Setting the record straight: annual SRC excursion and training


As an institution that strives to be people-centred, the University of Pretoria places a high premium on leadership development. Resources, albeit far from being enough, are invested in ensuring that a crop of leaders who are ready to take the South African society forward is being cultivated. This is a leadership that can function in different situations, think outside its own group and ideological box and whose capability as leaders can be measured not only in terms of their political rhetoric but more importantly, by their ability to judge different situations correctly and make relevant contributions.

It is against this background that the training programme of the SRC should be seen. Those who have been on the SRC in previous years will testify that the UP- SRC has, since 2006, chosen a new direction. An agreement with the SRC of 2005 to experiment with a “hybrid” structure (that is, half-political parties and half-present constituencies) for the 2006 office term, paved the way for the new direction the SRC embarked on. Accordingly, the focus of the SRC had to shift away from a purely political programme which was often dictated by external political parties to constituency-based programmes. By this we mean executing the mandate of constituencies and accounting to them. Built into this is social responsibility which is critical for leadership development.

This new thrust also had implications for the kind of training the SRC should be receiving. The training had to ensure that it facilitates a mind shift so that pockets of students who were part of the old order could be helped to transcend it. It also had to ensure that social responsibility means understanding and acting on the plight of the marginalized that live on the peripheries of the mainstream economic activity. It also means helping the students transform from operating in an “anti” to a “pro” mode, thus introducing the importance of dialogue and engagement rather than confrontation and hostility. Our contention is that if we cannot make this intervention at the level of student leadership then we might as well forget about round-table discussions being a feature of our future society.

In line with the above, we introduced in 2005 the idea of working with teams to facilitate specific themes in our training. The teams were all made up of internal facilitators from faculties as well as support departments. These replaced the external service providers who, almost without exception, swallowed up our entire training budget for the year in two sessions. Internal facilitators either received an honorarium rather than a fee and a travelling allowance where applicable. We felt that this model would be cost effective and more sustainable in the long run than outsourcing all our training responsibilities.
With a sharpened focus on global leadership in 2006, we introduced the idea of compulsory training at the beginning of the term of office, following the initial orientation on portfolios and SRC duties. This session is usually a breakaway weekend which focuses on team building and helping individuals from different backgrounds and orientations to bond and function as one team. It always happens outside the University and should preferably be not far out of town.

The second session takes place during the mid-year break (since 2007) given the fact that the new SRC office term stretches from January to 31 December (in 2006 this session took place at the end of April since it was a transitional year, operating with a hybrid system). During this session, three things happen:

i) Participants are exposed to each other and have to contend with each other in a small closed-up space (a kombi) for more than twelve hours. This affords them an opportunity to get to know each other on an informal and personal basis, in different moods as well to enable them to talk about life in general

ii) Participants are also exposed to places and contexts they are not normally a part of. In 2006 and 2007, visits to the Durban University of Technology and University of Kwa-Zulu Natal were built into the trip. No institution of higher learning was contacted in 2008 since the arrangements to go to Port Edward were made at the eleventh hour, at the request of the SRC

iii) Advanced training on leadership in context takes place. This normally takes place during the first three days of the camp. A brainstorming session, known as the “Chairperson’s meeting” with the SRC then follows. This deals with issues of concern which the SRC does not have time to discuss during their regular business meetings. Fun, and lots of it, follows this meeting and continues for the rest of their stay at the venue.

While, as a rule, we engage different people from various faculties and support departments, Mr Smith has been one constant facilitator since 2006 because of his international and local experience in student development. He has not at any stage charged a fee, save to accept whatever honorarium or travelling allowance he is given; this despite the sacrifice of his family time in preparing his input and being away from home when we need him. His being accompanied by his wife, (this year together with a child whose health needs constant monitoring) did not cost the department a cent extra on its budget. If truth be told, those who have a problem with that are ungrateful and insensitive. Is he the first University employee to be accompanied by a spouse when the opportunity to do so arises? The student commentators in the Campus Beeld of 23 July 2008 know this very well.

The 2008 SRC excursion was initially planned for Mozambique. A programme was arranged with the Eduardo Mondlane University (EMU) in Maputo. However, due to the unfortunate spate of xenophobic attacks on African foreigner nationals during May and June, it became unclear whether the planned trip should still take place or not. The SRC assured the University on more than one occasion that the trip would still take place. However, during the weekend of 15 June, some SRC members indicated to the Chairperson that their parents were not happy about them going across the border due to conflicting stories they received about “retaliatory attacks” in Mozambique. An emergency meeting was then convened by the Chairperson on 18 June to take a final decision on whether to go or not. The few that had attended the meeting confirmed that the majority of the SRC members wanted to go on an excursion and that they wanted the University to find a place locally. Following a discussion on the few suggestions made, it was decided that a trip to the sea, preferably Port Edward again, should be made – hence the last-minute booking of the Port Edward Resort.

On the following Monday, the Vice Principal, Prof De Beer asked the Dean of Students and the Chairperson of the SRC to confirm whether the trip was still on as he was already preparing himself for his presentation. The Chairperson confirmed that ten people would be attending. She would be among the ten attending. To the surprise of other SRC members, she did not turn up on 27 June, the day the journey commenced. Until the Monday of the following week, there was still hope that she would still be coming to join the group.

One of the remaining four would be joining the trip on the Sunday evening following the conference he was attending in Bloemfontein, and he did. Of the remaining three, one had called in the morning of 27 June to say that there was an attempted burglary at his mother’s house and that he wanted to monitor the situation for a while. The Coordinator: Student Governance was informed during the course of the day (27th) that one other member was with the SRC Chairperson on a visit to Mozambique.

The University can confirm that the booking that was made on 18 June was initially for 12 SRC members and four staff members. At that stage, 12 SRC members were expected. However, the number was reduced to 6 after 4 people failed to turn up. On the whole, the trip still cost less than the 2007 excursion and far less than the Western Cape trips undertaken by previous SCRs, including the one led by Mr Janse van Rensburg, the previous SRC president mentioned in the Beeld article.

Given the above hard facts, the University finds it strange that certain members of the SRC, in conjunction with a previous president of the SRC took the liberty to talk to the newspapers conveying a consciously distorted version of the story. The treasurer whose name is mentioned in the Campus Beeld acted as the leader of the group and he enthusiastically organized the Margate and restaurant visits as well as chaired student sessions at which certain strategies were discussed. He submitted a report on this on his return. It is therefore hypocritical of anyone who was part of the excursion to claim that it was chaotic and a waste of time and money. If anything, those who attended the training session did everything as planned, save that the numbers were lesser than expected. They too gave a very positive feedback about the excursion.

Our opinion is that the newspaper was approached with the view to deflect the focus on the irresponsible behaviour of students who committed themselves to the trip and ended up pulling out at the last minute, this causing financial losses to the University. It is therefore not surprising that the newspaper article does not refer at all to that behaviour.

Journalists (especially cadets) should scrutinize the motive of their sources before rushing into writing stories. It is possible that some sources could have ulterior motives.

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