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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.

The Royal Fairy Tale

18 May

This picture is the reason why nine out of ten women watched the royal wedding AND loved it. The happily ever after fairy tale it supposedly it resembles, is after all the same one we’ve been told at bedtime for as long as anyone can remember. (I was part of the 90% that watched…)

For interests sake, the hat worn by Beatrice is on sale on eBay, with the funds raised going towards charity. At the time at which this blog post was published, the bidding had already reached £18,200.00. Not bad for a hat that resembles both a pretzel and a toilet seat!

My 20-Something Opinion On The Municipal Elections

17 May

It’s the day before municipal elections in South Africa, and as always, race seems to be polarizing factor. With the population being more than 75% black, this means the ANC will win in most areas. The Western Cape however, is not most areas.

In Cape Town, there are far fewer black people and a far greater number of coloured voters, alongside the fairly consistent percentage of white people. By virtue of continuous bad service delivery, corruption and the general hijinks of an ANC government, the DA managed to obtain a majority in the city via a multiparty coalition in the previous municipal elections. Since then, much progress has been made in locally provided public services, and the DA look to stand at least a chance of attaining the bulk of the vote without need for a coalition.

In my opinion the improvements observed under DA leadership is a valid reason to vote DA. Augmenting the decision to vote for the DA is the fact that all healthy democracies have a strong opposition party. The DA is the only South-African party that comes even close to qualifying as a “strong opposition party”. I take far greater issue with individuals – particularly the young ones – who choose to vote for fringe parties, such as the FF+ and ACDP, than those who vote for the ANC. Sure, I did just mention that I associate abominable service delivery, corruption and general hijinks with an ANC government, but at least some sense of loyalty can be associated with ANC voters, and while their leaders might be making decision I deem to be bad, at least they hold a position from which to make these bad decisions.

Fringe parties that struggle to gain more than a percentage or two of the vote in effect, hold no power whatsoever. The leaders of these parties do not have the ability to represent their voters optimally, since they don’t count when it’s the big guys in the ring. While I can still agree to disagree with members of older generations of South-Africans who choose to vote FF+, I do so only on the grounds that they grew up with apartheid propaganda, and I can hardly expect them to understand the model of a perfect democracy (See: Various western countries) if they were indoctrinated to think that apartheid was a democracy. (Strange to think they might agree to disagree with me on the basis that I’m the one being indoctrinated…) Younger voters of my generation have no such excuse to vote for a party that does not have the ability to represent their voters. To me it seems that the only effect of voting for fringe parties, is the hacking away of percentage points from the DA. Thereby making South-Africa a weaker democracy.

In Stellenbosch we have even seen the rise of the Studente Stem Party (SSP). It is made up by a group of students aiming to solve issues which the young people living in Stellenbosch face. They hope to solve a few very real concerns by winning a few council seats. Their mission is as follows:

1. To provide students with adequate representation in municipal affairs
2. Om te veg vir n veiliger kampus
3. To ensure that the parking problem on campus is resolved
4. Deel te wees van die proses wat besluit hoe laat kuierplekke in Stellenbosch toe maak
5. Fight against increasing electricity costs for students
6. Beter verhouding te ontwikkel tussen studente en die groter gemeenskap
7. Prevent the creation of accomodation zones where students are not allowed to live in
8. Om samewerking tussen die universiteit en munisipaliteit te bevorder

     (The list if the mission statement of the SSP; from: http://www.facebook.com/#!/StudenteStemParty?sk=info)

While the founding of the SSP is a welcome respite from the general apathy towards politics by SU students, it’s my opinion that this is not the best possible move. While it is true that despite students making up a significant percentage of Stellenbosch’s inhabitants, they are rarely given the time of day by those who govern Stellenbosch; should the SSP garner any votes at all – it will most likely be from a student body that would otherwise have voted DA. Again I can never find any situation which takes votes away from the DA to be a positive one. While I concede that while I’m writing a blog – which few people is likely to read – about the situation in Stellenbosch, the leadership of the SSP is being proactive about solving problems they identify, yet I have to ask the question: Couldn’t more be done by engaging in conversation about these issues with DA council members, as opposed to creating a party that could only be effective if it caused an exodus of votes for the DA?

This blog is based solely on my young and surely flawed thought process and opinion, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Please note that I have no knowledge of conversation or lack thereof between the DA and the SSP.

Please feel free to comment, any criticism or praise would be appreciated.

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