US-SA Fellowship programme encourages racial justice discourse

The first cohort of students of the US-South Africa Racial Justice Fellowship Programme, along with academics leading the project from UKZN and Columbia University, pictured at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Photo: Supplied

The first cohort of students of the US-South Africa Racial Justice Fellowship Programme, along with academics leading the project from UKZN and Columbia University, pictured at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Photo: Supplied

Published Jul 28, 2023


By Hlengiwe Khwela

The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s (UKZN) School of Education, in collaboration with the Teachers’ College at Columbia University in the United States, has established the US-South Africa Racial Justice Fellowship Programme.

The programme aims to equip 24 Master’s and doctoral students with knowledge, skills and support to advocate for racial justice in the educational system and society through research and practical action. Virtual sessions as well as in-person student exchanges will be held over the nine-month course.

Funded by the US government, the project will address issues common to both countries brought about by the legacy of apartheid in South Africa and slavery in the US. Led by Principal Investigator, Professor Thabo Msibi, UKZN’s Dean for the School of Education, the overall vision of the programme is to establish a Racial Justice Institute at the university.

Msibi said UKZN was excited to be part of the Racial Justice Project, which aims to build a strong cohort of the next generation of racial justice scholars. “Through this programme, we have been able to pull together the most distinguished scholars of race and racism in South Africa and the US with the aim of building a solid foundation for our fellows; a foundation that will transform institutions and society.

“UKZN and Teachers College, Columbia University have been working on a number of transformative projects over the last five years. We are extremely excited about this project as it not only aligns with the new strategic plan, but will also have significant implications for the two nations participating,” Msibi added.

As the first institution to host a week-long exchange, UKZN delivered a programme comprising a panel discussion on Decoloniality and Racial Justice as well as sessions on Reconstructing Race: Toward a Conceptual Framework for Learning and Liberation, Introduction to Critical Methodologies and Community-based Participatory Research, and Critical Race Theories facilitated by academic experts.

High on the agenda was the Impact of Intersectional Microaggressions on Racial Justice in Higher Education Transnationally: Survey, with responses from students in South Africa and the US delivered by visiting professor at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), Professor Assata Zerai.

Zerai defined microaggressions as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative, racist, sexist, able-ist slights and insults toward Black, Indigenous and other People of Colour (BIPOC), women, nonbinary individuals, and Persons with Disabilities (PWD). She shared an example of microaggression where a Black female student from the University of New Mexico in the US constantly faced an issue of litter being left in a venue assigned to her for music practice. When the student asked for another room, she found a banana peel there, which resulted in her no longer using the university facilities. Considering the context of the state and the university at which this took place, “where African Americans are viewed as a minority of a minority,” she explained how this was a form of racial and intersectional microaggression known as RIMA.

Zerai also shared how Gender and Intersectional Microaggressions (GIMA) affect students through a survey conducted at Wits. She implored students to interrupt microaggressions through the use of communication approaches such as inquiring, paraphrasing and reflecting, reframing and redirecting. She said: “Microaggressions are about dealing with larger systematic issues at play; we don’t want students dropping out or changing their majors due to injustices and pursuing something that isn’t their passion.”

Dr Marshall Maposa, of UKZN, examined archival research in the struggle for land reform in South Africa. He reviewed policies that existed during apartheid that intentionally deprived Coloured, Indian and especially Black people of infrastructure, resources and services such as the Group Areas Act of 1950, and forced removals. Maposa said racial justice in South Africa was not just about reform, but about restitution for past sufferings.

Commenting on the extent to which apartheid systems still affect the country almost 30 years into its democracy, he said that 80% of agricultural land was still owned by white farmers - as the minority group. He further elaborated that the 2017 land audit showed that of the total number of sectional title deeds, 45% were owned by whites, 17% by Africans, 21% by Coloureds, and 5% by Indians - clearly out of kilter viewed against the population demographics.

Students engaged in robust discussions on: (1) Whether racial justice was the same for everyone and inclusive of every race; (2) How children could be taught in their own languages in schools focused on their own history and heritage; and (3) How the accrual of generational academia and wealth could be achieved on a global scale.

“As archival researchers, we have an obligation to figure out what racial injustice lies in our communities and to collect evidence as a form of activism,” said Maposa.

Commenting on the fellowship, Tiffany Johnson of the US said she was thrilled to be a part of the programme and to explore the beautiful country of South Africa. “My favourite part of this experience has been getting to connect with South African fellows, as well as recognising the many similarities that exist in our lived experiences, history and culture.”

Fezeka Gxayibeni, a South African PhD student, said the programme was exploring uncharted terrain. “The issue of race in this country is still quite taboo. Hearing how American fellows come from a different context where race has been part of their discussion and what they have been doing as a movement is interesting, as it gives us an opportunity to learn from them while reflecting on our own issues.”

UKZN’s Dr Vusi Msiza, who is the project manager of the programme, said the plan was to resuscitate the scholarship of race and racial justice. “There are only a handful of scholars who are tackling the issue of race, which has resulted in discourse around the issue dying; yet people experience racism every day.

“Through the fellowship, we will bring together scholars involved in race and intersectional work in both countries so that they can teach our students in the hope that they will become leaders in addressing racial justice,” Msiza said.

Other activities during the exchange included visiting the Gandhi and Luthuli Museums, being part of the Edgewood campus tour and a township tour, as well as attending the Juneteenth Celebration on the Howard College campus.

The South African fellows, who are drawn from a number of higher education institutions across the country, will have an opportunity to visit the US in September.