First black female SRC President: UFS a year later

Now they write praise poetry for her

It’s been a year and things have gone smoothly for ‘Madam President’ as Mosa Leteane is fondly known by the student community at the University of the Free Sate. The firm and decisive leadership she brought to student governance has seen big changes implemented. Her gift of eloquence won over many and it grew stronger during her reign. After a hesitant start she has become the epitome of a female voice that is determined to leave a mark. Who refuses to be undermined. As part of The Journalist’s first anniversary celebrations we run an interview we did with the President a year ago.

After elections in 2014 the University of the Free State finally had a black female SRC President. But Mosa Leteane had encountered bigotry and was even been labelled a “Satanist” at first. She almost gave up. At UFS the lines between race and gender as well as a few other things run deep, criss-crossing the minefield she had to walk to grasp the top student title.

Now social networks sing her praises. In a recent Facebook post a student performs a praise poem publicly.

Thinking stone live performances

Posted by Kay Da WordSmith K on Wednesday, 19 August 2015

And here is what they are saying elsewhere on social networks:

“It is under President Mosa Leteane that for the 1st time in 111 year history of UFS that the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) will be facilitating the SRC elections.

  • 2016 Application fees are no longer applicable
  • Honours registration fee has been waived
  • Formal review of the UFS Language Policy
  • Racist Inter-Varsity stopped
  • SRC bank account to raise funds for poor students
  • No Student Hungry Concert
  • No American Trips but money aided registration

“These are amongst other things. Amilcar Cabral once said in 1965, ‘Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.’
History will absorb Our First Democratically Elected Black Female President. SASCO is proud!!!
MALIBONGWE!!!”

A year ago I wrote the following piece:

The divisions on campus have left her battered. Attempting a campaign speech at a male residence, supporters of her male opponent, ordered her off the stage abusively: “Eh monna! Eh sisi please! Please! You haven’t sold me anything. Hamba! Hamba! Hamba sisi!”

Mosa Leteane pauses and stares reflectively into the middle distance. She’s a complex young woman. She goes from girlish and shy to confidant and urbane and back again in no time at all. It’s clear that reliving the events of the past few weeks still hurts even for this young woman who was exposed to testing times growing up as the daughter of an absent father and mother who was once a petrol attendant. After being forced off a campaign platform she almost gave up.

“I came into my room, I poured myself a glass of wine and I just broke. I broke. I didn’t talk to anyone.”

The University of the Free State, a microcosm of a society grappling with change.

UFS, a microcosm of a society grappling with change.

Near to where I’m interviewing this woman who is a sign of the new times, is a statue of another era. A former state President of South Africa C R Swart sits imposingly on his plinth. A water feature drones in the soft light of early evening. Street lamps whose yellow lights blend with the shrubs near the imposing main building look like suspended full moons. The dead white chief, the humming water feature and the artificial light seem to be just the right surreal setting for a story that doesn’t belong on a modern university campus.

Mosa Leteane’s SRC election victory was filled with paradoxes and I talk with her to try and understand what exactly happened. At times I forget the requirements of journalistic detachment and we both find comfort in swapping stories about the many contradictions the UFS environment represents.

Colour Is Primary

“No matter how much you can achieve. No matter what you do, you are your colour first. Sadly that’s the status quo… everything else is secondary. Like now for instance, I’m the first black female, you have to put the ‘black’ in first.”

Like elsewhere in our country the talk is all transformation. But the walk is something else. Mosa’s experience in these elections has highlighted the fact that there are serious issues relating to gender inequality that need to be addressed urgently on campus.

She gives concise answers to most of my questions. Words flow out of her mouth effortlessly. Sometimes she is almost too eloquent. But there are moments when she gets stuck. Difficult moments. Like when she tells the story about her campaign speech being trashed by male students and being told aggressively to “hamba”.

