The African vision has lost its focus

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to seize the opportunity to explore how universities perpetuated apartheid. Consequently, some institutions have never fully embraced transformation. (Lori Waselchuk/Gallo Images/Business Day)

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission failed to seize the opportunity to explore how universities perpetuated apartheid. Consequently, some institutions have never fully embraced transformation. (Lori Waselchuk/Gallo Images/Business Day)


The past 20 years of our liberation have disappointed and failed African research and scholarship in South African higher education institutions. I will provide examples of how we have failed to transform the university sector.

The first is drawn from two fieldwork studies I conducted at the universities of Dar es Salaam and Ghana, Legon, on curriculum and content. At liberation, Mwalimu Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah, founding presidents of Tanzania and Ghana respectively, were clear about what they wanted the role of the university and education to be in their independent countries.

The point I make with Ghana and Tanzania is that there was a bold commitment to radically change the direction of their education systems that was absent in South Africa at the time of our liberation in 1994. In Ghana and Tanzania, their presidents led the changes in their education systems to curriculums and content and, in their universities, to shifts away from the colonial paradigms and towards reflecting their being African, as people, countries and a continent.

In South Africa, our founding president, Rolihlahla Mandela, did not follow through on his powerful commitment that education be liberatory and a priority area of national development. The consequence was that the status quo of the colonial and apartheid education systems continued. The epistemology and theoretical underpinnings of the content and curriculum of our education in basic and higher education remained unchanged. 

The second way in which South Africa failed to transform higher education was with the opportunity the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) presented. The TRC provided us with a chance to interrogate South African universities about the roles these institutions played in supporting and keeping apartheid alive.

Education was the only sector not to appear and make its submission to the TRC. It was a miscarriage of justice that the TRC did not call on the universities to come before the commission and account for themselves. Education was probably the most brutal aspect of apartheid ideology; through education, these institutions prohibited the African and black majority from studying: where they were permitted, they could only learn in certain fields intended to prepare them for servitude.

Deafening silence
This deafening silence at the TRC made many universities think there was nothing wrong with the manner in which they ran their business; some continued to operate their mission of teaching, learning and researching in the same institutional environment.

Although the leadership of our universities has mostly changed from white to black vice-chancellors in the past 20 years, at the centre of what these universities do – teaching, learning and researching – there have been few substantial paradigm shifts meant to bring about a meaningful decolonisation of the curriculum and content. In that sense, the higher education sector in South Africa has failed African research and scholarship.

The third, fourth and fifth examples of missed opportunities to transform the universities in ways that enable them to nurture research and scholarship on Africa meaningfully have their genesis in the case of Archie Mafeje at the University of Cape Town (UCT) in 1968.

This case continued and worsened at the same institution in the 1990s, when Mafeje returned from exile; and it did so too in the cases of Mahmood Mamdani and Malegapuru Makgoba, at UCT and the University of the Witwatersrand respectively, in the 1990s.

I will explain these lost opportunities to “de-Eurocentricise” curriculums and adapt African research and scholarship by using the triple-M cases of Mafeje, Mamdani and Makgoba.

The Mafeje case is particularly significant and symbolic in the context of higher education in South Africa during the apartheid period, in that it took place at UCT, the oldest university in the country, founded in 1829. By supporting apartheid legislation as it related to Mafeje’s proposed appointment in 1968, and by not challenging the then education minister, Jan de Klerk, father of former president FW de Klerk, UCT entrenched and strengthened apartheid in higher education overall. 

Missed opportunity
If the university had supported Mafeje’s appointment as a senior lecturer in the department of social anthropology, it would have set the trend for universities nationwide to appoint black academics. So much for UCT’s reputation as “Moscow on the Hill”; UCT was so called because of its opposition to apartheid, in particular when apartheid obstructed academic freedom.

So when UCT chose not to appoint Mafeje, and deferred to De Klerk’s statement that it must fill the vacancy suitably with a white person, the institution lowered its standards to fit the appointment of a white lecturer, even when, after full discussion, the committee of selectors resolved that the unanimous recommendation of the board of electors, that Mafeje be appointed, be upheld.

In a recent article, UCT vice-chancellor Dr Max Price wrote about “not lowering the standards for appointment as, or promotion to, professor for non-whites”, arguing that “this would reinforce racial stereotypes and set transformation back” (“Nothing sinister about paucity of black professors at UCT,” Sunday Times, July 13 2014). Did Price forget about Mafeje in this reference to “racial stereotypes” and “lowering standards”?

