Students as Agents for Social Change

29 May

The following post is not what I usually write about, it’s an essay that I wrote for a class I recently took. Please consider the context in which it was written – it is mostly a reflection of the topics covered in the class with some personal observations. The opinions, perceptions and perspectives are mine alone. 

I will be writing about the tennis within a day or two, so check back soon! – Schroeds

Students as agents for social change is a widely varied and broad concept to grasp. It is a concept which has changed according to the societal challenges faced by the world at specific points in time. It is a concept that has been present in South-Africa and throughout the rest of the world on several levels of influence.

In South-Africa’s past, students have acted as advocates for social change as a means to address major universally recognized humanitarian problems such as opposing an apartheid government. Students have also bought about social change on much smaller scale.

In the series of sessions about Students as agents for social change in an historic context, we were privileged to hear from several former student activists about their contrasting experiences. The memories of high school learners present during the 1976 Soweto uprisings, Dr. Llewellyn McMaster’s experiences as political activist as student council chairperson at UWC in the 1970’s, Mr Cecyl Esau who similarly served as a member of UWC’s student council during that time period and Prof. Anton van Niekerk, who was a politically conscience student at Stellenbosch University during the same period, while all very different experiences, all contributed to my continually changing perspective of student activism.

The interest of students on the Stellenbosch campus in student affairs and politics in the 1970’s drew fascination, since students today are found to be largely disinterested in politics. Prof. Van Niekerk spoke of well-attended mass meetings about issues of the day and a time in which the Prime Minister and then-chancellor B.J. Vorster would weigh in on decisions made by the SRc. I imagine a great many of us were quite amused by the idea that the current day president would comment on any student activity at a South-African University. While Prof. Van Niekerk told us with some amusement of the men’s residences’ doing patrols outside the women’s res’ at the time to protect them from the danger the “barbarians” or rather black activists represented in Stellenbosch, the students too exchanged amused glances as we had just heard from Mr. Esau, a freedom fighter in his own right, who had certainly faced far more real dangers as a student leader at UWC.

His moving account of about becoming involved in student activism against apartheid while still in high school and how he continued this while at UWC, one of the so-called bush campuses, available to non-white students seeking tertiary education during the apartheid era. As a member of a SRc primarily responsible for anti-apartheid actions, he risked almost certainly being arrested. This then also occurred on several instances and he recounted stories of his detainment at Victor Verster prison and on Robben Island. These imprisonments all occurred as a direct result of his activism as a student. The idea of being arrested for standing up for basic human rights is completely unimaginable to me as a student today and I imagine the other agents find the idea as foreign as I. While I’m sure some of the agents were angered by the trials and tribulations experienced by Mr. Esau, I felt both inspired by the man before us – for obvious reasons – and sad that activism for rights so basic could cost so many, so much.

Dr. Llewellyn McMaster told stories quite similar to Mr. Esau’s. They too elicited sadness and inspired simultaneously. Perhaps the stories told about the Soweto uprisings in June 1976 drew the most emotional response. Seeing young children suffer horrific tragedies as a direct result of them being fearless enough to stand up for what is right and to condemn the discrimination of the apartheid regime shocked me as it seems to do each time I am confronted with it. While another student verbalized her fury towards the perpetrators of the inhumane acts, I found myself to be profoundly and deeply sad for the innocence of which all those children had been robbed, of days playing in parks with no worries and fears whatsoever that they had been denied and the fact that it still took another fourteen years for apartheid to come to an end.

In the present time we have no major cause de célèbre such as apartheid to stand against as students, yet in the Students as agents for social change in the present context the socio-economic circumstances which are most prevalent in South-Africa is one which we can hope to raise awareness of and act as social activists against.

On a class excursion to the areas surrounding Stellenbosch the students participating in the class got firsthand experience of the poverty which many communities in South-Africa face at the present time. Children have very few opportunities to rise above their circumstances. There is a distinct need for youth fortunate enough to study at a tertiary institute to participate in community engagement programs and to raise awareness of the needs of many communities in our country. This could quite possibly be the most important social change our generation of students can hope to influence. Currently at the University of Stellenbosch numerous community outreach projects which aim to uplift the communities immediately surrounding Stellenbosch are in existence. Most students would tell you that these projects are extremely important, yet a great percentage of students are not involved with a project of any kind. While in an ideal world students would participate simply to benefit others, unfortunately the reality is that greater incentive needs to be provided to students to participate in social change via community engagement projects. Whether this is via providing credits in exchange for sanctioned projects or making community involvement a requisite for graduation, or residence allocation, I am in favour of holding more students socially responsible.

Other currently relevant issues include the need for sustainable practices. Campaigns to raise environmental awareness have been in place for several years now, both on our campus and nationally. These campaigns demonstrate the necessity for long term awareness campaigns as the efforts of both students and other organisers are now beginning to bear fruit both on our campus and nationally. Recycling, energy-saving and the production and buying of environmentally friendly products are on the increase. While South-Africa is not as progressed in this regard as needed, we are certainly making significant strides in the right direction with students leading the way. The environmentally friendly manner in which we live on campus can lead to an entire generation adopting these uses in life after graduation. The projects and awareness campaigns currently in place should certainly be built on and continued for the foreseeable future.

Debatably the largest issue requiring the attention and time of students that consider themselves social change agents is the apathy with regards to politics is prevalent among students today. Inspiring more students to take an interest in current affairs, politics and anything outside of the perceived Stellenbosch bubble, seems to be our greatest challenge right now.

While I as a South African student consider apathy, social-economic equality and sustainability to be the major issues of the present time, our international counterparts face their own set of social problems requiring change. In Northern Africa and the Middle East dictatorships and corrupt regimes have been overthrown in the recent past due to the activism of students. In Europe protests against increasing student fees and austerity measures have been witnessed. TIME magazine named The Protester as the Person of the Year in 2011. Social agents have made an impact unlike what has been seen in recent decades. The rise in social activism has been attributed to the rise of social media platforms by many. It has served as a meeting ground for commonly aligned individuals making organization of protests far simpler in addition to raising worldwide awareness of perceived wrongs.

Social activism is once again relevant. Students are the future. Hopefully students at the University of Stellenbosch will embrace the rebirth of social activism and change and rise to the challenge to change the world. One tweet, debate or march at a time.

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2 Responses to “Students as Agents for Social Change”

  1. pinkpolkadotfood May 30, 2012 at 4:35 PM #

    Wow, I am very impressed!

  2. Prishtina Press May 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM #

    thanks for sharing. it’s great

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