“For as long as I can remember, when growing up I was the kid in the playground that would organise everyone together to make sure no one was left out. I was a class rep in high school, the youngest-ever Head Boy in that school. I was Head Boy in Grade 8 because they used a system where you were chosen based on character, and not necessarily your grades.”
This quote says a lot about David Kabwa, the University of Pretoria’s newly installed Student Representative Council (SRC) President. Kabwa – who made history when he became the first second-year student elected UP SRC President last year – overcame the hurdle of running as an independent candidate. Taking on well-funded organisations linked to prominent political parties could intimidate anybody, but Kabwa isn’t someone who backs down easily. He credits his mother and father for his go-getter attitude.
“My mom taught me the value of Christ, that he will never leave you, never forsake you. My dad is actually a UP alumnus. He did his master’s degree here, in medicine. He taught me the value of hard work. He only takes three days off every month. I’ve never met anyone who works harder.”
His mother is from Belgium, and his father from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Kabwa was born and raised in Limpopo. He cites the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr as his top political hero. “Also Alexander Hamilton [the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, appointed on 11 September 1789]. Definitely former President Nelson Mandela, he really was an influence. And then there was former US President Barack Obama and activist Steve Biko. Those are among the thinkers that inspired me.”
This inspiration shines through in his plans for the year ahead. He says because his political term is a “short” one year, he wants to take a two-pronged approach: The first is to put in place long-term, lasting solutions. “In the long term, what we are looking at is engaging with university policies and university culture.”
He says creating long-lasting transformation means that university policy and culture, as well as issues of constitutionalism, must be considered. “And by this I mean not simply getting rid of what we believe is wrong to replace it with what we believe is right. It is ensuring how we can get from one phase of the transition to another in a way that is beneficial to, first of all, students, and second of all, the institution as a whole.”
His short-term goal, he says, is to create a sense of unity – which he says the student body has not had for some time. “Within the institution we have often been fragmented into pockets. I really believe that with our SRC being comprised of so many different individuals, we can bring about a kind of unity that UP has not seen in a while. We will carry the torch and this torch will burn the flames of unity.”
Kabwa’s passion for student issues is clearly communicated when he lays out what he considers the two biggest issues facing students: mental health and student hunger. He says mental wellness has been a growing issue, not only at the University of Pretoria, but across the country. He says many students often feel a lot of strain, from toxic relationships, toxic home environments, plus the pressures of being a university student. As a result, he says, they then cut themselves off from the world. “And because of that, their academic work often suffers. If depression is holding you back, obviously you won’t be able to achieve the marks that you want to.”
Kabwa says he is determined to represent the students who elected him to the best of his ability. “If it wasn’t for my fellow students, I wouldn’t be in this position. That is something that I remember every single day. That basis of servitude; realising that simply because you wear a nice blazer or you have a fancy office, it means that in fact, you are the biggest servant of all. For me specifically, I realised that I am here because students put me here.”
The three-time provincial medallist and two-time national medallist in pentathlon and laser-run, says sports is one of his biggest passions. “In a highly stressful environment, you need an escape. For me it’s sports. I’ve also done modelling, but for 2019, I’ve ended all contracts. My focus is academic, sports and SRC.”
With his father being a UP alumnus, the new SRC President firmly believes alumni have a supportive role to play in boosting their alma mater – foremost being financial support.
“I’d like to think that, with regard to the many programmes that the SRC offers, and new ones we are looking to run, we are very much in need of alumni support. We have feeding schemes that we are looking to introduce, and we also have a series of wellness games we want to introduce. Our budget right now is dedicated towards assisting students, specifically with regard to study, finance, and everything of that sort.”
He would also like alumni to play a bigger ambassadorial role. He says alumni interaction can have a big impact in an area such as mental wellness. “We don’t want to speak about mental wellness in open dialogue or public debate. However, it would be beneficial if we had alumni who were willing to come forward and say, ‘If you need help, go out and get help.’”
With the University beginning a new era, heralded by the appointment of new Vice-Chancellor and Principal Prof. Tawana Kupe, the year ahead should be filled with interesting challenges and opportunities.
“Together we can work constructively, we can work in unison, and we can build bridges for all students and staff at the University of Pretoria to walk on.”