She says she felt dejected because she thought she was the only person being subjected to this kind of behaviour. But when comparing notes with fellow female candidates, other stories of being harassed by a group of guys came up. One female candidate allegedly cut her campaigning short because of a similar battering during one of her rotations at a male residence.

“After hearing them and what they had to go through, it all just flew by. This was bigger than me, it was bigger than all of us. Maybe it’s all part of the game, but why do we allow the game to be like that when we are also contenders and we are very much capable of owning that game now? Why do we allow that?”

Sometimes her campaign team and at other times her mother and her best friend Melissa kept her very centred, she says. And then there was the fact that the abusive men were in the minority. She was ordered off stage at only one male residence and the disrespectful comments towards female candidates came from smaller groups.

Mosa is still trying to unpack what it means to be the first black female SRC president of the University of the Free State. Now taking stock she feels pressure as a woman to address gender issues on campus. But she is still unsure of how to go about this.

Stressed & Pressurised

“Do I have a women’s programme to address the fact that I am a female president? Do I have a few dialogue series? Call in a few famous women and then voila we’re done? Understand that my position is looked at from a deficit approach so I need to have programmes that speak to that. But the longevity of the programmes is what has me stressed and feeling pressured… I want to leave something that lasts.”

She says the Independent Elections Agency (IEA) has a responsibility to have proper regulation during campaigning to avoid what happened to her being repeated in future.

“Obviously they [IEA] can’t baby us, but when someone just stands there and stands on a chair and tells you ‘listen just get out’, some action needs to be taken… That’s what happens when we women try and step up. I think even in the business sector.”

One of Mosa’s IEA representatives reported handing out a flyer to a male student who after noticing that Mosa was female, asked whether her hormones would not cloud her judgment when she had to make important decisions during her menstrual cycle. Sadly, not all her detractors in this regard were men. While campaigning at the UFS student centre one of the questions Mosa was asked came from a young woman, about whether the campus was ready for a female president.

But how do young women steer a steady course through these difficulties? During her tenure as prime (student leader) at N J van Der Merwe residence Mosa faced one of the thorniest times in her student leadership career. She was labelled as “satanic” by fellow residence members.

The explanation is as mind boggling as the punch line. During RAG first years are inducted into student life through activities that challenge them and are aimed at evoking a sense of camaraderie. Singing a residents’ house song is one of these traditions. One of the lines in the house song alluded to having “Christian joy”. Two Muslim students felt excluded and didn’t want to sing the song because it went against their religious beliefs. Wanting to ‘fix’ this, Mosa suggested that the line in the lyrics be changed to “inner joy”.

After a vote there was consensus amongst the residents about the change. The house also took a decision on religious activities within the residence in order to accommodate academic times and other religions.

“When one is tasked with leading a residence, a place that is a home to many, it’s very important to create a home that can accommodate change for future generations,” says Mosa.

An uplifting victory for the first female SRC President in a century.

An uplifting victory for the first female SRC President in a century.
Photo Tango Goode

Losing Support

Some residents were not happy about all these changes. As a result she faced the devastation of her residence supporting her opponent during her campaign. They even plastered his posters all over her residence. She says this defiant endorsement of her opponent did not upset her much but that it damaged the image of the residence.

“It looked very petty and untidy. That was not the sisterhood I was introduced to.”

Her detractors say her performance in the previous year’s SRC may have also contributed to her fellow colleagues’ lack of support during her campaign. They deemed her as unavailable and lacking focus. Some claimed she hardly attended SRC council meetings and generally did not take the SRC seriously.

“She started being active when interest was shown in running”, one of her colleagues said.

When I asked Mosa to expand on this and why she was seen as an apathetic leader, she wails “No, no people must slow down” and then she adds:

“They [people] will have a brief conversation with me and then they’ll leave it at that and assume that’s it. Maybe it’s because from the first few sentences they think I’m blonde or they think that I’m not up there, or I don’t care especially with an accent and my weave… [I’m] just about the superficial things in life. It’s just unfair. I don’t necessarily pour my heart out on the first conversation and I don’t have a problem with the way I speak because then that would mean I would have to apologise for my mother’s sacrifice.”

