An 'only in SA' storm in a teacup
The University of Cape Town sits inside the Democratic Alliance stronghold of Cape Town, which is in the Western Cape, the only province that the party governs. Naturally, if the DA Students' Organisation (DASO) gets something as simple as a Student Representative Council (SRC) election wrong, the other political organisations would be expected to harp on it strongly. It gives the ANC-aligned lot something to fling back in the DA's face. That's about the most rational explanation for why this storm in a teacup has gone national.
A closer examination of the relevant documents and who all the players are suggests, however, that the true cause of the controversy is clumsiness and naiveté rather than outright malicious intent.
Sometime earlier this year, UCT held elections for next year's SRC. The first results showed that seven DASO candidates, three SASCO and seven independents had won seats. However, following about 12 complaints from individual students or organisations, an investigation was launched and the electoral committee at the university found irregularities with the way that DASO had run its election campaign. Amongst the findings was overspending - and the students were ordered to pay the amount they had overspent to the university.
No further sanctions were handed down.
The appellants then referred the matter to the outgoing SRC on the grounds that the punishment was too lenient, which decided (via a commission of inquiry) that the case merited an aggravation of sentence, and all seven candidates lost their seats. The whole matter has been sent to the office of the vice-chancellor, the final arbiter in such matters.
The chief complaint was that the seven candidates had overspent their collective budget of R6,600 by R7,146. Students are each only allowed R600 (evidently not all DASO candidates succeeded in getting elected on to the council) to try to even the playing field. Other complaints were aimed at the presence of DA leader Helen Zille, parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko and national spokesperson Mmusi Maimane on campus during voting week, and also the fact that DASO campaigners used their personal electronic devices to allow students to vote online.
The outgoing SRC came down very heavily on DASO on the overspending rule. It said that the fine in essence meant that any student with deep pockets could grossly overspend and then pay the amount by which they were overspent to the university, thus 'buying' an election, something a poorer student would not be able to do.
The commission (made up of some of the outgoing SRC members) said in its report: "The fine imposed, admittedly on behalf of the EC, was not the most appropriate. The principle being reinforced by such a monetary sanction is that regardless of the nature of a contravention of election Code of conduct, the violation can be remedied by a financial contribution. In effect, it demonstrates that the crime of jeopardising a free and fair election is mitigated insofar as one's financial capacity."
The commission recommended that the DASO students should all lose their seats, even if these had been won democratically.
What really complicates the situation is the fact that the election committee, which acts as a sort of IEC for the university, is made up of administrators and students selected from different bodies including the Student Assembly and the SRC. It acts as a subset of the SRC, which means that its decisions are appealed to the SRC. This particular one has seven SASCO members, three DASO and seven independents.
The make-up of the outgoing SRC lends some credence to the claim by DA students that the appeal and decision were politically motivated.
The DA National Youth Coordinator Aimee Franklin, who fielded questions on behalf of the disaffected DASO candidates, said that they did not flout the rules as the SRC claims.
"The fact is that SASCO is being rolled back on campuses all over the country," she said. "The UCT SRC election was no exception: SASCO lost badly, only managing to get three candidates elected. We believe that the SASCO-dominated SRC's decision was nothing more than an attempt to secure SASCO's continued control of the SRC, even though they lost the election.
"The decision was politically motivated and procedurally flawed. We will therefore be appealing the decision to disqualify DASO (UCT) candidates made by the SRC."
However, an independent member of the current SRC said that it would have been very difficult for SASCO to influence the decisions of the commission.
"The SRC tried very hard to be fair about this. Even the Commission charged with investigating and advising the SRC on its decision was balanced: 1 SASCO member, 1 DASO member, 2 Independents, and one external member from the Law students' Council," he said.
Makashule Gana, the leader of the DA Youth (of which DASO is a subdivision) said that he would be making sure in future that the information coming to him about what was happening on campuses was accurate, and that students didn't flout university rules anymore. The organisation would not be launching its own investigation just yet without first launching an investigation to fully establish the facts.
However, the fault in this comedy of errors does not lie solely at the feet of the students who ran for council, those who complained or those who made rulings.
The constitution and by-laws of the SRC limited the options of the SRC in terms of giving sanction, the commission said. The people who wrote those documents apparently never foresaw an eventuality such as this one, where the will of the people (so to speak) must be circumvented due to election irregularities. The commission admitted that there was a huge problem in striking down elected leaders without holding another election (the timing of exams meant that new elections would be well-nigh impossible) but the rules didn't really give them much leeway. The SRC said that it could not justify letting the DASO students into the highest student body under such circumstances.
In fact, the entire report is littered with references to the poor laws governing SRC elections. On the point of Zille, Mazibuko and Maimane campaigning on campus and thus participating in a student campaign election as non-students, the commission notes that the rules don't actually define campaigning.
The commission said: "Neither the By-Laws nor the Code offers a definition of what constitutes campaigning or campaign activity-this is but one of a great number of flaws in both sets of rules. It would appear that a reasonable interpretation of these concepts is required, that is, an ordinary unbiased, unstrained reading of the words to deduce a reasonable definition."
The SRC laws effectively ban something that is never defined, something that any student of the law would know to be a catastrophic error.
Of course, this controversy is nothing more than an asthmatic child blowing into a cup of tea. DASO certainly needs better campaign management at UCT. When it comes to bending the rules, overspending the allowed budget by more than 100% is a ridiculous mistake, as is making activists go around and make people vote on the spot on an iPad held to their faces. The last people to use a similar tactic (albeit with far more violence) ended up receiving worldwide condemnation for corrupting the election results in Zimbabwe.
The gleeful manner in which Western Cape ANC chairman Marius Fransman leapt into this kerfuffle must surely prompt questions about his own strategies and prioritisation. It is tasteless, to say the least. Was the ANC Youth League in the province otherwise occupied?
It probably isn't a bad idea for Gana and the other DA Youth leaders to sweep this thing up properly. As small as this incident is, any corruption tag tends to be for life. "In our future - we may be a bit creative with the public purse" is not the sort of thing you would want to see trending on the social networks if you're DASO.
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.