In his August 2008 inaugural address after his appointment as vice-chancellor, Price showed that he had not forgotten Mafeje. In his address’s second reference to Mafeje, he expresses – in my view – the past 20 years of our collective failure to advance African research and scholarship in our higher education institutions.

“The Mafeje story reminds us that the greater offence against Professor Mafeje was committed by the university not as a result of apartheid controls, but in the 1990s, when the university failed to understand both the legacy of the apartheid culture within the institution and the need to address and redress it actively. That legacy still plagues UCT, and the university community has still inadequately tackled the need for attitude shifts, culture shifts [and] proactive redress, to ensure that black people and women feel at home here.

“Transformation requires a re-cognition of the weight of the past and its implications for an agenda of redress, including measures to ensure equality of opportunity and access and efforts to change organisational cultures to become more inclusive and tolerant; and a capacity to change the way people think–about our heritage, culture, values and sense of self.”

A demeaning offer
This is what happened in the 1990s. Mafeje offered UCT a chance to address and redress its apartheid past by not appointing him in 1968 when he presented the university with the opportunity to appoint him. UCT’s response to his reconciliatory gesture was to offer him a position at the level of senior lecturer – the same position UCT had offered him in 1968. In his reply, Mafeje said that he found the offer “most demeaning”.

Even today, it is overwhelming to think about UCT’s answer to Professor Mafeje in the environment of then-president Mandela’s national reconciliation, nation-building and so-called Rainbow Nation. To belabour this infuriating point, after Mafeje’s 18 years as a professor internationally, Price’s predecessors saw it appropriate to offer Mafeje a position at the rank of senior lecturer. In the bigger picture of the policies of reconciliation and nation-building, what did this act of injustice say to Mafeje, who embodied the capital treasure-trove of African research and scholarship amassed globally he would have brought to UCT by virtue of his presence?

Reconciliation is, first, about forgiveness but UCT’s leadership could not even come to forgive themselves when Mafeje’s story reminded them of the greater offence the university had committed against him. Second, the point that those who talk about reconciliation most repeatedly make is that it has benefited whites far more than it has black South Africans. The Mafeje case is a good example. The treatment of Mafeje by UCT continues to shed light on this institution’s – and by extension, other South African universities’ – attitudes towards higher education transformation today, particularly with the employment of South African black scholars, both eminent and emerging.

The case of the eminent scholar, Mahmood Mamdani, at UCT in 1997–1998, when the university prevented him from teaching his proposed introductory course on Africa, further demonstrates the wasted opportunities of South African academic institutions to cultivate and value African scholarship and its research in the post-1994 period.

The fieldwork I did in Ghana and Tanzania was a comparative study with the Centre of African Studies at UCT and the abolished department of African studies at the University of Fort Hare, which Professor ZK Matthews established in 1945. It was this comparative study that took me to UCT in March 2011 for research and interviews about Mamdani as the AC Jordan Chair in African studies. Driving into the campus that Friday morning to meet the Centre of African Studies students and staff, I was greeted by a Mail & Guardian poster, “UCT’s African studies war”.

Among the many I interviewed was Lungisile Ntsebeza, professor of sociology. It reminded me of Amílcar Cabral’s book, Return to the Source, when Ntsebeza indicated to me that the source of the current UCT predicament at the Centre of African Studies in 2011 was the past case of Mafeje. He reasoned that, had UCT addressed the Mafeje affair in 1968 or in the 1990s, when Mafeje returned from exile, the “Mamdani affair” would not have happened. Simply put, this affair occurred because UCT swept the Mafeje case under the carpet.

Appointing foreign black academics
Instead of appointing one of their own in Mafeje, UCT appointed a foreigner, Mamdani, the distinguished Ugandan African professor of Indian descent, to the AC Jordan Chair in African studies. There is a well-established tradition, especially in South Africa’s formerly white universities, to appoint foreign blacks to tick the box for equity purposes; and also because these institutions know that the foreigners, unlike black South Africans, will accept and not question the status quo.

But UCT terribly miscalculated with the appointment of Mamdani, as it later became clear in Mamdani’s thought-provoking article, “Is African studies at UCT a new home for Bantu education?” The university had avoided the intellectual powerhouse of African scholarship and research in Mafeje, only to confront another intellectual “lion” of African scholarship and research in Mamdani.

