“A little light dispels a lot of darkness” – Schnuer Zalman
It’s no secret that South African campuses have not been great spaces for freedom in the last few years, between all the poo throwing, library burning, boycotting, bureaucratic administration, archaic ideas and economic hardships, it’s no wonder that our universities have the reputation of being “Islands of oppression in a sea of freedom.” For this reason many people despair of campus politics and think it is a lost cause.
I disagree. University politics has already started spilling into the rest of society. As one commentator put it, this means that today, “The whole world is a campus”.
They are a core breeding ground for bad ideas and therefore campuses are the places to nip things in the bud. I am of the opinion that it is not impossible to change situation if everyone who cares plays their part. So if you are keen to drive a pin into the ideological heart of regression then keep reading.
Most of the ideas below are targeted at undergraduates but I have also added sections for older students, lecturers, alumni and other stakeholders in the system. Most of the ideas come from my experience as a student activist that may not be applicable to all situations. It would be interesting to hear other people’s experiences especially if they disagree.
Section A – Start with Yourself, Start where you are
The most important place to start with campus freedom is yourself. So this section is devoted to developing an individual student identity.
1) Break out the Matrics
High is school is over and the first responsibility of a student who wants to promote freedom is that they themselves need to have a free mind. This means not approaching university like an automaton. Deep learning is the order of the day. It is vitally important for students to go to lectures, do readings, do revision, write the essays, sit the exams, and learn how to excel in the academic environment.
But this is just the start of a real educational process. Use free to time explore to new ideas, listen to speakers on campus, talk to people who look and sound different to you, browse the library or old book shops, watch educational topics on YouTube or listen on podcasts. One doesn’t have to agree with everything or anything that is heard. So don’t be afraid or offended just go and explore.
2) Question everyone, especially your Lecturer
Sometimes it is easy to think that lecturers are the final authority on knowledge, they are not and can and should be challenged. Good lectures will allow other points of view and encourage free thinking. In all cases, developing a critical view of what you are learning is crucial. A good way to do this is to identify who the “enemy” is that you are being taught about.
Most lecturers, especially in the social sciences, will have a person or groups of people that are going to be targets of criticism. “Enemies” that I have encountered via lectures in my time include the United Nations, Monsanto, ANC, DA, IFP, Oxfam, IMF, Zionists, Socialists, neo-liberals, COSATU, World Bank, City of Durban, Eskom, DDT, Soviets and the Structuralist school, to name just a few.
Whatever the “enemy” is, it is worth your while to get their perspective. Most of them will have websites, position papers, policy documents and general defenders on the web. You don’t have to do a whole new course, just a few brief inclusions per course should give you an alternative view. Websites like Wikipedia are also good at giving overviews of arguments but make sure that you read the references at the bottom as well.
3) Do some Freedom Traveling
Most people love traveling and it’s a great way to expand your mind. But try not to just go and sit on a beach. Take some time to go see some cultural/historical sites, especially those that have to do with the idea of freedom.
In our current economic climate, travel is definitely a luxury but there are ways around this issue. Universities sometimes have clubs, programs, or sports teams that offer a chance to travel cheaply.
If that doesn’t work there are companies that specialise in student travel experiences. Check them out.
Failing that: the world of technology means finding flights cheaply is easier. Destinations in Africa and Asia are rand friendly. Google is the cheap traveller’s friend.
If you still can’t afford to travel abroad – how about checking out South Africa? Our country has some truly amazing small towns, museums, cultural sites and enclaves in our big cities that can be explored to learn new things about our country. Still don’t have money to travel? Try going to an international film festival at your local art house cinema or even Netflix. They are normally completely free and you get to visit a different country without having to lift a passport.
4) Look After Number One
A freedom agenda not just about what you learn it is also about developing yourself and your character. University is also a stressful place so make sure you take care of yourself. Figure out a nutritious eating regime, get enough sleep, do some exercise, learn some financial literacy and try keep the partying to manageable levels.
It is also worthwhile investing in yourself by reading books that you can use to develop your character. Some are technical books on better writing, speaking, thinking or learning. Others are what author Steven Covey calls “Wisdom Literature”, classic works, religious texts, self-help literature, biographies of great people and business success stories are all useful means for great for self-development.
5) Get a Squad!
