It was wise of Gwebs Qonde, director general of higher education and training, not to try in his "Right to Reply" last week to defend the appointment of University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) vice-chancellor MW Makgoba as head of the new higher education transformation oversight committee ("Higher education must be transformed", Mail & Guardian, February 1).
I must confess that I am surprised he didn't. Makgoba has long been hailed, at least in some circles, as the answer to South Africa's transformation challenge. On the other hand, the adverse publicity he has garnered over nearly 20 years since his arrival at the University of the Witwatersrand is possibly something best sidestepped.
But an effect of this deft move is to avoid discussing what has been so problematic about Makgoba's reign as UKZN's vice-chancellor — the manner in which he has driven the transformation agenda. Qonde says nothing about the processes associated with transformation.
It is disappointing that Qonde does not address the concerns that have been expressed widely about the appointment of this committee.
The concern is that government is inappropriately seeking to take charge of "transformation" and arrogating to itself the right to determine what transformation is and how it should be achieved. Even more alarmingly, as news stories document, it says nothing to reassure the public about how such visions of transformation should be achieved.
So let me take this opportunity to talk about the difficulties and dangers of "transformation". When UKZN placed a large advertisement in several newspapers last year to proclaim its achievement in bringing about transformation, it conveniently reduced transformation to a numbers game. In this calculation, it is all about the numbers of white, black, male and female staff members and students.
Nobody with any knowledge of South Africa's history can deny the importance of gender and race in questions of social justice and so it is obviously important to pay attention to these figures. But on their own they do not answer questions of transformation — nor on their own should they be the basis for the claim that UKZN is the most transformed university in South Africa, as Sipho Seepe did recently in Business Day.
Despite an obsession with reducing transformation precisely to a numbers game, transformation by any definition is a much bigger issue than this. It involves questions of curriculum, knowledge production (research) and institutional cultures, all of which need to be understood, as Cheryl Potgieter helpfully reminded us last week, in a global context of university rankings ("Varsities have a local-global balancing act", Mail & Guardian, February 1).
The most worrying aspects of current government plans to engineer transformation derive from the lack of attention to institutional culture, which includes questions of institutional autonomy and academic freedom. Almost all scholars are agreed that complex institutions such as universities are best left to grapple with this issue on their own — as University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg argued in Business Day last week.
To grasp the importance of this, one needs to disaggregate "the university", to acknowledge the existence of the well-qualified staff who populate them, the complex processes developed to ensure fairness and to address routine difficulties that crop up in the selection of staff and students, the determination of who passes, what is taught and how resources are distributed. These are exceptionally complex issues that require sensitivity and respect for the collective, and by no means unitary, experience and wisdom of a university's staff complement.
A jackboot approach that gives a central body power to trample a solution into the fabric of universities is highly unlikely to succeed. I battle to think of any example that might support the implicit assumption in Qonde's article that such a path is remotely feasible.
But maybe there is no appetite for grappling with these niceties and this detail. It is easy to use transformation as a Trojan horse to justify the increasing control by the state of its universities and to demonise voices that question this emergent orthodoxy.
South Africa has examples in its not so recent (apartheid) history about the effect this has on scholarship, research, university culture and, more broadly, on the universities' contribution to social justice. I hope Qonde is aware of the dangers to the country and its citizenry, rich and poor alike, of the path he proposes.