Will Student Leaders Make An Impact In Parliament?

Former student leaders of the Fees Must Fall (FMF) movement are well on their way to Parliament. Wits University FMF leaders Nompendulo Mkwatsha and Fasiha Hassan have been named on the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party list. The Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) have named another Wits FMF leader Vuyani Pambo, as well as Naledi Chirwa and Phuti Peter Keetse. With all these vibrant young people entering the political domain, is it realistic to hope that the most pressing issues facing young people (including free higher education) will get the attention it deserves from the highest legislative body in South Africa? The Daily Vox spoke to political analyst Tasneem Essop about what it all means.

What does it mean that the top three are naming more youth on the party lists? Does it necessarily mean that because there are more youth in Parliament, there will be more of a focus on youth issues?

From all the parties there’s an element of wanting to tick representation boxes. From the ANC side it’s even worse because of their record with youth leadership, or young people included in their parliamentary lists. It does have an element of tokenism to it. If you look at the ANC list, there’s still an overwhelming representation of older members in the party. Although the ANC are taking these steps to include younger people, their representation is very skewed.

While I think it’s a good thing that young people have been included, it’s significant who the young leaders who are being included are. Young black women are being included but it needs to be more than that in terms of shaping the direction of these organisations in those spaces. It shouldn’t just be an exercise in ticking representation boxes.

There’s no evidence that just having young people in Parliament means that there will be a difference in how the agendas are shaped. Certainly, there is the potential for that now that young people have been included. Going forward, young people need to entrench themselves in and assert themselves in these parties and in these spaces whether it’s legislature or the national assembly.

What does it mean that so many former student leaders are named on these party lists?

It’s really significant that across the parties, the ANC and the EFF, FMF leaders or leaders from the student movement have been included in the list. It indicates how important that moment was in the country, how important 2015 and 2016 were for shaping politics and how we talk about politics. Yes, it took place in the elite spaces of universities, but it also filtered outward. It’s also partly a critique of these organisations: that the youth they’re including are centered around a position on higher education.

Looking at which former student leaders the EFF put forward, do you think we will see a free education strategy from the EFF in Parliament?

The EFF’s position on free education has been consistent. Their policy positions even before FMF in 2015 would indicate that the education issue was important for them. With the kind of people that are going into Parliament, I should expect that it’s going to be a continued debate from the side of the EFF and the ANC. What the EFF has in its favour is that they have focussed on younger leaders and have been entrenched in that kind of politics. That’s an important thing to consider in terms of youth politics and the EFF.

Considering that the ANC is the ruling party, how easy or how difficult will it be for young people who join the ranks to bring youth issues forward?

The ANC is a mammoth organisation in itself, even if its membership has been declining depending on who you ask. But it’s a big organisation and the number of seats it has in parliament for example means it has a much bigger caucus. That will count in terms of the impact that younger people will have in the space.

It’s much more difficult to leverage a particular position. It depends on what the young people going into these spaces going to do, how or whether they will form collective projects around themselves in relation to the ANC caucus. It even means which portfolios are you part of, what are your roles in those portfolios, if you speak in parliamentary debates. There have been critiques about who the ANC puts up to speak in parliamentary debates and the ANC has changed its position around that more recently. It is about how you assert yourself in those politics.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has also named a number of young people on its party list. What does this mean about how the party views youth and youth issues?

The DA misses the points around the debate on free education. The other parties have put in leaders who have been very central to those debates. The DA has put up its youth representation too and although these young people haven’t been central in FMF or the student movements, they have that background in DA youth politics. There are people from the DA youth organisation, and young people who have been leading different city councils.

Again, we must be able to separate what’s tokenism and ticking representation boxes versus a real opportunity for the young people in the DA to assert themselves in the DA politics, the DA caucus in the National Assembly. It’s about what agendas young people put forward.

I found it interesting that at that press conference the DA had on March 16, they foregrounded the youth that are on their parliamentary list. I read this cynically. It’s all of these parties saying, “Oh look we have young people too”. That’s a problem. We need to press beyond saying there’s someone thatâ’s 22 or 26 on a list, it must come down to a conversation about the politics.

As a young person going into the elections and looking at these lists, do you feel optimistic about youth representation in South African politics?

Without a doubt, it’s very exciting that there are more young people included in these lists this year. It’s a real advance. As a young person, even though I am critical about it, I must celebrate just that. It gives us something to talk about: new people and new politics. Of course, we must always remain critical of the deeper politics at play. It’s a bit of balancing for me at this stage.

Interview edited for brevity and clarity

Featured image by Ra’eesa Pather