Varsity heads lost in transformation
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The vice-chancellors of the universities of Cape Town, the Free State and Wits seem to have lost the plot, writes Lesiba Seshoka.
Johannesburg - There are of course numerous reasons why the current crop of university vice-chancellors should not be allowed to sit for the “tough” transformation examination. Some of them have simply failed the most basic arithmetic and the reasoning of others defies logic.
Take Jonathan Jansen, the outspoken vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State. A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of listening to him speak at the Marketing, Advancement, Communication in Education seminar at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.
Like all his colleagues, he argued that transformation was necessary but could not happen overnight.
For a professor of Jansen’s standing not to understand that the period between 1994 and now cannot be tantamount to “overnight” boggles the mind and defies logic.
His reasoning is the same reason that we were confronted with in 1994, that transformation was not an event but a process, and that it could not happen overnight.
If one were to approach him on this, Jansen would of course argue that he did not mean it in the literal sense but some figure of speech called a metaphor.
But what metaphor is this that seeks to equalise 21 years with “overnight” that is the dictionary equivalent of “sudden”, “rapid” or “instant”?
A lazy carpenter is said to often blame his tools.
When Jansen passed the buck to the schooling system for being too mediocre to allow him to produce black professors, I nearly fell off my chair from shock just from the realisation he may as well be a lazy carpenter unable to make good with what he has.
As Nelson Mandela put it, “it is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.”
He went on to pass the buck on to the South African Democratic Teachers’ Union (Sadtu), arguing that if he were the basic education minister, he would fire all its members and rehire them.
What an ignorant professor who does not seem to be living in South Africa and who appears not to be cognisant of the complexities of his country’s labour relations regime?
But is charity not supposed to begin at home? Jansen is unable to deal decisively with racists at his own institution that humiliate black people on a daily basis but believes he can deal with at least 300 000 black teachers who, in his thinking, are lazy and incompetent.
Shouldn’t he be the first to go for failing to deal with racism as well as to transform his own institution?
The more Jansen spoke and I listened to him, the more I was convinced he was a white man trapped in a black skin. As with many other vice-chancellors, he perceives himself as a voice of reason, of course with faulty logic.
It is a logic that sees no difference between “21 years” and “overnight”, a logic that sees everything wrong with a student’s admiration of Adolf Hitler and nothing wrong with practising Hendrik Verwoerd’s apartheid-style policies in higher education.
It is a logic that he thinks can deal with a 300 000-strong flock but unable to deal with a handful of rotten racist potatoes on his farm.
This was almost the same shocking reasoning advanced by University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Max Price that it takes at least 20 years to produce a professor.
Does it really take 20 years to produce a professor? If so, how many black professors have the universities produced in the past 21 years of the new dispensation?
This comes from a man who when confronted with human excrement splashed over the Rhodes statue lost his wits and eventually succumbed to pressure to remove the statue.
Like the biblical king of Babylon, Belshazzar, who failed to understand the writing “mene, mene tekel, upharsin” on the wall, Price dismally failed to understand what the faeces on the statue signified.
He failed to understand that the problem was not the Rhodes statue per se but what the statue represented in terms of lack of transformation at UCT.
He danced, clapped and sang to the dismay of many who watched with interest and were held captive by the unfolding drama.
Unlike Belshazzar – whose astrologers couldn’t interpret or understand the writing on the wall, which only Daniel could – the whole of the South African nation could interpret what Price, a qualified medical doctor from Wits, with a string of qualifications from the London School of Hygiene and Oxford, appears not to understand.
It is comprehensible to think that someone with qualifications from a school of hygiene could believe the the best way of dealing with unhygienic conditions brought by human excrement on a statue was to remove the statue itself.
The implication is that each time human excrement is splashed on a building or artefact, followed by a chorus and some drum majorettes, that artefact or building should fall.
Being the problem that he is, in transformation terms, shouldn’t he too fall on his sword?
But more worrying is the manner in which he and Adam Habib, the Wits vice-chancellor, dealt with the delinquent students during this troubled time.
Habib had to deal with a student leader, Mcebo Dlamini, who told all and sundry he drew his inspiration and admiration from Hitler.
Habib later recalled the student leader who was president of the Student Representative Council, albeit for different reasons.
It is, however, interesting that the recall happened almost at the same time as the uproar over the student’s remarks on Hitler.
The message the public is getting is that Habib realised it would take him a longer time to deal with the poor student leader and he quickly pulled an ace up his sleeve.
The ace was that Dlamini was found guilty of misconduct earlier and sentenced and an opportune time had arisen to shelve him.
Not wanting to be outdone, Price pulled a similar one.
He had not charged the unfortunate Chumani Maxwele for splashing human faeces on the honourable statue.
So he pulled a fast one on him, accusing him of uttering some bile against white members of his staff.
Is it simply a coincidence that the two vice-chancellors separately found something outside the main issue at hand to deal with their delinquent students?
Or it is perhaps “the copy and paste” approach to solving problems that is the issue?
The answer is clear. The two are part of the same network of racists who receive a mandate from the same source.
At the University of the Free State, Jansen’s territory, four white students duped black cleaning staff to eat food they had urinated on.
After all the fury, a “reconciliation” ceremony was held and the issue put to an end.
As Suntosh Pillay puts it, “black people are constantly asked to forgive, to forget, to move on, to work harder, to endure, to be patient, to reconcile, to stay calm, to pretend”.
However, more importantly, one needs to ask why is it that our vice-chancellors are not sanctioned for continuing to utter bile against Africans suggesting their standards will fall once they come on board.
Why are they keeping their pay cheque for pulling racist rants on the imperative transformation of higher education?
Jansen correctly argues in an article published in a daily newspaper: “Our universities for the most part are mediocre, and the reason a handful are more competitive has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with the privileged relationship between race and resources over many decades.”
He correctly acknowledges that many of the white professors in the country did not qualify for their positions according to international standards, but were made professors due to being white at the right time in history.
What has he done about this mediocrity as a vice-chancellor of a university?
Should not there be an audit of this mediocrity from top to bottom?
As a society we should know whether the current crop of vice- chancellors have the credentials they claim to have and whether their record of publication is really up to standard.
Then, we can move to the mediocrity that is our professorate as per Jansen’s claim.
However, why would someone of Jansen’s stature want to leave his mediocrity at home to go and address the “mediocrity that is Sadtu”?
Should charity not begin at home? But can Jansen’s academy of mediocrity deliver the quality black professors required in the establishment or would they deliver mediocre black professors?
At universities, students are required to write and pass a certain number of tests to qualify for the final examination.
Many of our current vice-chancellors do not qualify to write the final transformation exam for they have simply failed basic arithmetic and defied logic.
To them black means mediocre, backwardness, darkness, while white privilege represents purity or God in whose eyes the reputation of their institution matters.
It is up to us as society to decide whether we want to continue to mourn or we want to, in the words of one Zwelinzima Vavi, to “organise” ourselves and confront the charlatans in our midst.
It is not the Department of Higher Education that would make the axe fall, it is us who have the power to let the axe fall!
* Lesiba Seshoka is executive director, corporate relations, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.