Against Representative Democracy in Universities (Anti-SRC Polity)

SRCs are now considered to be statutory structures as provided for in the Higher
Education Act. They offer a variety of services to individual students and different
student groupings. In offering these services SRCs exercise political, economic and
administrative authority in order to manage the activities of student life. The SRC of
each institution also has a political responsibility to represent students in the decision
making bodies of the university such as senate and council.
The most common system used in constituting SRCs is representative democracy,
where students get to vote for their SRC. This is an illusion and only serves as a way
to legitimise the structures through making students think they are represented
sufficiently. This is deception because with this system in place, only a tiny section of
the student population concerns themselves directly with issues affecting their lives as
students. The system of a representative democracy in universities should not only be
rejected for its deceptive nature, its inherent corruptive character should also be
When students vote for a particular representative, they are never in a position to
decide based on full knowledge of all issues involved. In order for students to vote in
a meaningful manner, they need to be fully conscious of the university’s political and
social dynamics and they must have time and facilities to reflect upon and discuss the
implications involved. The reality about SRCs is that they are used by universities to
legitimise decisions taken on behalf of students, in the interest of management and the
Objection of the SRC system in its current nature stems from the fact that not only
does it express a false authority given to students, it also guarantees students
representation in decision making bodies, despite the fact that the university
management is in permanent control. So long as students have to protest for their
issues to be heard, even with the existence of SRCs, then it is clear that they neither
have a platform nor the required authority to make decisions about their lives.
The nature of the SRC in its current form makes it inherently reactionary, it tends to
create careerists from a group of young individuals who think they have power and
place themselves above the society of students. Most SRCs have a distorted
understanding of issues affecting students due to seeing things different to those on
the bottom. The common act of backsliding from issues affecting students is not due
to treachery, participation in council makes representatives see the world through the
lens of management.
Democratically elected SRCs always find themselves between two irreconcilable
worlds, the students’ world and the management’s world. This corrupts the
representatives as they are frequently quick to forget principle and student issues and
fall for comfort and benefits. Most universities apply the strategy of feeding student
representatives and controlling them. This is the same strategy that is used even to this
day by imperialists following the liberation of most African countries.
It is common for student movements to contest SRC elections and deploy SRC
representatives based on result. While this may be carried out in an organisationally fair manner, divisions tend to emerge, that often lead to battles to capture and retain
control of student movements. This can be seen in most universities, where members
of the South African Students Congress (SASCO) are in constant bitter conflicts for
control over branches. SASCO presents a clear example of how student movements
and representative councils can be stolen from the students whose interests they are
supposed to serve.
Being a member of the student representative council has proven to have the ability to
transform honest, hard-working, intelligent and well-meaning activists who get to be
elected based on respect and admiration. Once in position of leadership, elected
individuals tend to imagine themselves to be indispensable, the former activist
becomes removed from everyday problems of students and assumes the self-delusion
called a sense of superiority.
Given the existence of bureaucratic processes and closed meetings with management
in which leaders are staged to be making decisions on behalf of students, no matter
how democratic and procedural an organisation, the deployed will become indifferent
to students issues, except those issues that affect them directly. Like in the case of
SRCs, student movements like SASCO are degenerating as a result of absence of rank
and file control and accession to representation to those who allow themselves to be
captured and corrupted.
Student Representative Councils can be defined as vestigial organs of universities that
controls and makes decisions on behalf of students, for the benefit of the university
management and the state. On a number of occasions during the student protests
concerning university fees, SRCs have openly promoted political repression and
served as a means to delegitimise radical student activists. Representative’s tendency
of self-perpetuation and careerism usually emerges when meted with a dilemma. It
might be argued that not all SRCs are selling out students, but upon realisation that
the system is designed to deny SRCs expression in decision-making, SRC members
tend to seek personal security. In doing so, the SRC neutralises the work done by
activists in being the vanguard of the students’ movement.
With the current system that is provided for in the Higher Education Act clearly
failing students, the anti-SRC sentiments expressed above are not against collective
action to address student issues. Organisation of students in universities needs not be
centralised, coordination can take place in the form of decentralised federalism in
which students can channel their energies through mutual agreement within a
collective. In the face of resources commanded by university management and the
state, it is necessary to maximise the strength of the students. Students will only
experience true representation not through legitimisation of a minority, but
comprehensive representation through collective consensus of each student
community while still respecting contrary opinions present within these communities.
Only revolutionary student movements would be able to cope with this radical change
in the dynamics of student governance. Student movements must not be strengthened
with authoritarian power but through dominating spaces of decision-making with
revolutionary ideas. In that way, the ideas of the movement will not be centralised
among its members and those in opposition to it, the replacement of SRCs with
decentralised federalisms of collective mutual agreement of students will assist in dealing with the oblivious culture of university students. Revolutionary student
movements must never be shy to take their position as the vanguard of students, but
not practice direct leadership over the students. Student leaders must never see
themselves as a body separate from the students, but active agents within the
community of students.
It is therefore the responsibility of revolutionary student movements to advocate for
the abolishment of the SRC system of representative democracy which is conservative
and reactionary and call for students to be active in making decisions that affect their lives and future.