By Alex de Comarmond
Much has been written about the heyday of anti-apartheid struggles at South African Universities. But what can be made of campus culture today? Have the famous UCT sit-ins been replaced by corporate sit-ins, where hundreds of students gather on the steps each Thursday in hope of a ‘freebee’? It is difficult to neatly characterise student politics and activism on campus. There is a general absence of sustained campaigning, and student groups often pick up with energy one year, and fade away the next.
One of the most important student movements at UCT currently is the UCT Student Worker Alliance (UCTSWA). Formed in 2008, this group fights in support of workers to improve the working conditions of more than 1 000 outsourced workers on campus. We were shocked to discover, through interviews with workers, how deplorable their working conditions are. Some workers earn barely enough to feed their families, and many are routinely threatened and ‘moved elsewhere’ for speaking out against poor working conditions.
UCTSWA began the year with an information campaign to raise awareness among students of the dark underbelly of UCT. We then launched a mass petition supporting the demands of workers. The petition drew over 3 500 student signatures, and was handed over to UCT management the day before Workers Day in a successful student–worker march. The petition demands were treated with unease in some quarters. Various student groups, including the DASO-dominated SRC, failed to endorse the petition. The demands called for substantial changes in UCT policy, the most important being a call for the end of outsourcing, which is seen as the main obstruction to achieving decent working conditions. Here workers are trapped between various private companies and UCT management, undermining their power to organise collectively.
Last year, workers presented a letter expressing grievances to management, along with UCTSWA who offered a supporting student letter. Both were met with prompt responses and meetings, which in turn lead to further promises and deference to hierarchy. This resulted in what seemed like deliberate stonewalling. Fearing co-option and bureaucratisation, UCTSWA decided not to become an official society at UCT and to rather build an independent space to challenge injustice.
UCT’s liberal tradition
Earlier in the year, the student-run, fund-raising magazine Sax Appeal, raised national attention with a controversial satire of Christians. The vice chancellor, Dr Max Price, issued an apology, but also an impassioned defence of free speech. Later the Dalai Lama saga created a stir amongst students. This shows something of the remnants of liberal tradition of UCT, but it also demonstrates a liberal ideology out of touch with the realities of South Africa. UCT is infamous for its slow pace of transformation; with, among other things, the high rates of black students struggling to finish their degrees due to expensive fees and inadequate bridging courses. UCT Council has recently launched a task team to review admissions policy from 2011, and the university is currently engaged in a series of debates and consultations to gage opinion. Central here is whether or not race should be used as a proxy for disadvantage. It is perhaps understandable that SASCO treated the move with deep suspicions: UCT is still predominantly a privileged university of the middle-class and rich where working class students are often alienated. This has also had the affect of limiting the growth of UCTSWA, as the majority of students are unfamiliar with (and thus distance themselves) from working class struggles. In this context we have also confronted the effects of demobilisation in our liberal democracy. The injustices workers face is seen as a problem in a code rather than reflective of a structure that is inherently exploitative.
The majority of UCT students attend university solely for job prospects and the bit of fun that comes along with being a student. The result is widespread apathy and thinking often out of touch with the difficult realities facing many South Africans. There is, however, a dedicated core of students committed to social action and justice, often ardently busy with several groups and societies. There has been an addition of Social Justice Coalition and Palestine Solidarity Group branches this year on campus and STAND UP have been raising student awareness around social issues for some time now.
UCTSWA opens a space for a renewed progressive activism at UCT. It is a concrete local struggle not compromised, as with SASCO and ANCYL, over national objectives.
It also challenges the more negative developments at Universities today: the diminished rights of workers, the privatisation of education and the bureaucratisation of student politics.
Read more articles from Issue #8, June/July 2009