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Rhodes: Views from a black associate professor at UCT

By Caroline Ncube

Amid the calls for radical transformation at the University of Cape Town (UCT), there are many voices seeking to be heard. That must be heard. I am compelled to speak too. I am a black African, non-South African, female associate professor at UCT.

As a foreign national I make no bones about the fact that my presence at this institution does not advance the current imperatives of employment equity. Those can only be advanced by the employment of designated (as legally defined) South Africans. Yes, I have a role to play in fulfilling the larger Afropolitan mission of the university and I add to the diversity of the university community. I identify with black South African students and staff and it is my fervent hope that black students and colleagues find me relatable to, as a person with similar experiences of racism. It is the pigmentation of my skin and not my nationality that motivates the security guard who tails me at a mall or the student who questions my academic abilities on the basis of my race. In other settings, it is indeed my nationality that exposes me to hatred and violence — but that is not why I am writing today. Today, I write to publicly add my voice to the calls for radical transformation at UCT.

UCT must continue to prioritise the employment of black South Africans. From the statistics that have been published it is clear that UCT has not been successful on this front. Sadly, the retention record of the institution is also poor. It is not helpful to impute the blame for slow transformation on those who have left or choose not to come in the first place. It is critical for UCT to look inwards to examine what in its institutional climate may have contributed to these departures (or non-arrivals) and to seek to be more hospitable for all race groups. To this end, the general student populace, student representative bodies and members of staff (individually and collectively) have repeatedly raised many issues that need attention. The calls for the removal of Rhodes’ statute became the flashpoint for these reform issues.

Senate’s decision on Friday March 27 to support the students’ calls for the removal of the statute is a step in the right direction. But much more needs to be done. Many proposals have already been made about how to uproot institutional racism and advance employment equity. Collectively we can come up with more. All leadership structures at UCT need to exemplify vision that results in prompt action. We have to continue walking and working together on this difficult, further mile to meaningful freedom and equality at UCT.

An M&G article entitled “Brazen ‘trickery’ in transformation” (March 6 2015) pointed out how some universities “fudge” transformation by claiming black foreign academics as equity appointments. I am in agreement with Prof Sakhela Buhlungu’s stance as reported in that article. The law is clear — only black South African citizens, who had this status as at April 27 1994; or acquired it after April 26 1994 because apartheid policies had precluded their acquisition of citizenship by naturalisation — count for employment equity reporting purposes. Permanent residents, like myself, or naturalised citizens who acquired this status after the cut-off date, do not count.

After we have addressed the current pressing calls for reform, UCT has to articulate a clear policy on the place of black non-South Africans in its diversity and Afropolitan agenda. This policy also needs to incorporate its approach to employing white foreign academics. In this regard, I am often bothered by a sense that generally as a country, we are more hospitable to white rather than black foreign nationals, but that is a debate for another day and place.

When I discussed these, and other, thoughts with a confidante, she asked me if I was talking myself out of a job. Or if I was speaking from the tower in ways that may keep others like me, out. She challenges me. The answers are not easy and I do not yet have all of them. However, I believe that a clear policy that details how UCT implements its legal duty to achieve employment equity and yet achieves a diversified staff complement that includes staff from Africa and the rest of the world is necessary. Inde lindlela. Asijiki.

Caroline Ncube, associate professor and head of the commercial law department, UCT.

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3 Comments

  1. Manu Manu 31 March 2015

    [When I discussed these, and other, thoughts with a confidante, she asked me if I was talking myself out of a job.]

    That even your friend believes that you are now unsafe is a sad testament to our times.

  2. DavyH DavyH 31 March 2015

    Are black academics being excluded as part of an entrenched policy of racism or is there a woeful shortage of black academics? This is a serious question, and an area where merit must be the sole consideration if South African universities want to maintain credibility. I agree that black graduates should be encouraged to adopt the academic course, but they are so valuable in the corporate market that universities simply cannot compete as employers. There is far more to this argument than simply calling for change.

  3. ZedMcG ZedMcG 11 April 2015

    The question of whether students will “relate” to a lecturer, or not, on the basis of race deserves more thought. I enjoyed lecturers with whom I related, but there was no correlation between that and the quality of education I received. Indeed, I would hope that lecturers would not “relate” too closely with students as that is bound to produce bias in grading. The important things are quality of teaching and mutual respect.

    The example of the shared black experience of being typecast as a shoplifter is one that most will sympathise with, even if true empathy is not possible without personal experience. I wonder if the same academics can empathise with poorer white kids whose parents were not rich, racist, Nationalist Party voting cronies given free farms or sheltered employment? Does anyone feel empathy for the lower middle-class white model C umlungu whose richer black model C friends got bursaries for and entrance to medicine with 20% lower aggregates?

    Very few human beings will shun an advantage they did not personally earn, and will be easily persuaded by arguments for the greater good, where those arguments support their own advancement even at the expense of an other. If there are any generalisations across racialised lines that hold water, this is one.

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