Her lack of a definable or geographic accent can best be described in that South African code for elitist schooling; Model C. In a deeply divided society UFS is only a microcosm, so even such a superficial characteristic can cost you votes or turn people against you.

In terms of her unavailability during her first term, when she was in charge of the legal and constitutional affairs portfolio in the SRC, she says her passion had died down.

“I think very differently. I am smart. I am capable in my own right and in my own way. I was passionate in the beginning. I was there, they can attest, I was there. Certain things just started happening in January. Factions and favouritism. There were groups. I didn’t like that and how it was not addressed. I just pulled away from the team.”

I Delivered

She cites the lack of synergy within last term’s SRC as the main reason she became detached from the group, not winning their confidence when her campaign took off.

And just as the dust began to settle the opening line of her acceptance speech got them all going again:

“Thank you for voting for the interest of all students. Thank you for voting against political gangsterism…”

Mosa faced a lot of criticism from the student body for saying this and some students still feel offended by it. She was called a ‘political prostitute’ by her opponent’s team. There were ‘comrades’ who felt her motives for running did not have the interests of students at heart.

“If you’re going to take ama-comrades to grab down posters and de-campaign. To speak violently, horribly and make sure that people crack and break down during campaigning, that’s political gangsterism. To have a violent sense of entitlement because of your political views. I know what politics can do and what it can achieve but what I was seeing was just brutal and gross violation of regulations and human dignity being passed off as political manoeuvring. So that’s where it was coming from… I’d never said anything about it during campaigning because, lets face it, I would’ve looked like a whiner. I felt like that was the time to express what had been happening and it caused a bit of disgruntlement but it had to be said.”

One of the other things she doesn’t regret was doing B Admin Public Management. There was no space in the Law faculty when she got here in her first year. She then switched to Law in her second year and hasn’t looked back since. She doesn’t see herself becoming a practising lawyer but sees herself in politics or governance. Having spent a year at home doing nothing after matriculating because her mother couldn’t afford to send her to university, she was charged up with a lot of energy in her first year and got involved everywhere she could.

“It hurt to see all my other friends go off to varsity. It honestly hurt at the time, but I sat down and got more in touch with my spiritual side.” She cites her relationship with God as what keeps her centred – that and her mother.

“God is supreme and no one will ever surpass that. You start with God and you work your way down. But my family is also very traditional so the ancestors are a very huge part of us so that side of me is also very much strong as well.”

An Idols Audition

And when she was turning to the more prosaic things in life she auditioned for the reality TV show Idols. But failure on that front seems to sit quite easily with Mosa who did music at high school. She laughs as she recalls that she made it through the initial rounds but did not get to the “Gareth Cliff stage”. So there are no embarrassing ‘wooden mic’ tapes of her anywhere.

Walking into her dimly lit room at house N J van der Merwe feels like entering a sacred space. Her walls are embellished with memorabilia, ranging from nametags from conferences she’s attended to pictures of the residence committee team she served with during her term as prime. She’s obviously a very sentimental person. Holding out a framed photo of a woman with features that resemble hers, she beams with her signature smile that makes her eyes light up as if all the laughter and warmth of the world are contained in them.

“I get teary just thinking about my mother because she’s had to do so much.”

The light leaves her eyes and her expression changes as she talks about her mother’s hardships. She fell pregnant at a young age and had to quit school. With two children to take care of, she worked as a domestic worker, a petrol attendant and a cashier to put Mosa and her brother through school.

“She worked herself up to a point where she’s now a teacher and she’s doing her honours. There are students who come to her pregnant. I think she has a deeper connection with those kids and she tries to teach them that there’s more to life. She’s a champion in that regard. She’s my champion.”

