I doubt UCT first-years are told that their chances of being taught by a black professor are incredibly slim, says Siona O’Connell.
Cape Town - UCT will soon be welcoming its latest cohort of eager first-year students to its spectacular campus which overlooks the Cape Flats. During Fresher Week, these fortunate students will be congratulated for making the cut for admission to the continent’s premier university – one with a fine legacy that includes playing a role in the anti-apartheid struggle.
In the course of campus tours, they will see the Cecil John Rhodes statue that overlooks the rugby fields – but I doubt that these eager young minds will be told that their chances of being taught by a black professor will be incredibly slim.
I cannot imagine they will learn – despite almost 21 years of South African democracy – that this picturesque institution on the slopes of Table Mountain has actively failed to develop, appoint and promote South African black academics in any ways that do much more than a particle or two of justice to the demographics of the Western Cape and of the country as a whole.
I will listen carefully for how the word “transformation” is used when these students are introduced to their campus, which is guarded by the Rhodes Memorial – a significant imperialist edifice that continues to shadow the campus in many overt and covert ways.
As a black lecturer with a hard-earned PhD, I will teach some of these students this year. I will introduce them to my research interests, which think about freedom and have taken me from my beginnings in a black home in Cape Town to Ivy League institutions in the US.
I will speak to them about projects of mine that have attracted significant international funding and collaboration with international academies. I will tell them that I take my teaching responsibilities seriously, because each student deserves the very best chance of success.
I will do all this because, as a black South African woman, it is important for my students to realise that – even though UCT fails to recognise my achievements and contributions (I still hold the lowest academic rank of lecturer, for instance) – learning, working hard, achieving and contributing to this country are not negotiable for those of us invested in making South Africa work.
My experience is not the exception, given that UCT’s alarming academic staffing figures illustrate just how poorly this university has transformed. By 2013, the number of black academics at UCT was 48 out of a total of 1 405. There is not a single “black African” South African woman who is a full professor at UCT.
Women, in particular black South African women, fare badly. The achievements of our PhDs are largely unrecognised, given that many of our colleagues who do not hold doctorates are ranked and remunerated at more senior levels. To say that many of us are battle-weary and exhausted is an understatement.
I will teach, mentor and research against the backdrop of an institution that steadfastly refuses to see – or to behave as though it sees, even if it doesn’t – that having an overwhelmingly white academic staff profile in 2015 is not only problematic, but also an unconscionable disservice to all our students, the staff and the constituencies beyond the carefully guarded campus.
Paying lip service to real transformation has little to do with the will to change and more to do with retaining the status quo that protects white, male privilege. It is deeply egregious within the history of our country, our hard-fought-for democracy and the principles of the South African constitution.
The lip service has less to do with numbers and standards and more to do with the refusal to recognise that we are human, too. It also sets up many of our students and their families for failure, because they struggle to find their experiences mirrored and echoed at UCT.
I was saddened and horrified to learn of the racist attacks by UCT students late last year, but, after careful thinking, I realised that I was not particularly surprised. UCT is a campus mired in unarticulated tensions and divisions, many of them pivoting on race.
We simply do not talk about it. We do not ground race and belonging in the UCT experience and we have yet to begin the hard work necessary for thinking what a post-apartheid UCT could, and should, look like.
Transformation is much more than renaming campus roads and commissioning memorials of slave burial sites on UCT property.
Some of us have asked the university’s executive management for an independent audit of all staff appointments made and promotions awarded during the past 15 years – a request that has yet to yield a response.
Despite the assessment by several academics and many students that this is an untransformed space, UCT’s leadership steadfastly maintains that all is as it should be. And perhaps it is. For nothing really has changed. Some of us continue to work twice as hard to get half as far, battling an escalating rage that this is not the freedom for which we fought and all deserve.
As I wish these first-year students the very best for their studies, I urge them to use this significant opportunity to take up the challenge to make this city and country the place it can be. They will need to be fine thinkers with fervently creative imaginations, grounded by courage, for they will have to do this important task largely on their own. Despite this privileged and spectacular campus’s unrivalled and panoptic landscape view, I cannot see UCT leading the way.
* Dr Siona O’Connell is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.