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What student protests reveal about South Africa’s young future leaders

The student movement in South Africa prides itself on being “leaderless”. Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters

Universities have an obligation to produce leaders, whether in their academic disciplines, chosen professions or in the wider society, including in government and civil society.

What are the qualities of leadership? It’s a complex question but one that deserves a great deal of thought especially now. South Africa’s universities have been rocked by student-led protests. It is worth examining how these student leaders have conducted themselves and the strategies they’ve used to see whether universities are doing what’s necessary to create good leaders.

It is generally agreed that leaders ought to be confident, innovative and visionary. Effective leadership also involves transparency, good communication, collaboration and inspiration. Leaders have to make difficult decisions and remain focused on their goals. They must demonstrate courage under pressure.

Using these measures, I’d suggest that the student protesters have demonstrated good leadership in some spheres. They’ve come up short in other areas. This suggests that, in future, universities need to focus more on how they teach leadership.

Some positive elements

The student protesters have enjoyed considerable success in some areas. They’ve unsettled the status quo, standing up against universities’ “business as usual” approaches to funding, teaching and the curriculum. They have consistently highlighted South Africa’s overall economic inequality.

Their efforts have resulted in universities having to shut down intermittently. It’s a fairly drastic but shrewd short term strategy and one that forced university management and the entire university community to engage with students and listen to their demands as a matter of urgency. They’ve forced a national dialogue.

Protest leaders have used the media, especially social media, very effectively to inform and mobilise. In this, they’ve displayed a passion and gusto that refuse to be ignored. It is not an overstatement to say that the protest leaders – as they did in 2015 – have made all of South Africa pay attention.

By communicating to the public so astutely, they showed a level of media savvy and sophistication, a feature of effective leadership. Not only did they communicate widely, but by linking their cause to wider economic inequalities and social injustice, they crafted a message that resonated with their peers and the wider public.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing for these protesting students. I’ve identified three areas in which they’ve displayed a lack of leadership qualities.

A leaderless movement

The first has to do with the inherent contradictions to their approach to leadership. The protesters have rejected traditional (hierarchical) leadership in favour of “leaderless” groupings. It has been a point of pride for the protesters to declare themselves “leaderless”.

Successful campaigns, however, need leaders. This was true for the anti-apartheid movement; for the US’s civil rights movement and for South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, whose work ultimately forced the government to provide anti-retrovirals to HIV-positive pregnant women.

Leaders are important for a number of reasons. They are accountable to constituents and can exercise some discipline on members, particularly around inappropriate strategies. They may successfully become the face of the movement in the pursuit of goals. Potential supporters of the movement in the wider society may identify the cause with the leader, as they did with Nelson Mandela during the anti-apartheid struggle.

Leaders receive their mandate from formal or organised structures. This has been turned on its head during the protests. At the University of Cape Town (UCT), where I am the Dean of Law, the elected Students Representative Council has not always been involved in all the negotiations with management. In fact it appears to have been sidelined by the various protest groupings.

As the formally elected student body, the SRC is accountable to UCT’s students. In contrast, protest groups insist on being at the negotiating table without a formal mandate from students.

Strategies and victories

The student protesters’ second limitation relates to the strategies they’ve adopted. Any successful movement builds up its membership base through incremental organising and planning. It uses collaboration and cooperation, not intimidation, as strategies.

That is not the case with the 2016 student protesters at UCT. Although the protests were at various times able to muster support, they have not been able to generate consistent and growing numbers sufficient to call it a mass movement at UCT. There were a number of spontaneous disruptions, which closed the campus. But that did not signify a large and strong student movement.

This is not to suggest that aren’t thousands of students supporting the calls for free higher education. Rather, I’m pointing out that even many of those who support this call do not wish the university to be disrupted in sometimes violent ways or shut down – an absolute strategy adopted by protesters.

The third limitation shown by the protest leaders was their inability to claim the victory handed to them by the Minister of Higher Education and Training in September 2016. He announced that universities would be able to increase their fees by up to 8% in 2017 – but no increases may be levelled at poor students and low-income families.

It was only a partial victory in the fight for free higher education. But a good strategy might have been to claim the victory and use it to further the protesters’ agenda. Instead, it was dismissed out of hand.

Society lacks inspirational leaders

So how are universities doing when it comes to producing leaders? Based on the evidence from my own institution, I’d say the jury is still out.

Universities should, in future, pay attention to teaching leadership more consciously – either as an individual course or as part of the content of some courses, especially those related to ethics and values.

There’s also a chance, if students’ call for transformation and decolonisation is heeded, to explore ideas of non-hierarchical and collaborative teaching methods. This would allow lecturers to model effective leadership strategies.

As a society, South Africa must recognise how frustrated students are about the inherited legacies of apartheid: persistent economic inequalities and chronic poverty, racism and lack of opportunity especially for young black people. There’s not a lot in the way of great political leadership to inspire them.

Unfortunately political leadership in South Africa is short-sighted, self-serving and destructive of important long-term goals. Sadly, that’s all been replicated in many of the student protests.

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