2019 has already been a busy and exhausting year, packed with concerning events, decisions and activities that have been taking place on our campus at Stellenbosch University. For many students, living in this small and strange bubble of a town with its multitude of issues that have not yet been solved is a traumatic experience in itself. Whilst it should not just be the responsibility of students to initiate conversations and change, students do have a role to play. Unfortunately, however, it has become clear that thought leadership is lacking, and activism has consequently become stagnant.
The Plight of Leadership and Mental Health
As I have previously mentioned in a piece for HuffPost, mental health has been plaguing our university campuses and spaces, and it has hampered student leadership as a result. There have been a number of cases, this year alone, where students have had to resign for their own mental health. This issue needs to be discussed on two fronts: one being pre-election mental health awareness, and the other being post-election mental health awareness.
Before a student considers availing themselves for a position or is already in the process of campaigning, they should be made aware of the expectations, functions and role of the position that they are applying for. This will grant students the capability to consider their mental state before applying and whether the responsibility of the role is compatible with their mental health. This will enable them to make informed decisions on whether to continue pursuing the position, or to withdraw.
In terms of post-election mental health awareness, it should be noted that student leaders, who are under immense pressure from both their responsibilities and personal issues, have the possibility of encountering new mental health difficulties. This can be acute and more easily resolvable, but unfortunately this can also lead to the development of mental illnesses. Student leaders should be given the support that they need, through services such as the CSCD (“SSVO”) at Stellenbosch University, and proper training (perhaps through mental health workshops) to fulfil their roles and expectations in a healthy manner.
Moreover, there is a concerning trend of students being elected into positions for which they lack the skills and knowledge to fill. This is not only harmful to the individual, but also reduces the effectiveness and functions of the overall leadership body. Whether the student’s intention was good or not, it is a leader’s responsibility to be able to learn and grow in a position while still upholding the functions of that position. Incompetency results in students losing faith in the credibility and efficiency of a group, office or organisation.
Activism, Slacktivism and the Culture of Apathy
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of trying to achieve positive change on campus is trying to convince people to become active citizens and to get involved in fighting issues and providing solutions. True activism at Stellenbosch University has been decreasing since the time of #FeesMustFall, #OpenStellenbosch and #EndRapeCulture, movements which truly united and mobilised students to tackle crucial injustices and issues on our campus.
Instead, we have a select group of students who are constantly engaging, constantly present at socially conscious events, and that group does not seem to change. It is always the same people. While residences and PSOs have been making attempts to engage through portfolios such as “critical engagement,” these attempts have not played a pivotal role in reviving thought leadership on campus, and some have argued that it has created a one-dimensional, political view of ideas, issues and thought on campus. These portfolios also contribute to the institutionalisation of progress, which distracts its focus with corporate requirements and marketing.
There has also been a rise of slacktivism on campus. The notion of slacktivism is the practice of “activism” but only on social media and online platforms. It is perhaps the easiest route to take in the modern world as it requires less energy compared to on-the-ground protest action or discussions. Slacktivism may create a situation whereby the human aspect of people is ignored and it simply becomes an activism based on having the most “clout” or people agreeing with you. It is something that students must take into consideration when handling campus issues.
The greatest challenge for leaders of transformation on campus is the task of dismantling the culture of apathy at Stellenbosch University. This applies to students, staff and the general response to issues. The view of “this doesn’t affect me, not my problem” seems to be ingrained in many students, and it clearly manifests when a major injustice is being raised, and the call to solve it and hold stakeholders accountable takes place. The problem is clearly rooted in the amount of privilege we have on our campus and the idea that Stellenbosch University is “not like other universities” in its nature of protests and activism. This culture of apathy will have to be disrupted in order for activism to be increased, but it will take an enormous amount of effort, as it necessitates the consciousness raising of students that will quite possibly resist any such attempt.
Ideological Clashes and Stagnation
The current state of ideologies, other than apathy, at Stellenbosch University seem to coalesce around two views. The one view finds partial expression in a glossary from the university’s Transformation Office, Siyakhula: Talking Transformation. This document, which consists of a list of words with definitions and links to further reading, seeks to inform students of various terms used in the process of tackling injustices through an equitable, just and socially democratic lens, while also taking into consideration the experiences of marginalised groups on campus. The other opposing (or alternative) view is expressed Dagbreek Men’s Residence’s Inkululeko booklet which provides a Libertarian, “freedom”-focused and individualistic view of transformation on campus. Inkululeko resulted from the direct opposition to the Transformation Office, so while they are not of the same type of document, it seems fair to use them in such a juxtapositioning.
As a result of the two documents a resurgence of debates began, focusing on what the idea of transformation really is and whether the university or Dagbreek had underlying intentions with their documents. A high point for tensions were when outgoing Premier, Helen Zille, who endorsed Inkululeko at its launch, argued that transformation on campuses is being used to promote a “Marxist” and “closed society” agenda. In response, Professors Botha and Slade, of the Stellenbosch University Law Faculty, critiqued both Zille and Inkululeko, stating that the document disregards transformative constitutionalism and the historical, social context of Stellenbosch University.
At the end of 2018, Netwerk24 published an opinion piece by newly elected SRC member, Mariné Bothma, which essentially criticised social movements on campus for perpetuating the idea that marginalised groups are victims and that this view is debilitating for students. In response to this, Paul Joubert, Priyanka Govender and I provided academic sources, information and objective evidence that countered Bothma’s use of Jordan Peterson as a credible, valuable source to disregard marginalised groups’ lived experiences. Following this, both Bothma and now ex-SRC member Tariq Khan published more opinion pieces expounding their ideology.
Since the end of 2018, there has not been enough meaningful, impactful debates regarding ideologies and social injustices. However, there has been a repeated notion on campus that people should “empower themselves” in order to be alleviated. With few resources and a lack of privilege, one would find this view to be ridiculous and insulting to marginalised groups who constantly feel like they are battling a hopeless system with what they do have currently.
It is clear that activism and leadership on campus need to be revived and quickly, before bureaucracy and authority overtake the remaining fires of those who uphold the constitutional culture of justification and transformation. Currently, it seems that the culture of apathy is overtaking campus and inhumane, unjust decisions are taking place without much opposition. Furthermore, mental health awareness and capabilities of student leaders need to be called into question to ensure that student leaders’ well-being is maintained whilst effective, credible leadership structures are being productive too.