Once you start thinking, start engaging. Find other people in your class or your social circle and discuss, argue and get to the fine points. Take it a step further, start a reading group, a dinner club or even just a WhatsApp group to keep the conversation going on a theme of your choice.
Section B – Join the Battle of Ideas
Universities are by nature places of ideas so the best way to make change is to start changing the way people think. Below are some good ways to approach the battle of ideas.
6) Be a Solutionist
15 years ago in-sourcing and free education were things that were spoken about in dank corners during communist talk shops. Today they are a mainstream part of our political discourse. South African higher education is in desperate need of new ideas, policies and approaches.
On the one hand it has a lot of problems. Lack of resources, appalling safety records, attacks on academic freedom and freedom of association, higher student failure and dropout rates and sterile social spaces. On the other hand South African universities urgently need to re-imagine themselves for their current global situation. Taking some time to think through and produce solutions for the short, medium and long term is important to start changing the discussion on our campuses.
7) Grab the Mic
The political discourse on a campus is probably controlled by about a couple 100 people at most depending on the size of the campus. This means whatever you say openly in this environment matters. So make use of the opportunity. The key difficulty is that speaking your mind might attract haters and you might get things wrong. The key thing is not to be afraid. A person who is sincere, polite and honest in their views is likely to be respected even if they are not always popular. The price of fear and false approval is eternal ignorance for you and everyone else.
There are great places where you can “grab the mic” safely, join the campus radio station, write for the student newspaper, join public speaking or debating clubs, the thinking society, philosophy group, model AU or Model UN and of course during your lectures. All of these will give you a voice and other people to help develop it.
8) Like it When You Speak Foreign
International relations discussions are a great way to stimulate debate on campus. By their nature, these sorts of topics tend not to affect actual conditions on campus. This allows students to learn new ideas and concepts without worrying about the consequences. This is one of the reasons that the Israel-Palestine conflict is so big on our campuses. It is one of those issues that leftist-racial nationalists can organise around without having to talk to an actually existing Israeli or a Palestinian.
You should use the opportunity to discuss countries where freedom has been abused such as Venezuela, Congo or Iran. Having these sorts of engagements helps broaden interest in an important allocation of our taxes, new cultures and freedom internationally all at the same time. It’s also a great opportunity to eat food from the country under discussion!
9) Be the Innovation
University is a fantastic place to test out new ideas. The world is awash with new technology that is changing the globe at a rapid rate. Examples include block-chain, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, crowd sourcing and bottom of the pyramid tech.
To take advantage of these technologies campus communities need to work to develop a mind-set focused on innovation and entrepreneurship. Bringing out speakers from start-up business, organising boot camps on topics like coding and finding thought leaders to debate disruption is a good place to start.
10) Don’t be the Smartest Person in the Room
You are not the only person interested in campus freedom. Lots of clever people have put much thinking into this topic. You can check out this website for some excellent writers, it also worth popping over and checking out the website of the Students for Liberty South Africa and Professor Jonathan Jansen. Outside of campus, read up on think tanks such as the South African Institute of Race Relations or the Helen Suzman foundation which often deal with freedom in education.
There are a number of global people and institutions who are also dealing with this issue. Check out Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) as well as Professor Jonathan Haidth and of course not forgetting YouTube celebs Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson.
There might also be on your local campus academics who are interested in these issues. They tend to be located in the hard sciences and the commerce departments but can also be occasionally be found in places like law, social sciences and the humanities. Especially philosophy.
SECTION C – Be an Active Virgin
This section is for all of you who are sick of talking and want to take some action to change things up on your campus.
11) Run for Public Office, even if it is not for SRC
Running for SRC is a pain. It takes lots of time and other resources and is often not successful. If you are not up for that rather try run for one of the more minor but just as important offices on campus. This can include class representative, faculty councils, residence councils, day house councils, post-graduate councils, sports committees, SRC subcommittee or anywhere else that your voice can be heard in the governance of the university.
These positions if occupied by the right people can help act against bad decisions by the SRC and serve the needs of students directly instead of them being used as political placeholders.
12) Run for SRC
Having said all that above: if our campuses are going to be truly free we are going to have to get rid of the racial nationalists (of whichever colour) and/or leftists that are running our SRC’s. In some places DASO and other smaller parties or independent groups have made impressive headway but they can always use extra help.
