The wind of change is yet to blow
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It is fallacious to draw comparisons between the demonstrations of the Class of ’76 and those of the past few weeks, writes Thami Mazwai.
Johannesburg - One still asks oneself what the logic was of linking the transformation of higher education sector to the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The statue has fallen but the situation in higher education in terms of transformation is still what it was.
The flawed reasoning justifying the protests was that they were more about the lack of transformation in general, and not only about the statues themselves. The remonstrations, the reasoning continued, were akin to the Class of ’76 protests against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, but then evolved to be part of the struggle against minority domination.
The remonstrations against the statue will, similarly, ignite all against the lack of transformation in universities and society in general. In fact, it was matter-of-factly explained, the coming of South Africa’s “spring” is with us, as the “Arab spring” in parts of the Arab world over the past five years. One is not sure what the basis of this romanticism is, but it is dangerous talk. While the season of spring is symbolic of renewal in view of the new rains it brings; these rains can also be a deluge which destroys the country. This is what the Arab “spring” did in Libya and Syria. Worse still, in Egypt the “spring” ended up anointing as president a former army general who toppled a democratically elected government. Some “spring”!
Frankly, it is fallacious to draw comparisons between the demonstrations of the Class of 76 and those of the past few weeks.
In 1976, students remonstrated against Afrikaans as it was an instrument instituted to control their thinking and reinforce their oppression.
The statues of Cecil John Rhodes, King George V, Paul Kruger and Jan van Riebeeck are relics of the past and have no demonstrated link with the present academic life of universities. The parallel is simply downright offensive and insulting.
On the other hand, transformation is of national significance, and needs a more measured approach than student protests and anger, sit-ins and sometimes sheer thuggery.
Professor Sizwe Mabizela, vice- chancellor of Rhodes University, and Professor Saleem Badat, former vice-chancellor, warned at a graduation ceremony at the institution that recent events reflect the sad reality that the political transition of 1994 has not been accompanied by economic and social upliftment of the poor and marginalised majority of our society.
According to Mabizela, the events at universities in Cape Town and Grahamstown point to the frustration and impatience with the slow pace of transformation in general and, in particular, in institutions of higher learning.
Badat warned that the events mark the beginning of a social movement likely to extend to other universities, expand, and strengthen over time. According to him, “Those who constitute the movement are exasperated and angry at the slow pace of change in the institutional cultures, in the academic staff body, and in important aspects of the academic programmes of the historically white universities”.
However, I question the spirited protests in a situation that is utterly complex. Firstly, a tear came to the eye last Friday at a graduation ceremony at Rhodes. At least 70 percent of the students being capped in that specific ceremony, one of six, were young black South Africans and, nogal, most were female. I wanted to ululate.
The bigger picture is that in 2000, 25 percent of the students who graduated from the universities of Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Pretoria, Witwatersrand and Rhodes were indigenous African and 15 percent were African females.
In 2013, the 25 percent had shot up to 38 percent and the 15 percent to 25 percent.
Whether the increases are worth crowing about or not, Hendrik Verwoerd must be turning in his grave, as he sought to keep these young blacks off the so-called white campuses.
Regarding staffing, a major cause of concern, the situation regarding African representation in the teaching and research staff at several universities was as follows:
Obviously, the situation is quite grim but transformation is not an event but a journey. It is not, as students seem to think, a matter of replacing a white lecturer with a black one, just like that.
After all, university councils have transformation top of the agenda. The Department of Higher Education and Training (Dhet) has also set targets for higher education institutions, which include the admission of students from rural areas. Universities are thus also monitored as they submit equity reports to the Department of Labour and Dhet.
Should we then not concern ourselves with the problems which the councils, and black vice-chancellors encounter as they try to meet their transformation targets? Several issues come to mind.
For instance, municipalities throughout the country have serious problems because many transformed holus bolus, replacing experienced white officials with inexperienced black ones.
Universities have specific deliverables, for instance, research output. Do we expect them to dismiss the experienced producers of such research? Not that the new black appointees would not be able to deliver. Still, our legislation does not countenance the dismissal of people purely on race. On the other hand, what about the vagaries of demand and supply; where the expertise the varsity wants is not the one on offer, regardless of the fact the one on offer may be highly rated?
A further issue on transformation is content and we are told that academics still teach outdated Eurocentric material?
This is not 100 percent true as black and white academics at numerous institutions consistently update their teaching, making it relevant to the environment, particularly in the social sciences. This is what knowledge creation is about.
The above, by no means exhaustive, indicates the challenges universities and Dhet face.
The student toyi-toyi does not serve any purpose. Instead, a deeper understanding of the dynamics is urgently required. Let us get to grips with it.
* Mazwai is a businessman.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.
The Sunday Independent