Brazen ‘trickery’ in transformation

To “fudge and skew” how transformed they were, local universities used the “trick” of including international African academics in their statistics to show the extent of redress, equity and access, according to Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Cape Town (UCT). But this practice by universities’ managements was “hypocritical”.

Buhlungu was speaking last week at a public debate on transformation in higher education at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT). On the panel with him were UCT’s Professor David Cooper and VUT deputy vice-chancellor for governance and operations, Professor Gordon Zide. Chief Mabizela, the chief director of policy in the higher education and training department, was expected to join the panel but did not arrive.

“Something common [across ­universities] is a cop-out where international scholars, who just happen to be black, are counted as equity candidates. It’s the most ­dishonest, most hypocritical and cynical thing you find,” Buhlungu said.

A published and experienced authority on trade unions, Buhlungu told an audience of about 60 that his argument on this matter had “unsettled” a number of his fellow academics.

“I’ve said to them that, as far as I’m concerned, there are three categories of academics: white South African academics, black South African academics and international scholars. You must have balance across the categories. That’s all.”

Although the number of black South African academic staff had either stagnated or declined over the years at various universities, the representation of white South African academics increased – especially white women – as did the employment of African international scholars.

No monitoring
“There’s something not right here, something that nobody is monitoring and taking to task,” he said.

“In other words, we take a person from Ghana, which, as you know, became independent in 1957, and we say again: ‘That colleague, competent in his or her own right, is a redress candidate.’ It cannot be like that.

“Whether they have permanent residency in South Africa [or not], they cannot count as redress candidates. Full stop. We can disagree on this one.”

The “skewed revolution” at universities that “continues till this day” was that the number of black academics hadn’t followed the quadrupled percentage of black students since the apartheid era, Buhlungu said.

His faculty at UCT, which he joined in January last year, has five black full professors who lecture, out of a staff of 250.

“That’s not atypical. You go to Wits University, University of Pretoria and University of Johannesburg [at all of which Buhlungu has worked], and the same pattern emerges.”

Complaints
Drawing laughter and applause, Buhlungu said the university transformation agenda was in trouble if people entrusted with helping achieve it were also complaining.

“It’s very depressing when you hear even the minister [of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande] complaining about North-West University being an ‘apartheid university’. I thought we put the minister there to fix things, not to complain as we do,” he said.

Responding to Buhlungu, VUT lecturer Nolutho Mkhumbeni said there was also a need to pay attention to the students admitted by faculties for postgraduate studies.

“Yes, you will take a black student, but an international black student, before you take a South African black student. Maybe also if people could be forced to nurture black South African students … and support them as much as they do white students.”

With the exception of Buhlungu, audience responses focused almost entirely on perceptions of an outright crisis in university transformation. (See “Take steps to solve the crisis”.)

Zide said it was an indictment of transformation that the number of women vice-chancellors had declined. “A few years ago we had five female vice-chancellors, and I was one of those who were saying it looks like the country is on the right path. But as we speak we only have three female vice-chancellors.”

The vice-chancellors of Tshwane University of Technology and University of Zululand resigned late last year.

“One of the things I’d like to see happening is to have an institution led by a person with a ­disability as a vice-chancellor or deputy vice-chancellor,” Zide said.


Take steps to solve the crisis

South Africa’s limited success in producing black academics is behind the academic crisis, said Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town. 

Only 28 women are full professors. 

“There is a crisis, but also there are opportunities when we open our minds.” 

The following steps would help to turn the situation around, he said:

  • Mass production of honours graduates: “If you want to build the future, you have got to build the honours level. You have got to flood the market with quality honours graduates – high-calibre honours degrees by the thousands.” 
  • Encourage honours graduates to do master’s and doctoral studies: “From then onwards, you need massive PhD scholarships. If you cannot handle them from here, send them to some targeted places for training in large numbers.” 
  • Guarantee employment at universities for successful candidates who are part of the schemes. “Even if it meant bloating our employment for some years, it will come down. If we think we’ll grow the black professoriate by having the numbers exactly as they are, it will never work.” 
  • Introduce employment equity quotas: “Universities must have staff [complements] with 40% as black South African academics. This can be done, 21 years on. You can do that at a stroke of a pen. And, to back it up, [the government] will have to say your subsidy will depend on this. That’s not too much to ask. I know many universities are now 21% [to] 24% black South Africans.” 
  • Draw clear distinctions between white South Africans, black South Africans and international scholars. “Unless we do it, we’ll be marching on the same spot and we’ll be fudging the whole question of transformation.” – Bongani Nkosi

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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