In the midst of protests and suspension of lectures recently, the University of Cape Town’s leadership went on a search for a Deputy Vice Chancellor of Teaching and Learning. This was no ordinary search. Over the years, we have heard various iterations on how rare it is to find black South African womxn academics who are keen to take on management positions at universities. Excuses have been made that we either don’t exist, or if we do – we are more likely to seek more profitable jobs elsewhere. Or, as recent events at UCT have shown, Black womxn’s qualifications and experience in the academy is undermined or questioned.
This week, UCT had the pleasure of interviewing its own Black female South African professor. Recently promoted to full professorship, Professor Elelwani Ramugondo is one of the few black womxn professors at UCT. In a rare occasion, members of Senate and other academics were indulged by Prof Ramugondo’s vision for Teaching and Learning, the core function of any university. It is not usual that UCT gets an opportunity to keep its own Black professors, and one whose tenure as Advisor to the Vice Chancellor proved her to be a visionary leader, a strategist and thoughtful high-impact manager.
And so, Tuesday October 31st was an auspicious day for us at UCT – a sign that things are changing. We watched with excitement the possibility of a new era. As #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall revealed, the demand for a decolonised curriculum is urgent at UCT, and so is the question of free education. As Chair of the Curriculum Change Working Group, Prof Ramugondo has been at the forefront of this. Through her co-leadership in this platform, we are already seeing how students are responding to a curriculum that resonates with their everyday realities.
The teaching environment is rapidly changing, and if we as academics are not attuned to who students are, we may miss the point of the academic project. This was one of the reminders Prof Ramugondo left us with. Simple it may sound, but the truth is – while many in higher education are now attuned to the need to rethink the curriculum, not only to meet current demands of a highly political country, but also to really disclose the many injustices in colonial disciplines which continue to alienate black African students and staff – it is students who dislodged the colonial blinkers dressing the academy. As she began her presentation, Prof Ramugondo acknowledged how student movements at UCT have allowed her to claim her own voice.
Muting happens at many levels at UCT. Black womxn know this the most. We know how we are silenced everyday when we are told we are not ready for promotions; we are not experienced enough for certain jobs; we are not qualified enough; our work is not scholarly; we need more mentorship. Everyday we are made to operate on a deficit model.
For a moment, this ended on Tuesday when the possibility of three Black womxn DVCs at UCT seemed possible. We mused at the idea that perhaps this current leadership at UCT recognises Black womxn’s labour in the academy; that long service and dedication to transformation could be recognised; and that perhaps the university will see that we are not the rare unicorns they’ve made us to be. We are at the university and are taking up especially the most demanding and challenging positions.
Only time will tell if the UCT leadership and its selection committee will embrace a visionary and impactful management approach to teaching and learning, or if the bureaucratic admin-obsessive mode will prevail. Regardless, we are encouraged that the professoriate is changing, and that the leadership is responding accordingly.
BAC Womxn’s Collective