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Student leaders should be beacons of knowledge and hope

Zonke Xanti (Treasurer General: National Student Representative Council, Unisa).

Zonke Xanti, the Treasurer General at Unisa’s National Student Representative Council (NSRC), is committed to ensuring the ethical identity of the NSRC. Recently speaking at a student event, she shared that an elected leader of any student body, club society or grouping is not a boss. Read her full address below:

“At first glance the topic seems rather simplistic and straight forward, but upon a closer analysis one begins to realise that this is a multi-faceted discussion which requires a unique approach of self-introspection and evaluation. We do this not because we see ourselves as the paragon of what it is to be a leader, but rather because of the lens through which we see this on a daily basis.

The first question I think we must ask ourselves today is: What is a leader?

A dictionary definition of a leader will give you a simplistic view of a leader being a person who takes charge of a group of people and churns out ideas. It sets an unrealistic ideal, which seeks to paint leaders as some unrealistic calibre of a person. In reality, a leader can be anybody, at any time and point in history who decides to accept the burdens of a particular group in society and clear the path to enable those that walk the journey with him or her to proceed swiftly without any problems.

Leadership is more organic than that

My understanding of a leader comes from the idea that the primary role of leader is not that of ‘boss’’, who, on daily basis, manufactures orders and issues instructions. I believe that leadership is more organic than that.

In the student environment there are different types of leaders: there are student leaders that are elected by their peers to ‘lead’ them and there are students who rise to an occasion spontaneously and emerge as leadership through their actions with regards to certain issues or matter facing students.

When it comes to elected leadership it must be known that elected leader of any student body, club society or grouping is not a boss. There is scary culture that has crept into organisations across higher education, inclusive of SRCs, where elected students in their different capacities begin to believe that they are in charge of students as opposed to leading them.

Service and sacrifice

Democratic student leadership, more than anything, is about service and sacrifice. I think I must repeat that – student leadership is about self-sacrifice and service to your constituency. When students elect you, they do not elect you to become an arrogant paragon – they elect you so you can deliver on their legitimate requests. A student leader is a servant of the people who forms part of their constituency, but this service in itself does not mean that leaders are purely there to take orders. A student leader should also be able to channel and advise its constituency upon the demands that it makes, for an example, on calls for free education.  Your role, as leader, is to champion the struggle through knowledge production, and the shaping of ideas. It means researching and understanding student needs and demands, such that you can teach and convince a broader network of people of their legitimacy and validity.

Be beacons of knowledge, hope and advice

The mark of truly remarkable student leaders is their ability to be beacons of knowledge, hope and advice to the people that they serve, meaning that as a student leader you must be able to rise above that which traps and embattles the average student. The student leader must have been able to go through the battles that a normal student has gone through and emerged victorious or failed dismally.  This will enhance his or her understanding of the situation and empower them to assist another person.

Traditionally people see failure as the worst thing in life. This is not true.  In my time of leadership at this this university I have learned that failure can teach great lessons and humble people, especially when they are on the wrong track. While we do not encourage people to fail at the tasks that they set out to perform, we advise them to learn from their mistakes, and the mistakes made by those surrounding them. However, I would be lying to you if I said that leading is just the rosy picture that I painted above.

The organic leader

The organic leader in student culture happens as a by-product of material conditions of a particular time. A clear example would be of the leader who emerges in a midst of a strike where there is general consensus that free education is key. As people from different ideological groupings we find ourselves being led by a common face or person who is not elected by the masses but is generally accepted by the masses as a leader. The leadership bestowed upon this person is by virtue of social compact when people in general tacitly agree to be led by the person for the sake of the struggle they seek to embark upon. Their selection of this leader is due to the ability or prowess of that individual, or those individuals to provide clarity in the face of uncertainty and doubt.

Although many students believe they are organic leaders on a perpetual basis, real organic leaders realise that their main task and goal is to deliver a certain mandate, and that their role does not stretch beyond that struggle as an organic leader. Whilst their influence may be used in other facets of life, they understand that, until the masses call upon their name again to lead sporadically, they will be available to guide and teach.

Leadership is not about what title is given to you

We must nurture a relationship between the organic leader and elected leader in higher education if we seek to constructively transform and improve the student environment. These two types of student leaders need to able to co-exist and work on a program that readdresses student issues, as opposed to finding themselves at loggerheads over who holds the monopoly over power. This is because power in itself does not lie in a position that one serves in, but rather in the ability of one to serve in a position. Leadership is not about what title is given to you, but it is about what you do when given a title.

When it comes to moral and ethical leadership we must always strive to be true to the environment we find ourselves in. The higher education terrain, very much like the business or political world, is heavy-laden with crooks and thugs. There are those who lead student struggles with a view of ensuring that they secure their own future in terms of job security and financial benefits. We must make it clear that being a leader is not a source or form of employment. Ones motives for accepting the role of leading students is not proximity to resources. Rather, ones duty is to deliver the mandate of students.  This is an ethical, moral code of conduct that all leaders should adhere by. Ones  motive as a leader should never be driven by personal  selfish needs and wants, because once this happen to a leader, he or she begins to unconsciously, or consciously in some cases, abandon the mandate given to  him or those they serve.

Leaders must face daily introspection

The reality that a leader must face on a daily basis is introspection. If you fail to do this as a leader on a regular basis, one day you will wake up and the only person following you will be your shadow.

A leader is a by-product of the community that he or she serves in, therefore we must be able to understand the social norms and values of that community, and be able to stick within the parameters. But where these social norms are outdated and generally non progressive, it is your role as a leader to conscientise the community as to why these norms need to be changed, and then transform them into acceptable standards.

I believe thatgender activism must increase in student politics, in order to fight sexism in our organisations and institutions of higher learning towards ensuring the equality of both genders.  We have a crisis of male dominance in the political space that we work in. Sexism in is unethical because it seeks to undermine a certain group, either of the genders at a given time. Sexism is acknowledged as being both unethical and immoral and must be combatted openly and firmly.

In conclusion, the type of a student leader that we need in the current higher education context, is one who reads extensively and who writes with insight. The genuine leader is one who is aware of his or her social, moral and ethical commitment to the service of students and the self-sacrifice of leadership. The student leader is a fearless fighter against injustices, not only systemic injustices but also social and ethical injustices, such as sexism and racism, for example.  The leader is also a teacher, friend, brother and sister to those surround him/her. A student leader is a person who fails, yet continues to pursue the ideals of the mandate that has been given to them  -  each time with a different approach and new lessons. Leaders should not merely strive to lead, but rather to serve with a deeply entrenched commitment to changing the world that surrounds, in a realistic time-frame.”

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