Understanding race in universities

North West University. (Supplied)

North West University. (Supplied)

However, unless we see a change in curricula all this translates into is an "aesthetic and superficial kind of transformation", says Ndumiso Dladla, who teaches philosophy at the University of South Africa (Unisa).

“You can fill any university up with black students, but without a change in its curriculum, what you’ll have is a university in Africa, rather than an African university,” he explains.

“No matter how many black faces you put in there, unless as a university, you question the foundation of society, you sustain the given order of things.”

According to Dladla, twenty years of democracy hasn't materialised in substantial political and economic change and this is reflected in the fact that the knowledge universities transmit continues to be "Eurocentric".

"The purpose of our universities is to defend the kind of society we have,” he points out. “They tell us we have the most wonderful constitution in the world, and they give support to the notion of negotiated settlement, so their changes remain quite superficial.

“In our law curricula we teach the constitution, which contains a hierarchy of laws – the most important of which is common law, then statutory law, then international law and the last law, the fourth in this hierarchy is what they call 'customary law', which is in fact indigenous to South Africa.

“So we say liberation has come, but the law of the country is considered the lowest law, and we have black people teaching and spreading the law of their own conquest.”

Dladla adds that universities usually offer African/South African thought as part of a "menu of exotic things" offered on the curriculum, as opposed to it being the default. “If you’re studying philosophy, you’ll study Western Philosophy, which is called ‘Philosophy’ and for a semester you’ll get to study African Philosophy.

"If you’re studying Law, you’ll study Western Law, which is called ‘Law’ and for a semester you’ll get to study African Law – Africa is only an option among many options.”

He is fortunate he says in that at UNISA African philosophy is the foundation, and Western philosophy an option, thanks to the efforts of the university’s philosophy chair, Professor Mogobe Ramose. Dladla also believes that South African universities don’t equip students with an understanding of their context.

“A student should come out of a university with full knowledge and understanding of his own society, its problems and solutions to those problems. I think our universities are failing in that regard. South African graduates are being shaped for another world, a different society, which is not the one within which we live.”

He says he doesn’t know if it’s possible for universities to change without the society within which they are situated, changing. “The conquest of South Africa was about dispossessing people. I’m not sure if there is a change in the way society operates, because change is not simply about letting people vote, but also about the restoration of integrity.

“I believe that the university will have to turn towards the truth, meaning that it would have to direct itself against the ill foundations of our present society.”

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