; they have been emerging for some time. SASCO needs to purge itself through a program of renewal and unity behind its program for the transformation of higher education and society in general.

Even as it struggles, like any other organization, with its own renewal and as it reimagines itself, SASCO remains the voice of South African students. It must not down play its challenges in as much as it must not despair in gloom and hopelessness. SASCO still has sufficient organizational capital to save itself from those who seek to abuse it for their own myopic interests. The necessary political will and courage is required from its leadership and membership.

So yes, comrade Dodovu, we will not bury our heads on the sand, we make this commitment as leaders and as members of this giant student movement. We will not fail previous generations and more importantly we cannot fail the future of South African students.We are guided by the understanding that SASCO belongs to the future generations, therefore we must preserve it and protect it against encroaching negative subcultures. We also declare that SASCO must never become the shadow of its former self.