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Student activism at UCT


This article first appeared in a Swedish publication called Gaudeamus: http://www.gaudeamus.se/template_single.asp?id=2125754642

Student activism in post-apartheid South Africa is characterised by resistance to the neo-liberal ideology that manifests itself in diverse ways at universities across South Africa. In fighting neoliberalism students have, at times, joined forces with university workers. At the University of Cape Town (UCT), where I have been a student for the past three years, a group of students have joined forces with the university cleaning staff to fight against the outsourcing of workers.

 Thembi Luckett, one of the students at forefront of the University of Cape Town Student Workers Alliance (UCTSWA), says the organisation campaigns against outsourcing and to support workers in their fight for better working conditions. UCTSWA’s political orientation is towards socialism. Matthew Grant, also a member of the UCTSWA, explains that “generally, students in our movement identify with socialism. And that manifest itself in the way we do things with workers. We support workers and we work with them.”

The UCTSWA is of the view that student politics ought to be based on working in solidarity with university workers. After all,  “these are workers that make and serve your food in the residences, guard your campus, drive your shuttles, clean your campus and residences, maintain your gardens and , overall, the general running of the campus,” points out UCTSWA.

This argument makes sense to me. I think that effective political activism, which brings about social change, entails being in solidarity with other social groups. It was this logic that informed the Hungarian revolution in 1956, and served as the catalyst in the Paris uprising of 1968. African leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Kwame Nkrumah who began their activist political careers as students understood this reasoning too.  Given the fact that the UCTSWA was formed last year (2008) to support the workers struggle and to fight against outsourcing at UCT, it is possible that the organisation draws inspiration from this history of activism.

Outsourcing was introduced to UCT ten years ago by the then Vice Chancellor, now black economic empowerment businesswoman, Dr Mampela Ramphele.  She reasoned that UCT had to be managed as a “business committed to balancing its books” and that the university should focus ‘on its core business – academics’. Consequently, the university “hired external companies to take care of ‘peripheral functions’, which were cleaning, gardening, catering, printing and security,” according to UCTSWA. By outsourcing these functions, UCT does not have to pay workers any benefits, and outsourcing has stripped workers of decent levels of pay. UCTSWA points out that in 1991, before outsourcing was introduced at the university, the minimum wage was R1200 (about Euro $ 105. 21) with benefits. However, in 2003, after outsourcing was introduced, the minimum wage was still R1200 without any benefits.  

Dr Max Price, the current UCT Vice-Chancellor, explains that in 2005 the UCT Council adopted a resolution that workers at the university should be paid, “at the very least, a ‘living wage’ as set by independent agencies such as the Bureau for Economic Research.” The Council also agreed to pay workers a higher ‘Supplemented Living Level’ (SLL).

Price says the “SLL is considerably higher than the minimum living levels and allows a household of four to five persons living in the Western Cape an improved standard of living.” The UCT monthly minimum wage is now R3 491.35 (Euro $ 306. 10) for full-time workers, whereas, the average monthly minimum wage paid to workers in the market is R2 100 (Euro $ 184, 12).

Price conveniently forgets to mention that the UCT council adopted the resolution to pay workers a ‘living wage’  partly because the workers fought for it. For example, in 2003 workers took action to demand “back-pay from cleaning companies because the wage increases were delayed,” explains UCTSWA. A year later UCT brought in consultants to ‘investigate the situation’. And, in 2005, the UCT council resolved that the workers at the universities ought to be paid, ‘at the very least, a living wage’.

The university initiated these changes partly because the workers fought hard to be treated with dignity. And, that struggle is not over.  The workers are still not afforded benefits they used to get, such as medical aid and subsidised tuition fees for their children. In addition, workers work under ‘pressurised and difficult conditions’, and are routinely intimidated by company management if they speak out about their working conditions, points out UCTSWA.  

It was for these reasons that UCTSWA organised a march in April this year (2009) to hand over a petition (with over 3 800 signatures) which, among other things, called on the university management to honour the university’s mission statement which aims to: ‘actively promote social justice and equity’, ‘promote equal opportunity and the full development of human potential’ and to ‘overcome all forms of gender and other oppressive discrimination’.

UCTSWA makes it clear, however, that it is not their ‘job as students’ to represent the workers, ‘this is the job of the unions’. By speaking out about the working conditions of the workers, the organisation hopes that other students will pay attention to what is going on around them and perhaps re-act. “Like us you will become sick of seeing how UCT avoids responsibility for how the workers are treated and how the outsourced companies negate the workers,” explains UCTSWA.

The organisation has had very limited success in attracting student members, especially black students. The UCTSWA says that they were taken by surprise by the fact that black students are not joining their organisation in large numbers. It “may be that UCTSWA was formed through social networking, which was predominantly white (and white leadership tends to reproduce white members).” The organisation points out that this “may have created an ambiguous impression of our true motivations and we may have been categorized along with other student groups…who are predominantly white and liberal.”  

As a black post-graduate student at UCT, my view is that the organisation fails to attract black students into its ranks because the organisation does not address the concerns of black students. Researchers like Steyn & Van Zyl say black students feel that UCT is a racist institution bent on protecting white privilege.

When I pointed this out to Alexander Spoor, a member of the UCTSWA, he argued that “oppression is not a matter of skin colour, and skin colour is not a proxy indicator for an individual’s level of oppression.” A recent ‘Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions’ disagrees with Spoor’s analysis. The report reveals that racism continues to manifest itself in the core activities of teaching, learning and research in South African universities. Furthermore, the report explains that the root of the problem “emanates from the too-close association of the university with the project of westernisation – and the ever-present danger of articulating this in narrow Eurocentric terms as, to put it bluntly, a ‘white’ project…” 

Spoor argues that racism “exists at UCT, of course, as it does everywhere, but to say it has, even the slightest grip, on the student consciousness is to do too much credit to such a decrepit, philistine philosophy as racialism, which is only a manifestation of ignorance and finds its antidote in learning, as such, at places of learning.”


It is blind arrogance to dismiss black students’ lived experiences at UCT as reflecting ignorance on their part. It makes sense, however, to build a multi-issue, student movement that ‘sets aside squabbles for solidarity’, to use Michael Albert’s phrase. It is such a broad and diverse movement that can push back the neo-liberal agenda in all its forms at UCT.

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