Thanks for nothing

Universities are not pristine environments where all are treated equally as enshrined in the Constitution, but are merely small constituencies of a larger social order, which despite its best stated intentions breeds and maintains unequal power relations among South Africans.

The summary of the Crain Soudien report, which has been available on Mail & Guardian online, helps to identify ways in which universities are far from transformed, but fails to unmask the pervasive root causes, which might have led to more imaginative recommendations.

To be both responsive and responsible, universities can use this critical moment to produce innovative solutions and new knowledge in the field
of transformation—for the public good, as well as for the good of their own institutions.

With due respect to the difficult work of the ministerial committee and the university communities with time and resource constraints, the report summary reflects, rather sadly, how far both the ministry of education and higher education institutions have to go before we can have a progressive and encouraging conversation about transformation.

The report advocates that ‘given both the subtle and insidious forms of gender discrimination and harassment being experienced — it is recommended that institutions take serious steps to both protect and promote the interests of women. These could include gender sensitisation campaigns, aimed at everybody, and confidence-building training programmes, aimed at women, in particular.”

Confidence is a muscle you need in a competitive world and size does matter. Women who don’t have it require training, if not surgical intervention. Some of us respond well and those who refuse to be ‘therapied” find ourselves bashing our heads against apathy, glass ceilings, bureaucracy and invisibility.

It’s not only women who need confidence to achieve gender equity—we all need the courage to change, through subversion or innovation, the ways in which power is achieved, held and expressed both publicly and privately in the university sector and in society.

South African universities are bureaucracies in a state where neo-liberal capitalism is the dominant ethos and where there is wide public and private allegiance to a patriarchal religious morality.

Social cohesion, which depends on ensuring levels of inequity with regard to race, class, disability and gender, in this university system requires women to be grateful for the space they are given and compliant with institutional cultures, which reproduce traditional values—including the understanding of power as force and the necessity of competition, domination, profit and the perpetuation of hierarchies.

Gender equity is a strap-on device and discrimination is a term we use to describe gross acts such as the Reitz race video, which inspired the commission.

But, in the day-to-day displays of male supremacy we are encouraged to be confident yet appropriate, assertive but non-confrontational, represented but not different.

To attract and retain women, especially in positions of power, the university would have to transform perceptions, articulations and ways of doing things.

Gender equity is not a numerical or abstract concept, but a condition of life, which bears little resemblance to the lived experience of women on our campuses. That women are oppressed in their homes and communities is merely the preparation they require to survive their oppression in the workplace.

As long as the staff and students of the university have women in their personal lives or are women who provide unrecognised and unpaid labour; who suppress their own dreams and aspirations in sacrifice for those of their children, parents, partners, colleagues and communities; who have their bodily rights and integrity challenged and dominated in the bedroom or in public spaces by relatives, friends or strangers; who are denied a space for their own opinions and methods, or support for their dreams; who have their independence and autonomy dismissed or undermined, because they are women—university spaces merely perpetuate the inherent sexism in our society despite bureaucratic equity intentions, numerical measurements and even ministerial recommendations.

Unless their structures, processes and programmes actively work against the pervasive sexism in society, universities will continue to provide men with opportunities to dominate. And women will collude, submit or transgress to survive.

Women who are retained within the structures of the university environment know that they serve here with little control over their physical vulnerability as women in a patriarchal and even misogynist society—where maleness is hetero-normative and accountability awkward.

Rape statistics demonstrate a war on women’s bodies that cuts across race and class and are a daily reminder to every ambitious or successful woman that her grip on power and life is fragile, and with male permission.

Beyond the physical integrity issues—and sexual harassment and rapes that occur on every campus, largely unreported—there are subtle, layered as well as blatant ways in which women are made uncomfortable in the academic setting. Their strengths are often buried, unrecognised, in the relentless sexism that inhabits the university space.

Transformation in our institutions is not the problem of women.

The ‘confidence-building training programmes”, which the report summary recommends might help women to be more like men, and the mentoring programmes might help them to be more acceptable to the university space, but until the state and higher education institutions stop pathologising or patronising women, and until the leaders of these institutions commit themselves to the dismantling of untransformed institutional cultures, we are making it harder and harder for transformation to happen.

Show me a man who is willingly prepared to undermine his own power and I’ll show you a woman who no longer requires a confidence-building training programme.

Corinne Knowles is from the Women’s Academic Solidarity Association at Rhodes University

Investigating change
Just over a year ago former minister of education Naledi Pandor commissioned an investigation into racism and other forms of discrimination after a student-made video emerged the public domain from the Reitz residence of the University of the Free State.

The blatant racism and sexism in the video outraged the public and indicated that
discrimination in higher education had to be addressed.

She appointed University of Cape Town academic Crain Soudien to lead a ministerial committee
to probe transformation and social cohesion in higher education.

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