The Student Assembly: High School Youth Leadership Initiative

Involved alumni:

The challenge that the project addresses

The social challenge addressed is the need for democratic student participation at the local and district level in schooling, and, the prevailing marginalisation of student voice and agency, which contributes to experiences of alienation and often manifests in unfair discrimination in policy and practice at the local level. Practical examples of this includes the construction of school codes of conduct without any input from student representatives, or, school disciplinary practices that are both harsh and ineffective because students are not included in the process.

What is your project doing to respond to this challenge?

The Student Assembly is an organisation of about 90 student leaders from schools located in the Metro South Education District (MSED) in Cape Town, all of which may be described as schools serving ‘working-class’ communities. They meet to discuss school related concerns at a local level as well as broader issues of educational inequality. The members include both elected student representatives (RCLs in SA) as well as student leaders who have opted-in and who are committed to working collaboratively across schools for changes that promote social justice. In short, the Student Assembly offers what might be described as a sub-altern counter-public space, or, a third space. It is a necessary community where students can get together in ways where they can think, speak and debate freely without being curtailed by limits of what the formal system of RCLs permits. It allows them to craft stronger positions together, that take into account issues beyond their own school, and then to insert and assert new ideas into existing structures, where many members also hold office. We have seen for example how through the group, school based RCLs that were relatively silent have been able to build power and articulate themselves, knowing they have a place where they are supported.

Describe the project's impact

A significant challenge in South Africa is finding ways for people from different communities to recognise the common causes of suffering and to join hands together in tackling root causes. In the assembly we have seen how for example having students from a community like Masiphumelele in the ‘Deep South’ engage in conversation with students from Lotus River on the Cape Flats is incredibly valuable to break down stereotypes and to identify how both communities face similar challenges because of how they are located in relation to the history of apartheid and contemporary neoliberal capitalist economic policies. While a kindness project like distributing shoes to students in need (one project the group has done), does not attend to a systemic problem, it also builds capacity in terms of project management, collaboration and coordination as student leaders from different schools work together. In doing so stories have also been surfaced which open for deeper dialogue about the city and housing like the story of one student who had come to school in slippers because the family’s home had burnt down. Other more direct projects such as organising petitions on school uniform and writing to the education district have developed other capacities like managing confrontation, developing demands, building a base and pressing for change in the face of negative resistance. In this line, some successes have been achieved too, most recently one school has agreed to student demands to end ritualised girling and the enforced wearing of skirts.

How will you spend the R20,000 award to improve the impact of your project? 
The award would be used to host an ‘alternative RCL summit’ for student leaders who want to promote justice and dignity in schools. More importantly, we would like for the high school members to be involved in co-constructing such an alternative summit. Such an initiative would be hosted in the school holidays and would include workshopping with three broad focus areas: 1) Arts-based activism (e.g. learning how to produce a podcast, performance poetry or poster-making etc.) 2) Lessons on organising and mobilising (e.g. planning campaigns, base building and leadership development) 3) Political education (e.g. studying the history of student resistance in Africa, exploring student movements globally) Why alternative? The existing trainings available to students through official avenues often proceed with very narrow framings of student leaders that are premised on British-colonial models of ‘prefects’ and ‘monitors’ and view the responsibilities of student leaders largely as extensions of school discipline. We need a summit that is capable of re-asserting the radical imagination that animated student organisations historically – of remembering the reason why the present schools act mandates for schools to have a student leadership body (something that was the result of contestation).