UCT: A campus at odds with itself

I’m a visual studies scholar at the University of Cape Town, looking to the creative and the gaze in order to open a set of questions around trauma, memory and freedom in the aftermath of oppression, and entering these questions by looking to the ordinary archive of the oppressed.

This is an important gaze because perhaps one of the central problems both scholars and policymakers face today is what constitutes the real and the everyday. Who is the what in forms of representation?

The events of Marikana, unconscionable levels of violence against women and children, unimaginable poverty and school-leavers who are illiterate with little grasp of what it means to think critically all shame our democracy.

The events are part of the backdrop that underscores all my thinking about the human, coupled with the idea that a person who is free from domination doesn’t magically emerge because of being able to make a mark on a ballot sheet.

It is a question that has been put on the table because of our past. When years ago Nelson Mandela said “never again”, it was not a repetition of a slogan but a call for us to think always about the human. This has been at the heart of radical anticolonial thinking in the 20th century. Given decades of racial oppression in South Africa, the question of the human is central in our quest for freedom – and it should be central to any university on the African continent.

Strange afterlife
It is central because apartheid and colonialism, along with slavery in the Cape, were about violence, death and oppression. But it was based on a classification schema in which difference was turned into forms of oppression in which some were human and the majority were not. That system of classification became hegemonic and its practices have taken on a strange afterlife.

So how do we confront this afterlife; and is the academy, in its current shape and form, able to do this?

On the slopes of Devil’s Peak, in the shadow of the mountain that frames the city of Cape Town, you will find UCT, an institution of higher learning that dates back to 1829. Built on land given by Cecil John Rhodes, the university, as a “white” university in apartheid South Africa, was subject to the 1959 Extension of University Education Act, which formalised segregation by preventing historically white universities from admitting black students or hiring black faculty members.

But Little Moscow on the Hill, as UCT was dubbed during apartheid, argued against apartheid segregation. This vociferous energy to resist has apparently dissipated in the balmy air that hovers over this prime piece of picturesque real estate.

Despite a public commitment to transform its student body and faculty since 1994, the community of ageing Muscovites has now grown to more than 1 400 academics, but only a handful are people of colour. Furthermore, without some eye-squinting and giant leaps of the imagination, it is quite easy to believe that this university isn’t on the African continent at all.

Standing guard over the campus is the Rhodes Memorial and, to ensure the ever-present watchful gaze of Rhodes, an imposing statue of the man overlooks the rugby fields. From this breathtaking spot, it is not too difficult to peer through the eyes of Rhodes and see his panoptic Cape-to-Cairo vision as the view stretches to the city bowl on the left, to the sprawling Cape Flats and beyond.

A skewed vantage point
From this viewpoint, one doesn’t see the thousands of domestic workers making their way to the city or the men on the side of the road looking for piecework. From the vantage point on UCT’s Jameson steps, one can easily point out the adjoining upmarket suburbs of Newlands, Bishopscourt and Constantia, areas that have their own legacies of forced removals.

Less easy to spot in the flat and windy plains are the areas of Gugulethu, Langa, Athlone, Khaye­litsha, Bonteheuwel, Mitchells Plain and Hanover Park. From UCT, a dusty haze neatly obscures the view and the narratives of the Cape Flats. These are further kept at bay by the M3 on the one hand and by visible and invisible gatekeepers on the other.

In the 20 years since the first democratic election in South Africa, UCT has established a transformation portfolio, headed by a deputy vice-chancellor. The institution prides itself on its world rankings, its number of rated academics, its cutting-edge research and a student body that increasingly has drawn students from disadvantaged communities.

Yet it is a campus at odds with itself, trying to make sense of a multicoloured landscape with a dogged determination using the tools, frames and languages of the past. It is a university that has been home to many messy affairs of particularly darker shades, including the Mafeje affair of 1968, the Mamdani affair of 1998 and the Centre for African Studies affair of 2011. One can’t help but see a pattern that draws attention to the inability of this university to transform itself as an institution that values all its various publics in a contemporary South African moment that demands a radically new way of thinking if we are to escape a repeat of the likes of Marikana.

By 2013, the number of black academics at UCT was 48 out of a total of 1 405. Of the 174 South Africans who are full professors at UCT, there are only five black South Africans. Black women fare particularly badly. We can examine the lives of black South Africans as lives on the periphery by looking to the UCT experience.

I’m at a loss to explain these numbers, some 20 years after our first democratic elections, given that, on the face of it, UCT has a watertight transformation policy that includes all the politically correct terms and intentions. There are rigorous interview processes, employment equity representatives on selection committees, exit interviews, climate surveys and, apparently, a “grow your own timber” approach.

Not squaring up
So it must be something else, perhaps a self-serving refusal to reflect inwardly on power and privilege or the inability to grasp the opportunity of leading the field in being a first-class African university. The university doesn’t seem to be squaring up to the role it needs to play in the Western Cape and the country, and on the continent. It has yet to consider what transformation means in terms of the politics of knowledge and, in this light, has yet to grasp or imagine what freedom may mean for all.

The question of black academics runs far deeper than numbers and promotions because it speaks to the kind of university that UCT wants to be, the knowledges it deems important and the constituencies that it values. On a more crucial note, it is failing to see the disservice it is doing to its student body, largely setting up students of colour to falter by failing to foster an institution of learning that nurtures and protects speaking by all, to all.

It is no coincidence that in the past few months there have been increasing reports by students of colour, voicing their acute sense of alienation.

The question of research and scholarship in an institution such as UCT is important. If UCT does not value its black academics as thinkers capable of doing crucial work, how then does it value the scholarship that we produce?

Frantz Fanon’s comment on “the problem of the black” astutely confronts academies that seek to pigeonhole this problem in terms of programmes that tick boxes such as “social responsibility” or “community outreach”.

This is a kind of “blackness” that is understood and tolerated – and flies in the face of freedom.

So what do we do next?

How does one move from representation to a politics of knowledge, and what is the future for UCT and other similar institutions if we do make this move? More importantly, what is the future for South Africa if we continue to reproduce modes of knowledge that do not heed the cry of the ghosts of Marikana who urge them, and us, to be free?

Dr Siona O’Connell is a lecturer at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town. This is the text that formed the basis of her address at last weekend’s M&G Literary Festival

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