Student politics not for faint hearted

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Copy of ST Abednego Mathole603

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Abednego Mathole, an electrical engineering student at UJ, is a member of the Economic Freedom Fighters. Photo: Itumeleng English

Johannesburg - When political parties try to attract students, they do it through parties and booze. This misconstrues what politics is about.

Politics is not just about associating with a political party; it seeps into every aspect of your life – how much your food and fuel cost and the taxes you pay.

At least, that’s what Abednego Mathole thinks.

Mathole is an electrical engineering master’s student at the University of Johannesburg. He’s also a member of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF).

Wits University was a hive of activity about two weeks ago. It was orientation week (O-week), where first-year students are introduced to and given pointers on campus life.

At the clubs and societies tent, Project W (Project Wits) had set up a table.

The group was established last year with the intention of providing assistance and support to Wits students.

They help students to secure accommodation, sort out financial aid issues, provide extra tutoring and collect food for needy students, among others.

Project W spokeswoman Catherine Seabe said even though they were not a political party, they opted to contest the student representative council (SRC) elections last year so they could access resources that could assist in funding their initiatives.

They won seven seats in the elections, and the Progressive Youth Alliance (PYA), which is made up of ANC Youth League and Young Communist League members, retained eight seats.

Seabe, a second-year international relations and political studies student, said that for the first time in 10 years, the PYA didn’t dominate the SRC.

“The PYA wasn’t aligned with student issues. That’s how Project W came about,” she said.

“Students came to us because they felt that PYA was doing nothing for them. We have students who sleep in the library because they don’t have accommodation and students who face academic exclusion because of poor performance, and people who were close to dropping out because they couldn’t pay for their studies… We helped a lot of those students. We were able to make Wits a better place for them and now we’re viewed as the opposition (to the PYA),” Seabe said.

She said whenever Project W tried to operate on campus or host an event, they were harassed by PYA members – as was the case during O-week when their stand was dismantled.

During O-week, a student wearing an SA Students Congress (Sasco) T-shirt was seen setting alight a blue Project W T-shirt.

Seabe said the blue shirt had been forcefully taken off a first-year student.

She said such incidents, where the PYA disrupted their activities and intimidated members, was crippling the organisation.

A student who witnessed the incident said the harassment was not an isolated problem.

The student, who asked not to be identified, said: “I think it’s interesting that this is happening in an election year, and more so at a university where one would expect more intellectual engagement from students.”

Seabe said the harassment had forced Project W to operate “underground” and to lay assault charges with the varsity’s management against PYA members.

The charges were laid two weeks ago, and if they’re not satisfied with the investigation’s outcome, they’ll consider laying criminal charges with the police.

Seabe said another problem was getting Project W registered as a club or society at Wits.

She said that when Project W applied this year, it was rejected because its constitution wasn’t in line with the SRC’s.

They found this strange because the same legal officer who helped pen the Project W constitution had assisted the SRC with its constitution.

Seabe said they resubmitted the application after making some changes, and the second attempt was also rejected.

“They still haven’t given us proper grounds for the rejection,” she said.

They have written to management to appeal the rejection. They received an acknowledgement and await the final ruling.

Wits spokeswoman Shirona Patel said: “There was a minor confrontation between a few members of the PYA and Project W over the allocation of space in a tent for clubs and societies. The confrontation did not turn violent and no one was hurt.

“Project W has not been banned on campus. Three of their members have laid formal complaints against the PYA. The university is investigating.”

Concerning Project W’s application, Patel said the matter was escalated to the dean of students and the vice-chancellor’s office.

The PYA refused to comment.

Back at UJ, Mathole said the EFF was also experiencing a registration problem.

He said this would limit the party’s time for campaigning for the SRC elections, which are scheduled for next month.

“We think they’re delaying us and stopping us from lobbying students. By the time they’ve approved the application, and that’s if they will, we’ll only have two weeks to campaign,” he said.

Mathole said he also felt the university’s management had a gripe with the EFF on campus.

He said while other political party posters were displayed on UJ campuses, his party’s are torn down by the campus security on instruction from management.

“It’s the same in all universities… There’s a high level of political intolerance. Wherever we are we exist by force,” Mathole said.

UJ spokesman Herman Esterhuizen denied all the allegations.

“No such instruction of removing EFF posters has been made by the university management. All societies are welcome to put up notices, provided they follow the necessary procedures.

“All societies are currently in the process of applying or reapplying for recognition. The outcome will be communicated to the respective societies in due course,” he said, adding that the term of office for each society starts in March and ends in February of the following year.

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