Rethinking democracy in SRC elections

Published by The Mail & Guardian
Written by Ari Goldberg
Original article can be found here


The purpose of a student representative council (SRC) is to provide the university student body with a platform from which to engage with the institution’s management about the needs and wants of students, assisting them as much as possible. Its mandate is derived from the process of annual elections that allow all students to vote for specific candidates and have access to their respective representative’s party or individual manifesto.

University management constantly emphasises that this system is the most democratic way to create this important student body, one that tasked with helping the institution to manage and improve campus life.

For years, political parties have dominated SRC elections. Together with their respective coalitions, these have superior financial and logistical support from their mother bodies, which essentially creates an environment comparable to an oligopoly or even a monopoly.

Such environments create the reality of inefficient and complacent governance, which has been demonstrated — and demonstrated against — across campuses countrywide.

This unfortunately discourages student participation, because the dominant themes of the respective party manifestos and campaigns generally target students who support the party itself. Consequently, most students do not feel represented. It amounts to the choir preaching only to itself — not to the congregation who desperately needs the voice.

Cultural and racial divisions are openly identifiable in political campaigns, something shown by poor voter turnouts during SRC elections. Those who don’t identify with the political party’s stance are effectively sidelined from the elections.

Consequently, the views of most of the university’s students remain silenced. This is a problem. What is the point of having an SRC that doesn’t actually represent the views of most students?

The last SRC election at Wits University starkly demonstrates this. The Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA) — which isn’t shy about its links to the ANC — won 12 out of 13 contestable seats (the EFF won the other) from a turnout of only 26.41%. This can hardly be considered a legitimate voice of the people.

What if there were a better way to elect SRCs, one more democratic and inclusive of the student population? A method that both promotes diversity and advocates for competence and responsibility?

I believe that this model exists and is a much fairer method of creating SRCs and, at the same time, empowering students.

The modern world sees democracy as the only truly legitimate method of governance. Central to this ideology is the belief that elections represent the popular will. For decades, the idea of elections was used as the poster child for democracy, a necessary system for a fair society.

If one looks to pop culture, it is evident that the “dawn” of democracy is commonly associated with events such as the American and French revolutions. However, to the dismay of many people, the advent of “democracy” didn’t bring equality. Instead, elections have typically been used to ensure that the ruling faction remains in power.

Thus, through the imposition of a tax, only some 116 French citizens were allowed the right to vote following the revolution. The American Revolution wasn’t much better. Voting rights were reserved for specific people — mainly wealthy landlords and other members of the economic elite.

A truly democratic system would surely require an equal vote for all, as well as a fair chance of being elected. The current system both discourages voting and obviates any chance of a candidate succeeding without a political party’s support. This is the reality of the two-party system common to many countries.

The method I propose is one of election and random sortation, which I believe would be the fairest and most genuinely democratic method possible of creating a diverse and legitimate SRC.

All registered students should be able to volunteer themselves to be placed in a lottery, where a certain number of names are drawn at random. Those wishing to run would be eligible only if they meet certain academic requirements — as has the policy been for a number of the past SRC elections. Additionally, the number of candidates chosen would be subject to whatever quotas and regulations the university management feel necessary — this will be done to ensure an accurate and fair representation of the student population.

The random election will also ensure that the pool of students from which the university’s future leaders are picked isn’t dominated by party political influence, but by the choices of the students themselves.

From here, the chosen candidates would meet the administration and discuss the allocation of positions within the SRC. The group would then be subject to a voting process in which the administration and general student population vote for each student and their respective position. All candidates would have to present motivations detailing why they are running for a specific position, as well as what differentiates them from the other candidates.

Through such a process of both random sortation and meaningful and unbiased elections, the newly elected SRC will have been chosen in the fairest way possible. Multiple experiments have demonstrated the efficiency and competence of randomly elected citizens to positions of power. These randomly selected citizens have been placed in different types of groups and have even reached the importance of advisory bodies to governments with the task of policy creation and inspection. The results clearly show how ordinary people are able to come together and make educated and responsible decisions that will have an effect, a point made by Belgian historian David Van Reybrouk in his book, Against Elections: The Case for Democracy.

We need to create a society where all believe that they have the capacity to lead – not just themselves but others too. This means fostering a culture of inclusion and responsibility, and universities have a vital part to play in this.

The current SRC election process shows that student leadership is suffering from a legitimacy and complacency crisis. A more inclusive approach is needed to improve the diversity of opinion in SRCs — as well as their legitimacy and performance. Reforming the SRC election process would be a meaningful step towards creating a more just environment on and off campus, as well as a culture of accountability that’s necessary to take South Africa forward.

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