December 02, 2020

Do SRC election results give us clues to the outcome of next year’s poll?

What do Student Representative Council (SRC) elections tell us about national politics? Usually not very much. But even the flakiest student has to know that next year is the big one, and that what they decide to do with their vote could make a difference.

The results that are currently rolling in from SRC elections at universities and higher education colleges throughout the country can be seen as political seismometers that measure the shifting political loyalties of the youth. But if they are also a measure of any decisive aftershocks that could rock the country at the 2019 poll they suggest we may be in for a lot more instability and uncertainty.

The surprise victories for the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command (EFFSC) at four leading KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) campuses, which were among the first results to be publicly released, was followed by a decisive EFFSC win at the University of Cape Town with a strong majority of eight seats.

In KZN the red berets took the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Westville campus‚ the University of Zululand, the Durban University of Technology and the Mangosuthu University of Technology.

The only decisive conclusion that the SRC results can point to is the likelihood of more instability and contestation post-2019.

UCT, for long a stronghold of the opposition Democratic Alliance Students Organisation (Daso) which last year easily won the poll with a majority of nine out of 15 seats, saw Daso down to three seats this year. The South African Students Congress (Sasco) managed to secure two. There were two successful independent candidates, and no seats at all for the Inkatha-aligned South African Democratic Student Movement (Sadesmo), leaving EFFSC a clear victor.

These results must have left the ruling party reeling at what appears to be a significant increase in student support for the EFF.

It could be said that SRC elections are probably as reliable as public opinion polls in predicting election results (who would have thought Trump?), but in South Africa the last few years have seen a mobilisation and politicisation on campuses after a generation or two of student political disinterest and apathy.

Predictably, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Julius Malema has come out warning that the ruling ANC should be preparing for a shock, but as more results come in the picture gets more murky, suggesting that the only decisive conclusion that the SRC results can point to is the likelihood of more instability and contestation post-2019, at least on campuses.

Shortly after the EFFSCs victories, Malema had to step down and concede defeat at the University of the Witwatersrand where the ANC-allied Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) won 12 of the 13 seats. This came after a fiercely contested SRC election that saw clashes between the EFFSC and the PYA that resulted in one student being admitted to hospital.

The PYA is made up of the ANC-supporting Sasco, the Young Communist League, the ANC Youth League and the Muslim Students’ Association.

Wits is a prominent university and a Wits spokesperson reported a higher than usual turnout for this year’s poll. The weeks running up to the election saw EFF national spokesperson Mbuyiseni Ndlozi and EFF leader Julius Malema visiting the campus to campaign for votes. Malema had confidently tweeted a video of himself voting at Wits, where he is registered as a postgraduate student.

In the previous election‚ the EFF won at Wits with a comfortable 12 out of 15 seats, but this year’s election left it with just a single seat. Sasco expressed its enthusiasm about the PYA victory at Wits, congratulating it “for reclaiming Wits from the EFFSC”.

But there was also the one and only SRC win by the Pan Africanist Congress Movement of Azania (PASMA), where it won decisively at the University of the Western Cape, leaving the EFFSC without any seats at all in the 12-seat council.

Sasco clinched a strong victory in the Nelson Mandela University SRC‚ winning six out of nine seats. This was its second year in power after taking over from Daso in 2016.

At Unisa (national) Sasco’s more than 40% of the vote earned it four seats. The EFFSC was at its heels, with 36.5% or three seats. Daso and the ANC Youth League won one seat each. The EFFSC took Unisa’s Johannesburg SRC. With four seats on its council, it was way ahead of all the other groups, who won one seat each. Limpopo also saw a win for the EFFSC, with Sasco very close behind. All of Unisa’s eight SRC elections came down to a contest between Sasco and the EFFSC.

The latest results to come in before publishing came from the University of Limpopo with a slim victory for Sasco whose 3990 votes gained it nine seats, leaving the EFFSC trailing it with seven seats.

What does this mixed bag of SRC results say about next year’s national and provincial elections? Usually very little.

Students on the whole are generally as concerned about voting as they are about submitting their academic papers on time, and the low university poll turnouts confirm this. But their respective parties know that next year’s ground-breaking election will decide the ANC’s future. This could mobilise them into dragging students out of bed on a public holiday to spend some time in a voting queue.

This is not to say that students will cast the decisive vote, but the university election results, inconsistent though they are, did demonstrate an upsurge in EFF support. This probably had something to do with its prominent role in the Fees Must Fall movement but, equally, lost it votes by disrupting exams and inconveniencing students. The final figures are hard to come by, but results show that the EFF has gained traction among the youth and the ANC’s Sasco no longer has the support it has traditionally relied on in previous national elections.

Which means that we should be paying a whole lot of attention to the recent spate of university polls. The outcome, certainly in KZN, appears to have even taken the EFF by surprise and South Africa does not want to be caught on the political back foot at a time when the economy has us already seriously on the defensive.

KZN has always had an air of political unpredictability with a strong grassroots support base behind the traditional leader, King Zwelethini, and the Inkatha Freedom Party. It also has significant numbers of ANC supporters who continue to back former president Jacob Zuma.

Which made the early victories by the EFFSC on these four KZN campuses all the more surprising. Until then, all had been confidently ANC-aligned and led by Sasco.

Sasco speedily and nobly immediately announced that its loss of four key campuses in KZN was due to its own weaknesses and had nothing to do with the strength of opposition parties. While there may be some truth to Sasco attributing its poor performance to its own omissions ‑ its years at the top may have created a sense of complacency ‑ it still came as a shock, not only to the party but to the country as a whole.

What made it even more dramatic was that Sasco was virtually wiped out on those campuses where it had long held sway. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal Westville ‚ the University of Zululand and the Durban University of Technology the EFFSC took all seats, leaving Sasco with nil. At the Mangosuthu University of Technology EFFSC won eight seats leaving Sasco with only three seats.

So convincing was the EFFSC’s win on these campuses that not a single seat was won by the usually fairly strong Daso and the IFP-aligned Sadesmo in its own party stronghold. The PYA attracted barely any attention at all on these campuses.

Sasco KZN held a press briefing after learning of its losses, at the ANC provincial headquarters in Durban, where Sasco’s provincial spokesperson Mqondisi Duma appeared to apologise to the ruling party’s leadership for its student organisation’s poor showing.

“We seriously regret the losses we have suffered in four campuses that have always been our stronghold as Sasco. These losses are only attributable to our own internal weaknesses as opposed to the strength of our ideological opponents,” he said, also referring vaguely to “false narratives” that had exaggerated Sasco’s losses at some educational institutions in the province.

Bonginkosi Khanyile, an EFFSC member and Fees Must Fall activist, who was arrested during the 2015/6 student protests and pleaded guilty to public violence, said at the time this was a small, but nevertheless significant start, announcing “we are eating away at the elephant one piece at a time.”

The Sasco losses in KZN, however, must be placed in context. In KZN there are 102 university campuses and higher education colleges, which places four EFFSC wins, as surprising as they were, in the shadow of the 98 SRC elections that Sasco won in that province.

Moira Levy

Additional Info

  • Author: Moira Levy
Last modified on Saturday, 03 November 2018 16:32

About Us

Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

Latest Tweets

Who will guard the guards?
Before there can be convictions, charges have to be laid
Follow Notes from the House on Twitter