Education

Race row at Tukkies hots up

Bongani Nkosi

A report to parliament cites discrimination in terms of bursaries and election to the alumni board at the University of Pretoria.

A long-standing battle over transformation at the University of Pretoria has come to a head, with black lobbyists asking Parliament and government to intervene and white Afrikaner conservatives digging in their heels over proposed reforms that seek to reduce their influence on the university’s council.

The Higher Education Transformation Network, a black-dominated lobby group established last year that claims a membership of 3?000 across all 23 universities, said it wanted to weaken the grip of AfriForum and the Freedom Front Plus on governance at Tukkies.

The battle is being waged on two fronts. First, the network last week submitted a 14-page report titled “Lack of Transformation at the University of Pretoria” to the higher education and training department, Parliament’s higher education committee and the National Council of Provinces.

Second, it is targeting the influential Tuks Alumni Board, which elects four members to the university’s council, its highest governing body. The network, which claims the board’s constitution sidelines the university’s black alumni, is negotiating with Tuks management to change it.

Transformation network chairperson Lucky Thekisho, an attorney and Tuks LLB graduate, told the Mail & Guardian that black alumni want the parliamentary committee and the department to “call the university’s management to order and bind it to a timeline to transform”.

Bursaries for whites, hostility for blacks
Its report cites examples it argues are evidence of ongoing racial discrimination at the university. These include a disproportionate allocation of university-funded bursaries to white students and an organisational culture hostile to black employees.

The university has about 42?000 on-campus students, of whom nearly half are black. There are about 1?700 academic staff, of whom 20% are black, and 1?500 administrative staff, nearly 40% of whom are black.

The transformation network blames the university’s “lack of transformation” squarely on the influence of AfriForum and the Freedom Front in university governance. There is also an “unholy alliance” between them and the university’s management, it claims. Elections to the board are “conducted in secret”, “not open to scrutiny” and are “undemocratic”, it claims. Four of the eight elected members of the Tuks Alumni Board, chaired by AfriForum lawyer and spokesperson Willie Spies, are office bearers in AfriForum.

Spies contested the network’s claims. “Neither AfriForum nor any other organisation or political party plays any role in the election process. Elections are administered by the secretariat of Tuks alumni, which consists of staff from the university itself, and election results are audited by the university’s auditors.”

The university’s vice-chancellor, Cheryl de la Rey, said the elections were run in accordance with the constitution of the board and were democratic.

Regarding alleged discrimination in the awarding of Tuks-funded bursaries, the network’s report said R58-million went to white students in 2009 and about R29-million to black students.

The trend is said to have continued in 2010, when almost R58-million of the same bursaries went to whites and R30-million to blacks. De la Rey referred the M&G to a table showing the total of all student financial awards, including those Tuks does not itself fund but merely administers. The table does not distinguish among different kinds of awards and shows the lion’s share went to black students.

The report also says a “hostile working environment” for black lecturers and staff is the “reality of the status quo at the university”. De la Rey said the university had appointed an independent consultant to conduct a survey among staff and students.

“The findings should provide evidence about whether, to what extent and in what areas adverse organisational culture and hostile working or studying environments exist at the university,” she said.

Ishmael Malale, the chairperson of Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education and training, said the report raised “serious issues” and would be tabled for deliberation early next year when Parliament resumes.

The deputy chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, Papi Tau, said: “I’m going to raise the matter as one requiring urgent attention in the committee responsible for higher education.”


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