The past few months of 2020 have witnessed a flurry of opinion pieces written about this pandemic milieu in which we find ourselves as a global society. These articles cover the spectrum of topics, yet one thing is discernible in each: what we are experiencing is a revolutionary moment, one that brings risks and opportunities, known and unknown.
An opportunity that we have as a Stellenbosch University community is to use this moment to take a hard look at our student leadership structures and to ask whether in the face of great social upheaval our existing structures still serve their purpose in our “new reality”, or whether a shake-up is necessary to realign them with our values. I would argue that such a moment does not come by very often, the last one being at democratisation in the 1990s. As the youth of a young democracy, we have to use this moment to build on the foundation laid down by our predecessors.
Before even diving into what student leadership might look like, it is important to consider how we elect our student leaders in the first instance. Experience has shown that the strength and effectiveness of election processes determine the types of leaders that are elected. Testament to this are the various manifestations of toxic masculinity, drinking culture, etc. at men’s residences such as Huis Visser, where their house committee (HC) elections have been mired in controversy for the past few years. Our recent experiences with SRC elections also provide an example of inefficient processes: allegations of sexual misconduct caused a delay in choosing a chairperson, which, while understandable and warranted, could have been avoided by speedier action and protocols.
The current campus-wide systems are disparate, out-dated in some instances, and are not standardised across communities and leadership bodies. By way of example, with house committee elections, some communities have applications only for HC candidates, other communities have applications and a caucus process, some others might have applications only for certain HC positions and caucuses for prims and vice-prims, whereas another community might have the aforementioned together with other requirements such as additional tasks that have to be completed or criteria that candidates need to meet before even applying for HC. We see the effects of this seemingly haphazard approach in the quality of the leaders in which they result. We need an election process that produces better leaders by being thorough and rigorous. An effective election process would ensure that we elect leaders who are conscientious, dynamic, and responsive to the needs of their communities.
Jedi Master Yoda, speaking about clarity of vision, tells us that “difficult to see, always in motion is the future.” We know this fluidity of the future to be true with the way the virus has developed since it first broke out in our country in early March.
Together with our election processes, our leadership training needs reform, and desperately so. After any student leadership training session, one will without fail hear one of the following comments being made: “it was such a waste of time”, “the facilitator was just reading off the slides” or “we could have finished that in half the time with a better facilitator”. Furthermore, in my opinion, there are too many training sessions (SU Leads, Newly Elected Leaders conference, POPS camp, as well as portfolio specific training). Perhaps this can be streamlined or compacted in some way to cut out what is superfluous. And to prevent leaders from experiencing mental fatigue from all these conversations and training sessions.
Having considered election processes and training, the next important question to ask is how to decide what to hold on to and what to let go of.
How a new student leadership structure would look is a “known unknown”: we know that we do not know how it will look. What we do know, however, is that being an effective student leader in our “new reality” will be about more than just planning a great Welcoming Program, House Dance or Critical Engagement: it is going to be about meeting students where they are when they come back to campus, whenever that might be. Students coming back will have different needs, depending on their respective experiences of the pandemic and lockdown.
The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the US against police brutality and anti-black racism together with the consequences of the lockdown back home in SA have brought into the spotlight issues around culture, access, as well as transformation. These issues have moved from the periphery and are now firmly on our agenda as a society and require for us (and our leaders) to deal decisively with these challenges through interventions we can and should make now. As the youth and leaders of tomorrow, the future is ours for the taking, but we must be daring enough to claim it for ourselves because no one else will.
In thinking about how student leadership structures should change, we can take comfort in Yoda’s words that “[we] must unlearn what [we] have learned.” Such an approach allows us to confidently question what we know to be true and to have worked in the past.
Going forward, collaboration between leaders should be improved. Due to reluctance and fear over having big gatherings as we ease our way into the new reality, many collaborative efforts and events such as panel discussions and imbizos will happen virtually for the foreseeable future. This will be aided by the fact that online work lends itself quite wonderfully to collaboration (whether through Google Docs, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc.).
Access to leaders should also be improved going forward. One should not have to jump through numerous hoops to speak to a HC member, primarius/primaria or Cluster Convenor — There is no excuse for any leader to not make themselves available for engagement with their community. An online imbizo, for example, is in fact a lot easier to organise than a physical gathering. Engagement and accessibility are important qualities in a leader who is responsive and attuned to the needs of their community.
It is important that our thinking about the future is guided by our university values of “ECARE”: excellence, compassion, equity, respect and accountability. These values, together with a commitment to be agile, dynamic as well as responsive to the needs of students, should be at the heart of any new leadership structure. Such an exercise requires us to be bold and daring.
It is difficult to say what exactly a new and reimagined student leadership structure will or should look like due to the different nuances that current leaders and students will inevitably bring up in conversations around this topic. And those are the conversations this article hopes to evoke by asking questions and pondering solutions. We have a moment of revolution on our hands and it would be imprudent of us as the SU student community to waste it by not challenging the status quo. It is a moment to have a meaningful conversation, geared towards taking action, around the raison d’être of much of what we do in our communities and whether our current student leadership structures are indeed “fit for purpose”.