Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Aesthetics of power and questioning what a ‘good’ university is

By Nompumelelo Zinhle Manzini

It’s been two weeks of being at the University of Zululand (UniZulu) as a contract lecturer for the Philosophy Department. Perhaps these personal reflections are slightly premature but I think that they do bear some merit. I have only been on the main campus which is in Kwadlangezwa, which is in the south of Empangeni, and so these reflections are made based on the campus that I am located in.

Prior to my arrival at UniZulu, I had not even heard of this university, until a lectureship position was made public. My lack of awareness of this university may be a reflection of how my gaze has always been on historically white universities as being the only ‘good’ or notable universities. Furthermore, it could be an indication of how elitist my view point of higher education has been.

My own limited epistemic perspective had left me struck by the question posed by Crain Soudien: “What makes a university a university and what, moreover, makes it a good university?”

I first thought about this question when someone asked me why I had accepted the lectureship position at UniZulu, as temporary as it may be. Clearly this individual thought that UniZulu was not a good university. Lots of questions came to my mind and I thought about the university rankings that I made mention of in a previous article where I argued against the option of studying aboard. For this individual the historically white universities in South Africa may be the only ‘good’ universities and did not view UniZulu (and potentially other historically black universities) as a ‘good’ universities. Such a comment alludes to how limited the conversations around decolonisation and transformation of higher institutions of learning have been. Much of these conversations have taken place at historically white universities, alienating the rest.

Khondlo Msthali, a colleague, shared something interesting. Msthali argued that the mainstream debates regarding decolonisation have always been held by universities such at Witwatersrand University, the University of Cape Town, the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Stellenbosch University, etc. Universities like UniZulu or the University of Venda (with Fort Hare being excluded because of their rich political history) are forgotten.

I agree with Msthali when he states that the latter, historically black universities seem like the best options for us to really trial run what a decolonised university may look like. That is, since these are the spaces that have a majority Black student population, with most academics being Black, this would be the best place to imagine what a decolonised university can be. I am not arguing that these conversations should not be had in the historically white universities. Rather, I am of the view that conversations regarding decolonisation, transformation and the likes have been so stuck in one reality that we have forgotten about the rest.

Our focus on which institutions are ‘good’ or those that have received much media attention during the #feesmustfall era also show the class divide in South Africa. Such a focus perpetuates the inequality gap and somewhat maintains the status quo of historically white universities as ‘good’ universities. Specifically, what are the functions of a university apart from being a public good and having research objectives?

Amartya Sen (2005; 2006) states that one of the functions of a university is to harness “critical thinking and public debate, as well as the inclusion of subjugated knowledge’s and marginalised voices”. I certainly do not think that historically black universities lack any critical thinking or public debate.

When looking at UniZulu’s first philosophy curricula, there certainly is no inclusion of subjugated knowledge in an extensive manner, apart from the random splashes of Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon and the popular Black existentialist philosophers. Their approach seems no different from that adopted by WITS or the University of Johannesburg (contexts that I am more familiar with). Based on the definition by Sen, I could argue that none of these universities (historically white or black) met the authors functional requirement of what a university is. It still remains unclear to me what we mean when we say that ‘X is a good university’, a question that I think deserves greater interrogation than the one offered here.

I want to end with a narrative that is not particular to where I am currently located, but has manifested itself many times as I gave talks at other universities, most recently at the University of the Free State.

Body and power in academia

When I, then a young, Black academic in my mid-twenties, walked into a first-year lecture at the beginning of the year, there was no instant recognition that I might be the lecturer […] I was read as ambiguously located enough in age to possibly be another student. Additionally, the dominant image of the ‘expert’ on any subject is white [or black], male [or female], older. Being black, female, and younger had […] discernible simultaneous effects: it challenged the dominant perception of the expert by inviting thinking and the questioning of stereotypes

– Gqola (2017: 108)

Pumla Dineo Gqola wrote these words in 2004 (this chapter reappears in her latest book Reflecting Rogue: Inside the mind of a feminist). Thirteen years later I can fully relate with her experience. Although the context in which she writes is arguably different from my current reality, the facts remain the same. When arriving at the University of Zululand, I decided to audit one of the first-year classes offered by the department, to well acquaint myself with the environment. Walking into this lecture venue there was an assumption that I am one of those students who never attended class, not that I was a new lecturer in the department.

This was my experience at WITS as well, as I walked into my second-year class earlier this year. Having delivered the lecture and made it clear that I was the lecturer, a student walked up to me to ask when the ‘real lecturer’ would be back, as he had assumed that I was a tutor standing in for the lecturer. Whilst Gqola’s words are located in the University of the Free State, my experiences in universities that are majority Black are no different.

Those who know me might say it is because I am small in stature and aesthetically I could be mistaken for an 18-year-old. This may be true, I think that this is also an indication of how our students still picture the expert as white, irrespective of gender. Moreover, that they do not realise the possibility that they themselves can one day occupy these positions of power. How is it that my generation can still relate to the experiences of Gqola’s generation?

So, whilst there may be aesthetic, socio-political, cultural differences (and and and…) between UniZulu and WITS (and the like), there are some experiences that my generation of academics and that of Gqola’s will share, such as the aesthetics of power and many other issues. Ultimately, on whose standards do we measure and determine whether a university is ‘good’ or not?

Bozalek, V., and Leibowitz, B., 2012. “An evaluative framework for a socially just institution” in Leibowitz, B., (Ed.). Higher Education For The Public Good, views from the South. Trentham Books Limited: Stellenbosch
Gqola, P, D, 2017. Reflecting Rogue: Inside the mind of a feminist. MRFBooks: Johannesburg
Soudien, C., 2012. “The promise of the university: what it’s become and where it could go” in Leibowitz, B., (Ed.). Higher Education For The Public Good, views from the South. Trentham Books Limited: Stellenbosch

Nompumelelo Zinhle Manzini holds an MA in Philosophy (WITS), that she completed as a Mandela Rhodes Scholar (class of 2016). She currently lectures at the University of Zululand. Tweet @ZinhleManzini

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