Black enough and proud of it

A recent article in the Mail & Guardian suggests that the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) is losing its black academic talent to the University of Johannesburg, in part because, as one unnamed academic suggested, “Wits claims to be politically progressive but is in fact institutionally conservative” (July 11 2008).

Wits has a more radical and profound vision of transformation, which we are happy to defend and for which we are pleased to be held accountable.

If one must engage in the demeaning game of counting black bodies, one may as well begin by correcting the numerous mistatements of fact contained in the M&G article. Xolela Mangcu has never been a member of staff at Wits University. He has been a visiting “equity scholar” funded through the resident equity scholars’ programme at Wits University for six months, which was thereafter extended. The goal of the programme was to bring scholars on to campus for a period of time to engage the community in new ways of thinking about transformation.

The university was also pleased to arrange for his privately funded Platform for Public Deliberation to be linked to the university’s public intellectual life programme for a period. He is correct in saying that Wits explored offering him a permanent academic post. But, after reflection on further issues that required consideration, the university determined that it could neither justify nor meet Mangcu’s financial expectations—more than double that of the salaries of the university’s most senior professors and well above that of its most senior administrators.

Since the M&G article further names five black people who left Wits, it is only fair to clarify the reasons for their departure. David Monyae has taken leave of absence from his post to avail himself of a career-enhancing opportunity at the Development Bank of Southern Africa. Mamokgethi Setati and Thokozile Mayekiso quite reasonably took higher-level appointments at other universities. As for Chris Landsberg, he left Wits more than six years ago.

Apart from the misrepresentation of these cases, it is disingenuous to make an argument about recent “losses” of black staff at Wits without taking note of even more substantial “gains”.

The university has hired numerous world-class senior black scholars precisely because they had excellent research and academic records.

Sakhela Buhlungu is an accomplished scholar and administrator. Yet when he resigned from Wits last year, he raised a series of unsubstantiated allegations.

To establish the facts and to offer an opportunity for Buhlungu to state his case, the vice-chancellor constituted a commission of inquiry into the matter.

The commission, composed of two independent prominent legal figures, found Buhlungu’s allegations to be completely unsubstantiated through the evidence presented to them.

Buhlungu declined to appear or submit evidence at the commission. These findings were presented by the vice-chancellor to staff in the school of social sciences in March 2008.

Mindful of an immensely destructive history of politically motivated exclusions from the university system, Wits has a profound and ongoing commitment to building an international and diverse community of outstanding scholars.

We seek to grow and retain not only the finest black academics, but also the finest academics of all colours, genders, social classes, sexual orientations and physical abilities, knowing that doing so will add social, political and above all intellectual value to our common project.

We will not suspend the rules of good governance to pursue those who wish to commodify the mere fact of their being black, or who wish to use that fact to claim exemption from the professional ethos and conduct that all staff are expected to adhere to.

Wits still has work to do to bring about the transformation of an institutional culture dominated by the historical beneficiaries of race and class privilege. But the apparently unshakeable burden of race will not be overcome by rehearsing claims to past injury and demanding special entitlements.

Academics who are black, working class, lesbian, gay or disabled must claim ownership of the university and make it theirs by participating in the establishment of a new set of institutional practices and priorities.
This will ensure that the university remains an arena of open, critical debate and self-reflection about the kind of knowledge we produce and validate.

It is by sustaining this kind of environment that we can best turn the current generation of students into the next generation of critical scholars and enable them to be stewards of a truly transformed university culture.

This is the truly radical agenda for transformation that we at Wits have in mind.

Professor Loyiso Nongxa is the vice-chancellor and principal of Wits University and Professor Yunus Ballim is the deputy vice-chancellor and vice-principal

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