Why DASO won Fort Hare

Sibusiso Tshabalala
University of Fort Hare’s “Old Building”. Photo by Wikipedia user Lysippos (GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0).
Sibusiso Tshabalala

In May, the Democratic Alliance Student Alliance (DASO) won SRC elections at the University of Fort Hare. The university has been a stronghold of ANC-aligned organisations. We spoke to student leaders to find out what changed.

Yonela Nuba is a second-year B.Sc. student and chair of Fort Hare’s DASO branch. She says that DASO’s electoral victory earlier this year was expected. “The reason why we won is because students were tired of being taken for a ride. We weren’t campaigning only to win—we were focused on understanding students’ core issues at Fort Hare: inadequate student funding, corruption and a lack of accountability. They saw this and decided to vote for us,” says Nuba.

The University of Fort Hare occupies a special place in South African politics. Founded in 1916 on a former British military station by missionaries, the university is located in Alice about 120km from East London. It also has campuses in Bhisho and East London. Fort Hare prides itself for having educated some of Africa’s prominent leaders, including Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. Chris Hani was a student there, and treason trial accused ZK Matthews taught at the university for two decades.

Speaking of Fort Hare in his autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela described it during his time as “Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and Yale, all rolled into one.”

In 2015, Fort Hare is a different place. The university, with 12,315 mostly black and working class students as of last year October, reportedly has a R100 million deficit. Besides it being ranked 16th out of the country’s 17 universities for academic performance, there are other obvious signs that this is a struggling institution.

Vital pages on its website give “under construction” messages. There are two different links to a “contact us” page, one of which is completely blank. If annual reports exist online, they are well hidden, which is not surprising considering that the university is accused of using money for students to pay salaries.

There is barely any online information about its vice chancellor, Dr Mvuyo Tom, who was meant to appear before Parliament’s portfolio committee of higher education to explain the university’s status two weeks ago, before the meeting was postponed for the second time.

Its registrar, Professor Mike Somniso, is facing accusations of planning violence against the DASO leadership. At the end of September, the Daily Dispatch published a front-page story detailing how Professor Somniso, called for the intimidation of DASO leaders and disruption of their activities.

In a recorded conversation – obtained by the Dispatch – Somniso can be heard detailing his plan to intimidate DASO members by “unleashing” uMkhonto weSizwe veterans on students aligned to DASO to a senior member of staff.

Read: Affidavits by five DASO students detailing their intimidation at the University of Fort Hare

These conditions made it possible for DASO, which had only launched its branch on the campus three years earlier, to win 53% of the vote, beating the ANC-aligned incumbent South African Students Congress (SASCO), which got 37% of the vote. In 2011 and 2012, independents took control of Fort Hare’s SRC. SASCO won elections again in 2013 and 2014, before losing to DASO this year.

Nuba attributes DASO’s win to the organisation’s drive to hold university management accountable for its shortcomings, particularly on student accommodation and funding. “In April we raised the issue of overpriced and poor accommodation with the university. Jabavu residence (on the Alice campus) became our focus. The floor there is ruined, there are holes inside the rooms, and the water is cold.”

Four months after the win, the DASO branch at Fort Hare now has its sights set on a campaign to get the Minister of Higher Education to place the university under administration.

DASO claims that the university used R15 million intended for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to pay for staff salaries. The campaign dubbed #saveourForte on social media got a boost last week after DA leader, Mmusi Maimane, joined students on Thursday (1 October) to deliver a memorandum of demands to the university’s vice-chancellor, Dr Mvuyo Tom.

DASO’s biggest test over the past four months has been dealing with resistance to its plans.

“As you’ve seen in the newspapers, we are being sabotaged. We wanted to run a student meal programme and a bailout fund for students in arrears, but these plans are being blocked. But we keep trying our level best, and I think students can see what’s happening,” says Nuba.

GroundUp contacted Fort Hare’s spokeswoman, Zintle Filtane, on 5 and 6 October by phone to respond to these allegations. She was unreachable and did not return any calls.

Changing student politics

South Africa’s student politics is in flux: Besides Fort Hare, DASO also won the election at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University three years earlier. And there has been the highly publicised upsurge in campaigns for university transformation at historically white universities this year. But it is not only DASO that has unseated SASCO and ANC Youth League aligned leaders at universities. The EFF Student Command (EFFSC), launched last year, won elections at the University of Limpopo’s Turfloop campus, the North West University’s Mahikeng campus and the Vaal University of Technology (VUT).

SASCO remains one of the biggest national student organisations by membership. The organisation has a long pedigree, having been formed in September 1991 as a non-racial merger of the predominantly white NUSAS and black SANSCO student organisations. The Fort Hare SASCO leaders referred us to the organisation’s national president, Nthuthuko Makhombothi, for comment. He says that despite the wins by DASO and EFFSC, SASCO is not doing too badly. Makhombothi argues that some of the campuses that the EFFSC and DASO won were not always controlled by SASCO. The ANCYL and the Young Communists’ League (YCL) frequently contests elections against SASCO at some university campuses, including the University of Zululand. This dynamic often splits the vote amongst organisations belonging to the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) – an alliance of the three organisations closely aligned to the ANC.

“SASCO is doing well to capture the support of students at historically white Afrikaans universities. Students who attend these universities are mostly considered to be middle class, and in the past, there was a lot of commentary about the lack of student activism at these campuses. This is changing and SASCO has contributed to this,” says Makhombothi.

Ondela Kepe, former DA Youth Chairperson in the Eastern Cape, has a different take: “Student politics have unfortunately been rigged by … selfish upward mobility, particularly in SASCO, where many young comrades have used the organisation as a platform to build their political careers.”

Whether it’s the calls for historically white universities to take institutional transformation more seriously, or new players like DASO and the EFFSC winning campuses from SASCO and the ANCYL, South Africa’s student politics is going through an exciting period. It remains to be seen, however, if Fort Hare’s change in student leadership will turn around the ailing institution.

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TOPICS:  Education Politics