At the crux of the matter with Mamdani was that in the context of the post-apartheid period, when South Africa was under an African president and African ruling party, the ANC, the university was not willing to shed its antagonistic attitude towards African knowledge production, scholarship and research that Mamdani presented in his introductory course on Africa.

Mamdani’s main question in his article was “how to teach Africa in a post-apartheid academy”. As he explained: “Race is not absent from this issue, but … broadly it is a question about curriculum transformation, and about who should be making these decisions. Narrowly, it is a question about how Africa is to be taught in a post-apartheid academy. The curriculum transformation, re-teaching of Africa in [the]  post-apartheid university and appointments of African and black professors are, and must be, at the heart of institutions of higher learning in South Africa.”

It is more urgent now after we have celebrated a decade of freedom. And today, 20 years later, the demands are the same.

The “Makgoba affair” at Wits University, documented in Makgoba’s book, Mokoko: The Makgoba Affair – A Reflection on Transformation, describes his experiences as deputy vice-chancellor. The case showed, and continues to show, the pattern of higher education failing African research and scholarship in post-apartheid South Africa.

In Mokoko, Makgoba wrote: “Wits must realise that the cultural ethos [that] apparently served the institution so well in the past must change to accommodate other cultural values. The curricula have to change fundamentally as the university comes to terms with the reality that it is educating all South Africans in Africa. Africans in particular do not come to university to escape or erase their Africanness, but to confirm and articulate their roots.”

National urgency for promoting African languages
Our higher education institutions have failed to grasp the implications of Makgoba’s curricular statements. Take, for example, the continuing concerns about the use of official African languages in our basic and higher education. In 20 years, we have not responded constructively to this national urgency to make African languages part of education’s curriculums.

This failure to implement African language policy in education disadvantages African research and scholarship because knowledge continues to be acknowledged only in the former official languages – English and Afrikaans. In this status quo, black pupils, students, teachers, lecturers, professors and the black workforce leave their strengths – their languages and cultures – at the entrances of their schools, universities and workplaces, only to collect them on their way out after school, lectures and work.

The Afrikaans and English languages and their cultures remain part and parcel of the curriculums, education and workplaces in post-apartheid South Africa. Under these circumstances, social cohesion cannot be practical for the citizenry. Even the government recognises the implications of this two-decade postponement in African languages implementation: this is why President Jacob Zuma approved and then effected on May?2 2013 the Use of Official Languages Act, 2012 (Act No 12 of 2012).

Parliament promulgated this legislation to regulate the use of official languages in government. Here again, the implementation of this Act and its policy stipulations remains South Africa’s greatest problem. It is a national challenge. 

I have acknowledged some positive government measures that have addressed the state of African research and scholarship in higher education. But honestly, we have been totally disappointing when it comes to policy implementation. If we had implemented identified recommendations, the continuing public complaints and defensive arguments in our universities about the predominantly white professors and the lack of black professors  would not be such a topical issue today.

I want to illustrate this with two current examples that make a mockery of this debate, and I advise that they require serious inspection.

What’s in a picture?
First, if you go to the official Wits University webpage of a member of the history department, the faculty picture you see is of an African woman (; and on the LinkedIn account of the same faculty member (, the picture is, at face value, of a white woman. In relation to transformation, what does this discrepancy mean and what is its motive?

The second example comes from the latest newsletter of the Southern African Historical Association, published in October 2014. On page 13, the newsletter lists 20 PhD and master’s students at the University of the Free State who are supported by Mellon and Oppenheimer funding. All the students are from Africa, but none is a black South African.

This list represents more or less the nationalities in PhD and MA graduate programmes at South African universities, especially in formerly white institutions, and this has implications for which Africans and blacks get to be employed as academic staff in these universities.

Further research is required to audit the number of MA and PhD graduates that South African universities have produced in the past 20 years, and then to trace how many were employed as staff in the institutions from which they graduated, or were employed in other South African universities to address the institutional transformation that every university seems to have in its strategic and annual plan documents. Additional research could identify the justifications for those graduates that the universities cut loose after awarding them PhD degrees, especially in the case of black South Africans. This will help the higher education sector to demystify the claim that there are no black South Africans who hold PhD degrees to teach in our universities.

Dr Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi is a researcher in the monitoring and evaluation directorate of the Council on Higher Education. He writes here in his personal capacity. This is an edited and abbreviated version of his recent article, “African Research and Scholarship: 20 Years of Lost Opportunities to Transform Higher Education in South Africa”, in Ufahamu: A Journal of African Studies, 38(1), which the University of California Los Angeles publishes. 

The full article can be found at



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