2015/16 were the years when leadership on campus was challenged, defined, redefined and when leadership was real. Campus issues became real not because campus suddenly opened it’s ears and understood. Rather, issues became real because they had a face. Issues had a voice – one that refused to be contained.
Leaders, regardless of what side of the issue they were on, were active. Students didn’t just list issues, they debated, researched, investigated and consulted. There was excitement, motivation and fear in the air. With every conversation came an addition of complexity; with every meeting came a sense of clarity or frustration. Nonetheless, students were eager to take ownership and act. It wasn’t all roses and butterflies, however. Being a student leader during that time was painful – exhausting, lonely and damaging. Leaders who were seen as defiant or unsympathetic were punished or removed.
Today, there is an inexplicable feeling in the air that leaders are either avoiding or not acknowledging at all. It seems leaders are being suffocated by the environment, the culture, the people, the institution. Younger leaders are reluctant to take charge. Student parliament, SRc, societies, PSOs and residences struggled to get leaders to apply and many candidates who do apply are disqualified because of HEMIS.
Who has changed?
It not the leaders who are the problem. It’s the institution and the culture that it fosters. As seen in 2015/16, leaders who question, challenge and create efficient and direct channels of communication with staff are silenced. Simultaneously, the institution has made it difficult for leaders to access key information and staff members. Various student leader offices have become more bureaucratic and representative of the institution, not students. Key offices such as the SRc, Prim Committee, ABR, Student Parliament, house committees, Student Affairs and the Transformation Office are being forced to operate in extremely restrictive spaces with very little power and hardly any support.
Why the change?
For almost 100 years, SU functioned on a basis of muscle memory and a tried and tested formula. The same kind of leaders entered the leadership space and performed the same types of duties. The same issues were raised, and students were satisfied with the same responses. Every now and then, the formula would be challenged, but it always held. Today, that formula is useless. A variety of leaders with different ambitions and different voices are living in the leadership space. And they are unpredictable. At any moment, the unlikeliest of partnerships have the potential to be created and alter the very DNA of Stellenbosch university. Further, SU has not quite “recovered” from 2015/16 and the institution is in a very vulnerable position where the next encounter with change could be a fatal one – hence the tension in the air. To buy time, the institution has made it difficult for leaders who are desperately seeking authentic and long lasting change to survive in leadership spaces. Support spaces for leaders are becoming fewer and most influential leaders are refusing to enter leadership spaces because they don’t want to suffer and ultimately die at the hands of the institution.
Is the cost of being a thought leader with the price of a vague commitment that won’t materialise? Is it worth having 6hr meetings knowing that tomorrow will be the same as yesterday as last week as last year? Is it worth being a leader at Stellenbosch university? The answer to this depends on the strength of a 18+ year old leader when going up against a 100 year old institution.
Being a leader is not always about the impact you have on your community. Being a leader is about knowing how much of yourself you’re willing to sacrifice for the unknown. May your journey be filled with support and growth, for I know you’ll need it.