Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

The academic transformation we seek is not obvious

By Unathi Beku

I have been silently observing the debate surrounding the transformation that students in public higher education seek in South Africa. At the forefront of this debate has been the removal of colonial (European) edifices that serve as metaphors for institutional racism and Western knowledge production patterns. Students are calling for more representative admissions, academics, curricula and monuments.

It has been interesting to note that the institutions leading this national debate have had black individuals hold their highest leadership position. These are Professors Njabulo Ndebele and Dr Mamphela Ramphele at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Dr Saleem Badat at Rhodes University and Professor Malegapuru Makgoba at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN).

These former vice-chancellors all represent the student demographic that currently seek transformation in these higher educational spaces. The question that has been on my mind since the emergence of this debate is this: “How is it possible that these university students are still riddled by transformation challenges despite the highest leadership position being representative?” And in the case of UCT, who remains the leader in this debate, more than one notable black VC.

“How could these leaders not seek to address the issues of a lack of representation in academic staff, edifices, curricula and knowledge production patterns?” I wonder.

It seems obvious to me that if UKZN, for example, is the indeed “The Premier of African Scholarship” as it claims to be, than the leadership should have envisioned an academic curriculum deeply rooted in African knowledge exchanges and epistemologies (and certainly, in the last 10 years of its merger, seen the obvious need to debate the relevance of King George’s statue in such a prominent space!). And it seems equally obvious that Ramphele, as the first black female VC of UCT, and as someone intimately linked to the black consciousness movement, would have sensed the urgency in recruiting black (and particularly female) academics at the UCT.

What has become increasingly evident, in my opinion, is that the questions and solutions are not as obvious as we’d like to believe they are. There is clearly a disjuncture that exists in the transformation that black students seek and the kind of transformation black leadership seeks. Clearly, in a nutshell, black leadership at higher education institutions does not represent black students at these institutions.

Here is an invitation for us to set the agenda for the transformation we seek.

In order for meaningful transformation to take place that addresses student needs it is my belief that the gap that exists between leadership and students needs to be closed. This debate needs to include the questioning and opinions of these former VCs as well as higher education leadership.

I think there is also a need to realise that in seeking transformation and representation, some of our views will not be represented by the prevailing movement. Transformation is proving to be more complex and we in turn are complex beings that cannot be entirely represented by current or past leadership — whether it is students or management.

Unathi Beku is currently reading for a masters in development studies at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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