Blade will have to whet himself

It’s been a while, dear readers, since we have had policy missives from the beloved department. And at last a little grist for the mill.

I’m sure you can remember the days when Kader Asmal ruled the roost in the dust bowl that is the Schoeman Street HQ; then policies, invectives, threats, rationalisations and more threats came forth like manna from hell. During that time, the season of the mergers, hordes of small bureaucrats with big dreams slavishly produced iterations and clarifications and the like.

Naledi Pandor has been far more circumspect. Policy wise, she has delicately cleared her throat, while Kader hawked and phlegmed. So it is a little bizarre that with the elections barely dry, two apparently juicy pieces appear in the inbox of higher education. One is the report on racism in higher education and the other a framework for the remuneration of vice-chancellors and executive managers. Was this her swan song?

Sadly, for those of you that read these reports it will be difficult to say what they are on about.

The racism report works on the brief, following the Reitz affair at the Free State University, that there is racism in our universities. Well, I could have told you that. Without spending a cent. There’s racism in the corporate world, in the police, in the hospitals, in Diepsloot, in Luthuli House and, no doubt, in the department of education itself.

Racism is, by its nature, mercurial and pervasive. In 1621 Robert Burton wrote a book with the catchy title of The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is: With all the Kinds, Causes, Symptomes, Prognostickes, and Several Cures of it. In Three Maine Partitions with their several Sections, Members, and Subsections. Philosophically, Historically, Opened and Cut up.

In it, as the title suggests, he set out to ”find” melancholy and he found it everywhere. He found it in the phlegmatics and the sanguine, in virgins, those suffering from gout and dogs. In other words melancholy expanded with compounded interest. The more he looked for it, the more he found it. Until, at the end of 920 pages, its poison was ubiquitous.

So is it with racism. And faced with Burton’s opus what chance does Pandor’s exposé have? It makes no sense to go and hunt out its specifics or the culture that allows it to thrive and then to make generalised recommendations about residences or increasing staff salaries. If there is a grand conclusion to the study it is, wait for it, that ”there is virtually no institution that is not in need of serious change or transformation”.

And as for the remuneration investigation, that’s even feebler. It all started with one of the most humorous moments in higher education history.

It was October 2004 and all the vice-chancellors had gathered at Glenburn Lodge outside Johannesburg for a Council on Higher Education conference. On the Thursday journalist David Macfarlane — then the Mail & Guardian‘s education correspondent — addressed the chancellors on their inability to deal with the media. But he had another trick up his sleeve. Before fleeing the scene of the crime, he dumped free copies of the M&G for the vice-chancellors which they dutifully took into the auditorium the next morning.

Soon there was a mortified silence around the room as each started reading Macfarlane’s piece about the exorbitant salaries earned by vice-chancellors. Aubrey Mokadi, then still the vice-chancellor of the Vaal University of Technology, peered nervously around the edge of the newspaper. It was a moment to savour.

That galvanised them into rare collective action. Education consultant Mamphela Ramphele was urged to do an independent study into remuneration by the previous vice-chancellors’ body, the South African Universities’ Vice-Chancellors’ Association. On completion, the vice-chancellors wrote an eight- page rebuttal full of defensive hemming and hawing and promptly forgot the whole thing.

Well, it’s back. The latest investigation has blown the dust off Ramphele’s covers and used it as the basis for a framework on remuneration. Sure it says important things about limiting salaries based on the size and complexity of the institution, but it ends with a deferential request for comment. I see another eight pager coming from the vice-chancellors.

It is said that on the topic of higher education you should never throw anything away that you’ve written. You will always have the chance to recycle it. That’s simply because nothing ever changes. Blade Nzimande, read this and weep.

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Qudsiya Karrim
Qudsiya Karrim is deputy online manager of She was previously editor of Voices of Africa, the M&G’s blogging platform. She’s also a journalist, social media junkie, mom, bibliophile, wishful photographer and wannabe chef. She has a love-hate relationship with the semicolon and doesn’t care much for people who tYp3 LiK3 ThI$. World peace is important to her, but not as much as a 24/7 internet connection.

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