Observing her at the first SRC council meeting, I get the sense that she’s in her element. Wearing glasses with a beaded string attached, she pushes them up in an irritated manner as if to say to her specs “Stay put. There are more pressing issues to deal with here, than your refusal to stay in position.”

Mosa Leteane's acceptance speech accused her opponents of 'political gangsterism'.

Mosa Leteane accused her opponents of ‘political gangsterism’.

Many Twists & Turns

She sits very comfortably in front of the microphone, commanding everybody’s attention in the room. Mosa uses hand gestures a lot. When she opens her mouth you want to listen. She tells most stories with ease so that her comfort with difficult situations becomes infectious. At UFS she met one of her half-sisters for the first time and says her father probably has many other kids they do not know about. She recounts it all as casually as one would run off a grocery list. She is comfortable in her skin as the saying goes and has had to deal with many twists and turns. A bit more than most.

“I am very shy and so I start retracting and shut down. I get to a point where I just want to observe. People think it’s arrogance or apathetic. But I’m actually just trying to understand.”

Then there is the issue of her identity. A confusion that arises not only out of South Africa’s race obsessions. Her brother once locked her in her room because she was a tomboy who enjoyed playing with him and his friends more than the genteel games of the girls. He did not like the way his friends had started talking about his sister and so she was banned from their future pursuits. And to make matters more confusing, for part of her childhood she grew up in a coloured neighbourhood.

“At some point I was dead sure I was coloured. There’s a bit of an identity crisis that happened along the way. It took me a while to shake it off. Now and again it comes back, especially when I start talking to coloured people. It all just comes back. The last book I read was Biko’s ‘I Write What I like’. Before that was Fanon’s ‘Wretched of the Earth’ and ‘Black Skin White Masks’. I think it’s good that I started with him and gradually made my way to Biko. Twenty years [of democracy] is not enough for me to forget that I’m a black female. When I read that book I realised that no matter what you do, how much you achieve, you are your colour first. At the time I was just so confused about it and it was sad because I had no one to talk to. Gradually I made sense of it myself and I am still trying to make sense of it.”

Making sense of it all Mosa Leteane is well on her way to being a kind of ‘self made woman’. She doesn’t have any mentors but says it’s not for lack of trying.

“I don’t know what mentors do. People think I’m fine. I want someone who is very opinionated, someone who’s not scared, who’s not afraid of … who’s not going to be too diplomatic.

For a while it sounds as if she is describing herself. She toys with Thuli Madonsela and then ditches the idea with a sharp victory shout and…

“Chimamanda Adichie. If I could choose. Yes, that’s who I want. I love that she’s calm but she still tells things the way they are.”

“Have you read all her books? Do you read much,” I ask.

“I watched a lot of her YouTube clips. I read a lot yes but I just haven’t been getting into it in the last two years.”

A Fear of Failure

And what does Mosa Leteane fear? The answer is quick. Failure. At high school she stood for chair of the RCL or Representative Council of Learners. She lost. She was devastated.

“My mother had never seen me like that. I went home. I cried from the moment I walked in. I went to the bedroom and I died on the bed. I cried the whole day until 6 pm. The following year when I got to varsity I was just ready. I was getting involved in everything. I was raring to go.”

The C R Swart bronze is one of several images of apartheid heroes on the UFS campus.

C R Swart bronze, one of several apartheid heroes on campus.

When you’ve passed the statue of the dead white chief, C R Swart the last Governor-General of Union of South Africa and the first State President of the old Republic in the Sixties, there are more where that came from. Images of J B M Hertzog, Boer War General turned President, and his contemporary Orange Free State President M T Steyn have pride of place elsewhere on campus. To me it’s as if they stand guard like stone sentries that stem the tide of transformation.

I thought about how the raring to go ‘political prostitute’ now has to roll up her sleeves and work side by side with the ‘political gangsters’ of her opponent… all in the shadow of the dead white chiefs. Mosa has a short answer for how this is going to work.

“I have a newfound respect for someone who says if not me then who?”

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