The abuse of transformation

There can be little doubt that all South Africans need to commit themselves to transformation. The recent racist video taken at the University of the Free State and the persistence and extent of racialised patterns of poverty are just two of the more obvious reasons it is necessary to keep working to change society and to remove the legacy of apartheid.

But there is a tendency to narrow the meaning of transformation to racial representivity. This polarises and divides. It marginalises other aspects of transformation and institutes anti-democratic practices.

The transformation agenda the majority of South Africans fought for is contained in the Freedom Charter, which seeks to redress all apartheid injustices—especially social and economic inequalities.

When transformation is limited to mechanical racial engineering, the values of the Freedom Charter are forgotten, lost or, in the worst cases, attacked.

Developments at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), where I work, provide examples of how transformation is abused and undermined.

In his book, To the Brink, Xolela Mangcu identifies racial nativism as an emergent and dominant view that marginalises non-blacks and overturns a tradition in which all citizens, regardless of their struggle credentials or race, are “natives” and full citizens of the country. At UKZN racial nativism has ensured that non-black staff are identified as “other”.

Racial division is created by calling staff members “racist”—a charge that can be made only by a black African person against a person of another colour.

The next move, a penchant of the vice-chancellor, Professor MW Makgoba, is to brand opponents “anti-transformation”.

For instance, in a recent Senate meeting Professor John van den Berg “was accused of racism and fomenting racial discord” because he disagreed with Makgoba.

Non-black African staff are frequently made to feel as if they are visitors at the pleasure of the vice-chancellor. Serious infringements of human rights are dismissed or side-stepped and reduced to issues of race. In this way the dream of non-racialism and the promises of the Freedom Charter—and our Constitution—are undermined.

The Mail & Guardian has run several articles on a rape committed at UKZN in November 2007. Staff and students wanting a secure, peaceful, inclusive and harmonious campus life that manifests the transformation values identified above—and reflected in various public university statements—have called for a stronger commitment from management and from student leaders to the goals of gender equality and non-violence.

But instead of a new climate of cooperation and commitment to transformation, these calls have elicited a series of public statements highly critical of white and Indian staff.

Professor Nceba Gqaleni, who broadly equates transformation with the “Africanisation” of the university, publicly criticised Lubna Nadvi for involving herself in the rape case (M&G, November 30 2007). The South African Students’ Congress also used the occasion to describe white staff as “morons”. The rape became a vehicle for the prosecution of a race-based transformation project.

This leaves the door open to the entrenchment of highly authoritarian management styles.

Numerous incidents are witness to this. When David Macfarlane visited UKZN (M&G, November 17 2006) he noted the widespread fear among staff.

Perhaps the most shocking manifestation of this fear was the recent refusal of members of Senate to speak in defence of Van den Berg, despite sympathy for his position. Van den Berg noted: “The vice-chancellor’s … attack on me and others had, I think, a profoundly inhibiting effect on the discussion that followed.”

Senate is the highest academic body at a university. When its members are unable to debate issues honestly and openly, then there should indeed be cause for grave concern.

When transformation is converted into a project of group advancement it becomes a project of abuse. In the process, the inclusive project of change which truly holds out hope for the future of South Africa is exchanged for a narrow-based, instrumental politics of group advancement.

Professor Robert Morrell is an author and researcher at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal



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