The South African Student Congress (SASCO) at the University of the Free State (UFS) recently wrestled the reigns of power from the Youth Command of the Economic Free Fighters to lead the Student Representative Council (SRC). The Weekly’s Martin Makoni spoke to the newly elected SRC president Katleho Lechoo on his plans during his year long stint, starting with his first 100 days in office. Excerpts:
What are some of the key priority areas that you would like to pursue during your term as the SRC president?
As I was campaigning, I was mainly talking about issues such as going back to the basics. But then one needs to understand what going back to basics means. You will remember that SASCO was not in power last year. However, there are footprints that would trace back to what SASCO has done. So, we’re going back to basics on two main points… Firstly, we need to identify and acknowledge ourselves as students, because what we seek to do now is to integrate campus students into campus life. So, to get that started, we must acknowledge the fact that we are different as people. But, by so doing, and we respect each other’s culture, we will be able to respect and value one another. That is the only way we can work together. Secondly, we are saying, let us go back to the SASCO that speaks about the Right to Learn Campaign. The SASCO that speaks about the dignity of the students. The SASCO that has always been there for the students. So, we are going back to the basics on those two aspects.
SASCO wasn’t in charge over the past year, what would you say was not well addressed by the past administration which could have worried students?
I was actually part of that administration which was led by EFF (Economic Freedom Fighters). I was in charge of sport. So, personally, I would say it was the issue of keeping in contact with the students. Naturally, students would want to see innovations every term, which is something that I am hoping we will able to introduce going forward as the new council. We want to come up with innovative ways of how we can improve the lives of students. Accounting to students is also very important because as soon as students feel neglected, they lose touch with their SRC. So, I am saying, let us always ensure that we account to those we serve and lead.
Why do you think there was a disconnection between the students and the EFF-led SRC?
I think it comes back to the fact that they were new to the administration. So, they had a lot of things that they had to deal with, but not necessarily neglecting the student community of course. Advocacy was there. But it also comes back to students wanting to see advocacy in action and us telling them that we are indeed advocating for them.
Talking about going back to basics, what did the students tell you during the campaign period as being some of the major issues affecting them, what are their main concerns right now?
Students are concerned about their safety, first of all. This came up as part of the fight for computer labs and the library that are operational 24/7. Students have been crying about that. Everyone was talking about it during the campaign period. But the important part was the approach. Students wanted to know what approach we would bring to the table in order to address the issue. Still on the issue of safety, students were worried about the placement policy at residencies for students who stay on campus. They were worried that some of them might be kicked out. We promised to deal with that policy as soon as we come into office. I have already engaged the newly elected on-campus SRC to say, how do you provide a link between Student Affairs and the Housing and Residents’ Affairs. Also going forward, will be the issue of a shuttle service to ensure that students travel safely when off-campus.
How is the situation of students living off-campus in terms of general living conditions, like the quality of accommodation and general safety?
Our first 100 days in office started this week and that is one of the issues we will be looking at. We will be going to all off-campus accommodation to evaluate the standards where there are no street lights, particularly in Brandwag and Universitas. We are doing this so that when we come back, we will be able to report to the UFS management and the municipality.
There was a campaign held here last week called #Burnthephobia which mostly involved foreign students. One of the issues they raised was their struggle to integrate with local students mainly due to language and cultural differences, is this something you hope to address during your term of office?
One of the issues highlighted in our manifesto was the need for social integration. I believe the UFS belongs to everyone who studies here. Now, what we are going to do as part of raising funds, we have what we call the #Saveadegree Campaign, which is a baby of the Right to Learn Campaign. Now, this does not only seek to raise funds, but also to promote social cohesion. The formal set-up would have us holding an event where we invite external stakeholders to come, spend time with the students and enjoy the different sporting activities we will have on that day. There will also be a braai. All this will be done to promote social cohesion among students.
From your own experience, what would you say have been some of the major sticking points in terms of social integration among students and how do you hope to address that?
Remember, at the beginning I spoke of the issue of going back to basics… acknowledging the fact that we are different and that we speak different languages. The issue at hand is that I want to preserve my culture, and if you don’t respect that, I am obviously going to isolate myself from you. So, the direction that we are going to take is, let us acknowledge the fact that we have different cultures. Give me the opportunity to respect your culture and also respect my culture. It’s important for us to understand that when we come together as a unit and we are comfortable with one another, we can go forward.
Cases of racism at the university once grabbed the headlines and that put the institution in considerable bad light, what’s the situation right now from the position of students and what new ideas are you bringing to ensure the problem is comprehensively addressed?
Last year I was responsible for sport in the SRC. In my term, I did something no one would expect from an SRC sport officer. At the beginning of my term, I went straight to Varsity Netball. The majority of the players there are white. I introduced myself and I told them that ‘you guys want to win, we also want to win and your win is not yours alone, but it’s also our win.’ I did the very same thing with the Shimlas, the rugby team. It’s also dominated by white people. Part and parcel of that was to say, give us the platform. The idea was not to say welcome us with open arms and forget who you are. The point was to say, Shimlas belongs to all of us. We are students, and Shimlas is a university rugby team and therefore we want to be part of it. I remember I had a conversation with them when we were in Joburg because I would travel with them. One of the conversations we had before their game was, ‘you are not playing for yourselves.’
So, have you seen your efforts bear fruit and how would you like to see that being sustained?
Yes, and I think one of the things we would then need to do, going forward is that, whatever you are doing, you are not doing it for yourselves. I might be coming from SASCO, but I am not here to serve SASCO members only. I am here to serve the nearly 27 000 students at the UFS. All of them are different. There were no cases of racism reported in the past administration and even now. The last case was around 2016. So, I think there are developments in terms of dealing with racism and speaking up. We will also continue advocating for us to speak about these issues in spaces that are not conducive or welcoming so that we can break this line of racism.
The ANC sent representatives from its National Executive Committee (NEC) during your campaign period, how important was that for you to have the party supporting you at that demanding time?
In the past few days, the Secretary General of the ANC Ace Magashule was addressing a rally in the Dullar Omar Region in the Western Cape, and one of the things he said was that SASCO is the only student organisation that is allowed to contest SRC elections. He encouraged different party structures to support the South African Student Congress. So, I think for us, having seen the support they gave us by deploying members of the NEC such as Malusi Gigaba, it was very motivating. The Treasury MEC (Gadija Brown) also came through. I remember there was a case around the Free State Premier’s bursary… it meant a lot to us.
At the end of your first 100 days in office, what would really make you happy when you look back and say, we have made it?
It will be approaching as many stakeholders as we can for the issue of raising funds for registration next year. It remains one of our biggest challenges. We want to avoid a situation whereby we will have to come back as early as January 2 to raise funds. I want us to start working on it now for next year. Providing that link between Housing and Residents’ Affairs and Student Affairs is very important. We also spoke about the university subsidising a meal per day, for our students because food insecurity is high. I would love to see that happening and we will not sleep until that happens. The safety of our students is also a priority. We have been engaging on that for a while and it’s time to act now. If it doesn’t start with us, then nothing is going to happen. We are the change that we want to see. We want to avoid any form of exclusion against the students.