Remember running for SRC is a serious commitment so think about it carefully before you do. A great place to start understanding the basics is to try being a campaign volunteer. This involves stuff like putting up posters, attending rallies and doing social media marketing. This way you can get the experience and excitement of the campaign and understanding of if you want to run as a candidate proper.
13) Vote Early, Vote Often
I can remember one university SRC election campaign where the margin between the racial leftist incumbents and the non-racial challengers was 100 student votes. This condemned the whole population to another year of looting and incompetence because 0.3% of the population was too lazy to do anything. Don’t let people tell you your vote doesn’t count. In a democratic system this is self-defeating nonsense. At a South African university however, with its tiny pool of voters, its non-sense on stilts. What’s more it’s a dangerous approach.
To start with many SRC’s have access to resources which can and do get abused with the wrong people in office. More importantly SRC’s have access to legitimacy to drive their political messages. On every campus that a racial nationalist or leftist coalition exists it is more likely that instability and campus disruption is on the cards. So if there is opposition, vote for it. When you are done, get your partner to vote for it, then get your friends to vote and when you have done that, get their friends to vote also. This doesn’t just apply to SRC but any of the other university positions where you have the ability to vote.
14) Nobody cares what you know, till they know that you care
Here is a depressing statistic. More than half of all first years fail and drop out of our university system. Bear in mind that these are the kids that actually made it out of the abomination that is our secondary schooling system.
It is THE tragedy affecting our student population. But this is not only about the cost of education. Students fail for all sorts of reasons. They don’t how to study, they don’t know how to write exams, they don’t have decent tutors, they don’t go to lectures, they don’t look after their health, they don’t have food, they don’t have clothes, they don’t have accommodation, they don’t have materials like textbooks.
Some of these problems can be alleviated by good work on the part of the university community. There are many ways to do this and often groups exist on campuses to help out. Consider joining one and being part of the solution. If there are no groups doing good work then start your own one. Check the end of the article for awesome ideas and pro-tips on how you can make a difference.
15) Add a Friend
If you want to change things on campus you will need supporters, people who will help, people who will pitch up and people to listen to your ideas. The best the place to find people are those around you, friends, classmates, roommates and family. Asking for them to do something specific is always a good way to get free supporters.
Once you have exhausted your supply of FFF’s (Friends, Family, Fools) look around and see who else you can talk to. Naturally all campuses are different but below are a list of groups that are generally receptive to working with friendly supporters.
A good place to look is anyone who is kept out of the campus conversation by the racial nationalist/leftists who normally dominate the political discussion. Independent student movements, political opposition parties and liberal student groups are all “natural political predators”, that are normally happy to help.
Also find out if there are organised representative groups of Jewish, foreign national and LGBTIQ students on your campus, all the above mentioned tend to face varying kinds of harassment at our universities and are often keen to talk to friendly allies. This fact generally also goes for any organised cultural/religious groups; examples include Hindus, Greeks, Christians, Chinese or ethnic groups.
Other places to look for support include school councils, residences, business clubs, sports groups, human rights groups and civil action societies. Lastly don’t forget individual students who are interested in changing the status-quo. The guy in your class who does YouTube videos on atheism, the girl in your class who has an interest in anarcho- libertarianism, the Muslim student who is annoyed that the Islamic Students Society has joined up with the local Afro-Socialist League.
Making connections can be tough to do but it is something that can be done if you persevere. Always work with people that you can trust and with people that will support freedom on campus in all its guises and you should be fine.
16) Get MAD (Make a Difference)
The burning of buildings in the last few years has given good old fashioned student activism something of a bad name. Still there is plenty that can be done that you can do to get people involved in solving important issues on campus. A general rule is to do activism that directly and materially affects students of the campus and makes their lives better.
Anything that makes the campus a more free, transparent and accountable place are worth doing. This could be anything from the state of residences, quality of teaching and learning, safety of students, transport solutions, library times, entertainment on campus etc.
There are many student activism tools out there – including surveys, petitions, the media, peaceful protest and marches, colour poster campaigns, letter, email and twitter blasts and student education campaigns which are all remarkably effective, non-coercive and vandalism free tactics for change.
17) Cut through the Mountain
Campus activism is always done better with other people. However, campus bureaucracy and student politics can be simultaneously brutal and slow. It can also stifle almost any initiative in mountains of unnecessary paperwork. My advice, cut through the mountain. Do things that don’t require regulation.
