By Josie Cornell
Vicky* had not thought much about her blackness, or what it meant. This changed rapidly upon her arrival at the University of Cape Town (UCT) as a first-year student where, for the first time, Vicky felt black.
This “feeling of blackness” for Vicky and for other black students like her, particularly those attending historically “white only” institutions, was an experience of realising for the first time how she was perceived because of her race. It was an uncomfortable realisation of the stereotypes that surround her as a black and female student in higher education spaces.
In a different but similar way, Tendai* had not engaged much with his sexuality before he came to university. His arrival at UCT was his first encounter with open and proud queerness and also his first experience of the violence that is directed towards this queerness. While wandering around the Jammie plaza in Freshers Week with some of his peers, Tendai came across the stall for The Rainbow Society, the university’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Asexual and Queer student group. The liberation of discovering this place of acceptance was hampered by the derogatory comments and scorn shown by the students he was with towards the society.
It is clear from the experiences described to us by these students and from the events of the last few months that there are many issues with the current level of transformation in higher education institutions in South Africa.
Starting with RhodesMustFall at UCT, student movements such as Open Stellenbosch, TransformWits and the Black Student Movement at Rhodes have drawn attention to the racism, homophobia, transphobia and sexism that students experience in higher education spaces. These movements are highlighting the need to decolonise, Africanise or queer higher education institutions in South Africa.
As a researcher who has previously conducted studies on the experiences of students in higher education in the context of transformation, I (along with Dr Shose Kessi from UCT and Prof Kopano Ratele at Unisa) was interested in how these students who call for a decolonised university actually imagine this space to be. We interviewed students at UCT and asked them to describe for us their vision of a transformed university.
The specific details of their descriptions varied, depending on their backgrounds, experiences and particular intersecting identities. What was common to every description was that a decolonised university was a place where, regardless of their race, gender, class or sexuality, they felt that they belonged. One student summed it up:
“I think it would be a space where one feels comfortable and at ease and belongs. The current feelings I think represent a direct opposite: the feelings of discomfort, being invalidated, being excluded, being a problem. The emphasis is being a problem, not a person with a problem.”
This desire for belonging and legitimacy is unsurprising as educational research has consistently shown that the institutional culture of many higher education spaces, both in South Africa and abroad, position the “ideal student” as white, middle class, male, heterosexual and cisgender, often causing those who fall outside of those categories to question their belonging.
A sense of belonging has been repeatedly demonstrated as vital for students’ academic success. When students feel like they don’t belong, it can affect their self-esteem and confidence. This in turn can cause many students to silence themselves and disengage from classroom discussions. As Anele* poignantly described:
“I often feel powerless and hopeless as a black student here, I feel that the way we are treated has impacted negatively on our self-esteem, well on mine. Many times I questioned my intellect and doubted my capability.”
Although, it is important to acknowledge that these students, despite being made to feel marginalised, are also active in driving the transformation agenda and working to decolonise their institutions.
In many cases, the examples that students gave of concrete changes that could help foster a feeling of belonging were not especially complicated or difficult to achieve. Fiki*, a female to male transgender student, described a transformed university as a place where, quite simply, he could use the bathroom without facing daily scrutiny and questioning around his genitals. In fact, for all of the transgender students we spoke to, the low numbers of gender-neutral bathrooms was a barrier to feeling validated and at home within this space.
Like cisgender heterosexual black students, transgender students are not asking for much, they merely want to feel like “normal” and legitimate university students as they are, without having to assimilate or change themselves in ways they don’t feel comfortable with.
It is clear that greater attention needs to be paid to transforming university life. Higher education has to be a space that is welcoming and comfortable for all students, cognisant of race, gender or sexuality.
It is essential to make the university a space of belonging for students outside of the traditional “ideal” student mould, whether that is a matter of prescribing more readings from African writers like Takyiwaa Manuh and queer authors like Audre Lorde, increasing the number of gender-neutral bathrooms, or allowing transgender students to change “Mr” to “Ms” on their student cards without having to battle endless bureaucracy.
* The names of all the students quoted in this piece have been changed to protect their anonymity and the quotations have been edited for readability.
Josie Cornell holds an MA in research psychology from UCT and is a research intern at Unisa. Her research is on students’ experiences of transformation in universities. This article is based on a paper presented at the 21st annual South African Psychology Congress, held in Johannesburg from September 15-19 2015.