/ 27 May 2011

A secret world resistant to change

A Secret World Resistant To Change


Barbarism in education? Sounds like a contradiction in terms. Barbarism in politics, though odious, has arguably become more conventional than in education, so if true it is a serious indictment indeed.

Nhlanhla Maake’s gripping memoir takes the reader through a thicket of institutional practices that seem to be contrary to the spirit and letter of transformation at the University of the North West, as he experienced it. It is indisputable that tangible changes have taken place in the tertiary sector in the past two decades or so.

Racial, gender and other apartheid discriminatory practices that largely defined the admissions policies and the demographic profiles at many universities have been abolished, at least in their de jure form. But behind the proud achievement record lurks a furtive world with an utter disregard and a contemptuous cynicism that goes against the grain of meaningful progress.

It is a de facto reality that often escapes sustained public scrutiny; it is a grim world in sharp contrast to the iridescent façade. The indictments Maake makes in Barbarism echo those captured in the 2008 report of the ministerial committee on “transformation and social cohesion and the elimination of discrimination in public higher education institutions”. The oral testimonies and written submissions from stakeholders recorded in the report sound eerily similar to the account Maake gives.

Jonathan Jansen’s Knowledge in the Blood is another powerful account of the dynamics affecting the consciousness of white students in particular and of other factors complicit in preserving an essentialised identity. History, society and family, the transmission of embedded knowledge and the sedimentation of all these serve as a counterpoint to the desired norms of a constitutional democracy.

Barbarism, with Knowledge, is part of a growing body of works that give testimony to what can arguably be described as barbarism and antiquated knowledge. What gives this memoir credence is its extensive documentation of correspondence between protagonists and antagonists, and its references to contravened policies and professional improprieties.

There is a litany of extraordinary allegations, including corruption, nepotism, patronage and outright paternalism. But it must be said, regrettably, that it is reasonable to suspect that the tale told in Barbarism resonates with many untold stories in some of South Africa’s tertiary institutions even after 1994. It seems that the stains of the past still remain stubbornly etched in institutional memories.

Universities in the 21st century can only thrive and prosper by unlocking themselves from the bondage of the past, and that can be achieved only by transformational leadership supported by a similar mind-set among classroom practitioners. An enlightened academic community would divest itself of the prevailing compliance culture by embarking on a genuine, inclusive and substantive transformative ­project that will fulfil the aspirations of all.

Is this a naive expectation? Can a spoilt quilt be restored? Yes, it can! That, I suggest, is the challenge that confronts South African universities if they wish to make a socially beneficial contribution and be effectively competitive in the global arena.

Unlike many accounts of South African higher education, Barbarism in Higher Education, although seemingly a tad excessive in a few instances, is highly readable and captivating. It has all the traits of a novella.

To his credit Maake not only admits his account represents his personal experience and perspective but also invites a counter-narrative. His book is a must-read for those concerned with the welfare of the academy — and reading it reflectively could increase the chances of achieving an elusive civilisation.

Mokubung Nkomo is extraordinary professor in the faculty of education at the University of Pretoria