Compose a poem, paint a mural or make a movie. Social media is the greatest microphone in the history of the world. Write a blog, film a vlog, record a podcast, start a twitter storm and share interesting articles on Facebook, even snapchat or Instagram can be used effectively with the right amount of creativity.
18) Have a Bit of Fun
The most important rule of campus activism is the following: Don’t be boring.
Many projects don’t survive because they bore their constituents to death. Always try to have a bit of fun. Organise a slam poetry evening, a movie night, a picnic, a braai. A band and beer sing-a-along. Also try seeing if you can add a fun element to your otherwise serious activities. Hold a debate in the varsity bar, offer prizes, always bring snacks to events, university is too important a business to be taken too seriously.
19) For Faculty
Academics are understandably reluctant to get involved in campus politics. However, where campus freedom is under threat, it is in academics interest to protect it and there is a long history of academic activism on this topic.
The good news is one doesn’t have to sacrifice being an academic to make a difference. The tools of academia are a readily available and effective means of addressing some the most pressing issues concerning academic freedom.
Symposiums, academic articles, public letters, workshops, academic partnerships, hosting of outside speakers and academic research are sorely needed to develop new frameworks around this topic. Academics are also needed in university committees that protect free speech and academic freedom and as mentors and thinkers for students that are involved in activism. Ultimately if academics are not involved then solving the problem of freedom at university becomes vastly more difficult.
20) For Alumni
A mobilised alumnus is the missing puzzle piece in keeping South African campuses free. Unlike our overseas counter parts, South African alumni don’t generally donate money and don’t get involved in university policy. Thus they are also partly responsible for the chaos that we have seen on our campuses in the last few years. There are many things that alumni could do to assist with the current situation. As a start, it is worth getting in touch with your alma mater and getting on the alumni mailing list. Also check to see if there is a committee for alumni relations, alumni association, the convocation or the clubs and societies that you were involved with at university. See where you can help with already existing university programs.
Alumni also need to organise themselves into a group that speaks to supporting academic values at the university. There is a lot they can do including meeting university administrators and writing about issues in the press. It would also be good to get alumni to record some of their strategies and tactics from the days of NUSAS which are still applicable today.
There is also a need for mentorship and resources for students and faculty involved in activism. Here are some ideas that have been floated, an academic defence fund for legal disputes, a bursary program for freedom thinkers, support for liberal student programs, an international scholar exchange program, a seminar series, a chair in freedom studies. There is a lot that alumni can do and they are another crucial part of the puzzle.
21) Pro-tips on Social Action
These are just a few ideas that I have seen work on campuses and other community organisations that have time honoured practices of student support. Just remember to keep it as simple as possible and follow some basic guide lines.
* Make sure that the outcomes of your work serve the whole university community and do not just go to one faction/race/religion/ethnicity/political party/gender. Also make sure that proceeds serve the campus community, not outside causes, however worthy they might be.
* Be very careful with money and resources that are raised and remember to make sure they go where they are supposed to go. The misuse of money is one of the great weak points of student politics. I would even go so far as to suggest that a trusted faculty member acts as a treasurer to oversee spending.
* Be innovative in how you spend the money. Paying fees are always the obvious choice but is also the least systemic option. Remember social action is also an exercise is showing solidarity with a wide range of fellow students. Try invest money in renewable assets that can be used on a cyclical basis. Examples include buying core textbooks that can be lent out and returned, a set of suits that can be lent out for job interviews, blankets and torches that can used during those winter weeks when the residences electricity goes out, loaning out expensive equipment that students need like calculators etc.
* Most important build a database: get the names, email and phone numbers of the people who spend time helping you out. Take the time to put it on an excel spreadsheet and then on a mailing list or bulk SMS system. Send them all a thank you note.
Need some inspiration, there are many ideas that can be implemented effectively and easily with very little resources. Try these:
Free weekly tutoring for younger students with volunteer older ones in the same subject, Collection drive of tinned food for the university food bank, A campaign to get every person on campus to donate R1, the money raised goes to subsided Uber riders to off-campus residences late at night after the buses stop working. An academic YouTube channel where the top tutors in the university tackle the hardest subjects, selling lemonade in summer and soup in winter to raise money to get couches for the residences.
Benji Shulman is a former post-graduate Senate representative at Wits University and a veteran volunteer of half a dozen SRC election campaigns.