The Impact of COVID-19 on SRC Elections in Universities and Colleges

Introduction

The outbreak of Covid-19 has affected the higher education sector in many respects, amongst these in the term of office of the SRCs of various, if not all universities and colleges. Almost two months have been taken away from the
term of office due to lockdown thus far when students together with SRC members were instructed to go home. Hence the South African Union of Students seeks to provide guidance on what can be done practically and fairly without compromising the interest of students. The term of office of various student representative councils ending this semester and SRC elections cannot be conducted due to Covid-19 outbreak. Following a wide spread consultation with student political organizations at national level and student representatives at campus level, SAUS provide herein guidance to universities.

Identified challenges

– The level four risk-adjusted government strategy will not permit SRC elections to be conducted currently.
– The term of office of some SRCs is ending this semester, meaning an urgent intervention is required.
– Majority of SRCs term of office is ending in September meaning preparations must start now in case we do not move to level one of the lockdown.
– SRC members like any other sector affected by Covid-19 did not get a chance to implement some of their programs and activities.
– Some of the SRC constitutions do not pronounce on what must happen when a term of SRC ends and elections cannot happen now.
– A vacuum cannot be allowed considering the SRC is a very important governance structure as stipulated in the higher education act.
– Interim SRCs have a tendency of excluding independent candidates who do not belong to any student political organization.
– SRC elections require canvassing, campaigns, manifesto presentations, candidates’ selections and many other activities that are currently impossible.
– About 98% of students are currently at home such that their participation on this matter is minimum or limited.

SAUS Recommendations

1. Involvement of student political organization to determine the period of extension of the term of office of the SRC. An extension of the SRC term of office by a period of six months is recommended. Any extension by more than that period will be undemocratic. All student organizations must be united and submit individually or collectively to management
and to the University Council that the SRC term must be extended to September 2020 for those expiring now and alternatively to May 2021 for those expiring in October 2020.
2. Student affairs convene a student parliament after the lockdown or when the lockdown is on stage 1, to ask guidance from members of Parliament or for Parliament to elect an interim structure. Up until that student parliament is convened the current SRC be allowed to continue.
3. The entire student body in a university can play a role through an online petition. Students must write a petition to the university council and to the Vice-Chancellor through the Dean of students demanding the current SRC to continue or not to continue. Such a petition legitimises the existence of the SRC beyond its term of office because it will contain the voice of Students or delegitimises the current SRC if the petition pronounces otherwise.
4. Student affairs through student political organizations appoint an interim structure under a strict condition that either,
a) Political organizations choose the same people who are in the current SRC to be in the interim structure eg President of SRC becomes a convenor of the interim SRC, SG becomes the coordinator of the SRC. In summary its turning the current SRC into a task team wherein a Premier of a campus becomes a campus convenor and a President becomes an institutional convenor. The current SRC is involved is many discussions with management on issues that affect students such as allowances, registration and even Covid-19.
b) Appoint totally new people to be in the interim structure provided all student organizations are in agreement and endorse that kind of arrangement with a flexibility to allow one or two people from the previous structure to be allowed to be integrated for continuity.
5. Student Representative Councils approaches the court to seek an urgent interim relief on the matter, for either the continuation of their term of office upon the failure of all the above internal remedies and also considering it is not their fault that elections did not take place but coronavirus is a reality known to everyone, or for the court to give a
correct remedy and guidance on the matter.
6. Identify an independent mediator to adjudicate on a correct way forward. The university may appoint any person outside the university such as a retired Judge to preside over the transition. This is because current SRC members may be conflicted and university management may be conflicted too. These stakeholders were recently in conflict during the registration period and may not contribute independently on this matter.
7. The department of higher education and training can be approached by SAUS for two reasons
a) To have a nationwide uniform approach on this matter. The disaster management act acknowledges discontinuation of many activities such as conferences; classes and SRC elections are included.
b) The department of higher education will be approached from that direction as an independent mediator because some universities might refuse to listen to the submissions of students in their respective campuses.
8. The University Council which has power over all governance structures can either
a) Endorses the continuation of the SRC term of office up until the SRC elections are conducted on condition that student political organizations are allowed to replace those SRC members whom they wish to replace.
b) Disband the current SRC and appoint an interim structure in consultation with the outgoing SRC and all students.
9. The University can consult all students through online platforms to hear the views of students regarding the matter. Choosing the popular view through widespread consultation will help institutions to avoid litigations.
10.Student affairs together with outgoing SRC and student political organizations draft an agreed terms of reference for adoption by the university council. These terms of reference will then give way forward on addressing the challenge of the term of office of SRC, interim or roadmap to SRC elections.
11.Universities and colleges prepare one common date for 2020 SRC elections in October wherein voting will happen online. If such a date is announced timeously by July 2020 student organizations will have enough time to start canvassing using online platforms. This is because Covid-19 might be with us for the next two years.
12.The other option is just to follow what the SRC constitution says in the event that SRC elections cannot proceed due to reasons beyond the control of students and other university stakeholders. If such is not in
the constitution then either of the above options can be explored.

Conclusion

Vladimir Lenin whilst describing the events that led to the Bolshevik revolution says “they are decades when nothing happens and they are weeks when decades happen” It is now 107 years since that pronouncement but the words are so relevant even on the impact of Covid-19 in the higher education sector. Within few weeks a lot has changed we cannot have SRC elections, we cannot go to classes and we cannot shake hands. It must be noted that university management do not have powers to choose student leaders on behalf students. It is the students themselves who are entrusted with a responsibility to choose and determine their own leaders. SAUS discourage any attempt by some university managers to want to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to install leaders who push their own agendas outside student interests.

For and on behalf of the South African Union of Students

Lwandile Mtsolo
Secretary General