From ivory tower to ebony towerThe Wits University battle
is an in-house squabble between the generals while the soldiers sit forgotten at the side, argues Prishani Naidoo
THE irony of the William Makgoba saga is that while there were two distinct camps at the beginning of the battle for transformation in 1991, there seems now to be a narrowing of interests which may fit snugly into one camp. While the debate has been very starkly in Makgoba’s favour as he has been attacked as yet another victim of the rightwing liberals at Wits (they have expelled, suspended and ruined all who have challenged their stranglehold on Wits for so long), a warning bell must be sounded to those who want an end to all elitist strangleholds, that Makgoba is yet to make any convincing remarks that he correctly understands that transformation is a process meant to include and empower the truly disadvantaged. His brand of change may, strange as it seems, leave all the white hierarchies intact and groom but another elite. A close analysis of the professor’s conduct may actually locate him in the camp of the academic barons, those potentially vested creatures incessantly reaching for individual power. While he definitely represents a different agenda of transformation, his vision may still be of an institution that feeds unproblematically into the neo-liberal development discourse. The reality is that there is a power struggle on at Wits for the control of the institution, and therefore for the control of the definition and process of transformation. Having lost the battle within the confines of the University community, with black academics, workers and students providing a strong opposition, senior academics have had to resort to leakages to the press and smear campaigns against those who initially posed a threat to their self-interest. In defence, Makgoba has responded by playing their game, a game from which, if he wins, he stands to gain much. However, the Makgoba saga has allowed senior academics to continue the struggle on their terms—it has allowed them to once again vaunt CVs, academic qualifications, tax evasions, and so on, as the yardstick against which standards must be measured. It has allowed them to shift the focus away from their own failure to deliver a real transformation of Wits. Instead of a commitment to serving communities with the research they conduct, with curricula they teach, and with their approach to the Forum for Further Accelerated and Comprehensive Transformation at Wits (Ffact) being the standard against which the worth of senior academics is measured, Wits has drawn the South African public into the puerile, petty politicking that has come to characterise the transformation debate. This has served only to safeguard the interests of the few within the prevailing system without challenging the existing structures to begin including the interests of the majority of South Africans.
One would never dream of condemning Makgoba in the same terms as Professors Charles van Onselen and June Sinclair precisely because it is understood that the initial attack against him was an attempt to make a black person a nonentity in the race for a position in senior academia, and because he is in a position to oust diehards from their seats of power. It is for these reasons that Makgoba has entered the fight on the terms set by senior white academics. But, while government, respected black leaders and students jump to the defence of Makgoba, we need also to ask ourselves where a university under the leadership of Makgoba will take us. While Makgoba has enunciated a theoretical framework for the Africanisation of universities which only goes some way to addressing the inequities of the South African university structure, he has also participated in some of the contradictory practices of senior academics at Wits. He, too, has a shaky record in the fields of research, curricula restructuring, expulsion of students and workers, and participation in Senate and Council when decisions taken in these structures have been opposed to decisions taken at Ffact. For thoroughgoing transformation to occur, the nature of governance itself needs to be deconstructed, something Makgoba’s paradigm cannot do. The paramount importance of academics in leading institutions needs to be challenged, and the very prized seat in academia which Makgoba now stands to lose through the unfair investigation instituted against him needs to be contested by members of the South African majority who know better than senior academics what their own needs are. The battle lines are clearly drawn at Wits. Yet they seem to divide two camps on the same side of an even greater divide, that between a privileged group of academics, students, businessmen, government and a labour aristocracy, and the majority of South African unemployed and poor people who remain voiceless in this fight which we parade as the fight for the transformation of universities into resource bases for their benefit. Naidoo is president of South African University Students’ Representative Council (SAU-SRC) and vice-president of Wits University’s SRC. She is writing in her personal capacity