Incoming Wits student leaders aligned with BDS
Taking the reins from former majority leader, the Economic Freedom Fighters’ Student Command (EFFSC), the PYA candidates featured on the PYA election poster are pictured sporting the same black and white checked keffiyeh draped around their necks. This keffiyeh is a symbol of Palestinian nationalism or solidarity and a clear nod to BDS.
The PYA is a coalition made up of the South African Student Congress (Sasco), the Young Communist League (YCL), the ANC Youth League (ANCYL), and the Muslim Students Association (MSA). While the YCL contributes a small percentage, the other constituent groups account for sizeable presences within the PYA.
Former SRC leader and student activist, Jamie Mithi, says, “Given the BDS’s aggressive stance on Israel, this certainly seems alarming. Moreover, after the ANCYL and Sasco, the MSA is the largest constituent group of the coalition, and according to some, a markedly one-issue-oriented entity. This group lobbies for an academic boycott by the university of Israeli institutions. It funds many of the ANCYL programmes to that effect.”
He continues, “A significant number of the students on the SRC are also members of the MSA. The MSA secures funding for the ANCYL, contributing money for t-shirts and the like, in part from BDS.
“Figures like [BDS-SA Co-founder] Muhammed Desai and [former Wits SRC Secretary-General and former leader of the Wits Palestinian Solidarity Committee] Tasneem Essop have been very involved in shaping the policy of the SRC in respect of Israel when it is a PYA SRC. Students of the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) can expect more aggressive posturing from the SRC when it’s time for Israel Apartheid Week (IAW), simply because it is a predominantly PYA SRC, and therefore one that will put this issue front and centre as before.”
The ascent of the PYA marks a significant shift from last year’s EFFSC-dominated university space. Effectively the student branch of the EFF, it was the dominant voice in student politics, able to win the SRC elections resoundingly with 12 of 15 positions. In spite of its electoral success, however, the movement faced issues as the year progressed, says Mithi.
“While the group was in office, certain challenges arose around its administrative capacities and ability to communicate any victories it achieved. This led to many students feeling that it was ineffective, and a loss of considerable support.”
Meanwhile, the more energised party throughout the year was the PYA. “It had an agenda to reclaim the university for students,” Mithi says. “It has been a dominant party in student politics since 2008. It always maintained a majority, the exception being last year.”
According to Mithi, the EFF’s loss of support also coincided with the infamous Mcebo Dlamini’s return to politics [See page 3]. “Dlamini used Wits as a platform for his candidacy in the ANCYL national party, where he hoped to be nominated from the floor,” says Mithi. “That convergence of a resurgence of the PYA and Dlamini’s campaign for national candidacy caused a significant show of support amongst students for the PYA.”
The political shifts seen at Wits are not true of the University of Cape Town (UCT). While Jewish students were concerned that the university’s Sasco branch (the members of which also frequently sport BDS scarves) would win the SRC election, the EFFSC maintained a majority at that university.
As for Wits, Mithi says the bond between the BDS and the PYA has much influence in this year’s SRC. He claims that the anti-Israel lobby funded about 2 000 shirts for this particular group of student leaders.
BDS has confirmed its ties not only with the PYA, but also with the EFFSC. “The overwhelming majority of student movements from the PYA to the EFFSC support the Palestinian struggle against Israeli apartheid,” says Kwara Kekana, BDS-SA National Spokesperson.
“This is a reflection of the mood on campuses. Students from South Africa to San Francisco are increasingly supporting the BDS boycott of Israel. We thank the outgoing leadership for their backing of Palestinian solidarity and BDS campaigns, initiatives, and activities.”
If past trends are any indication, the bond between the BDS and the PYA could have tough consequences for pro-Israel students and SAUJS. The last time a significant amount of funding went to the PYA-led SRC was in the 2012 elections. During the course of IAW the following year, members of the PYA were among those who disrupted a piano recital by Israeli pianist Yossi Reshef on campus.
Mithi asserts, “This is therefore almost a complete return to 2012 student political dynamics in respect of the Israel-Palestine issue. SAUJS students should expect a hostile SRC next year, one that is closely affiliated with BDS, and that will definitely have a more aggressive IAW campaign.”
SAUJS’ leadership says that in light of the many very real issues affecting students such as student debt, it hopes that the SRC’s stance on Israel will not be the focus of its year. It has affirmed its commitment to its Jewish and pro-Israel constituents.
Says SAUJS Political Officer Ariel Goldberg, “Despite the differences in beliefs between the PYA and SAUJS, we are strong enough to continue standing up for what we believe in. Our fight is never an easy one, but no matter who is in power, we will continue to ensure that our Jewish students feel safe and protected on campus. SAUJS has worked very hard to establish a voice on campus, and we will ensure that we continue to stand firm in our beliefs.”
Wits’ management states that while SRC candidates do have external political affiliations, it will not permit them to be brought to bear on campus in a discriminatory way. “It is important to note that SRC candidates run in their individual capacity as per the electoral rules,” says Senior Communications Officer Buhle Zuma, “however, in most instances, these candidates tend to group together and many have political affiliations.
“Wits values diversity, and believes that its student and staff body should reflect a multiplicity of race, gender, socio-economic background, urban and rural geographic origin, culture, ethnicity, disability, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation. However, the university does not tolerate any form of discrimination or intimidation on its campuses.”
Jewish community leadership says it will stand behind SAUJS and Jewish students, addressing any issues that arise.
Wendy Kahn, the National Director of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, says, “This is certainly not the first year that the PYA has dominated the SRC. Over the years, our students have had varying interactions with it. No doubt, SAUJS students will continue to engage with the new leadership going forward. We always have and always will engage with all leadership.”
Ben Swartz, the National Chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, agrees. “Our most important aim is to ensure that the Jewish students and students who support Israel feel safe at all times,” he says. “We applaud SAUJS, and the work it does. It has our full backing.”
In spite of multiple attempts to contact various members of the PYA, the SA Jewish Report received no response to any of its questions, even when certain individuals responded to initial contact.