/ 19 March 2015

It matters who teaches you, Graça

Semantics: The facade of UCT
Semantics: The facade of UCT


A group of scholars called Transform-UCT recently came together to address transformation over and beyond existing bureaucratic bodies, such as the Transformation Services Office and transformation committees in various departments and faculties at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The scholars mobilised to address remarks made by vice-chancellor Max Price about the pace of transformation, particularly the statement that it takes scholars 20 years to become professors after they obtain PhDs, and his claim that black graduates prefer higher paying jobs in the government and private sectors.

Despite the rebuttal offered by black UCT scholars, these remarks have since been repeated by university spokespeople, mostly in the university’s communications and marketing department, in a Cape Argus article about UCT academic Dr Siona O’Connell’s experience of harassment after she wrote about transformation at the university in the same newspaper, about a month ago.

UCT chancellor Graça Machel took the opportunity to weigh in on the black professors’ debate at a graduation ceremony for the law and health sciences faculties on December 16 last year.

A transcription of her statement is worth sharing here: “But I want to emphasise that this wouldn’t be possible without such committed and focused academic staff [as] we have. I know we are criticised that we are not transforming enough. This is an issue we are going to deal with.

“But more important than who is teaching, more important is who you are teaching and how they come out of this institution [applause]. And when we see the mixture both in race and gender, and I can say even in [the] class we can see this afternoon, regardless of who we teach, the product is the one we are proud to offer to society. That, yes, we will walk this journey of transformation, but the most important transformation is already happening [applause].”

Class background
It is not clear how the chancellor is able to make a call on the class background of the health sciences and law graduates at the ceremony on sight alone, especially in light of the fact that black UCT students largely come from private schools and former model C schools.

For many children of the Cape Flats (a euphemism for “townships”), which ironically is visible from the UCT’s impressive Jammie steps, this university is simply inaccessible.

Its 100 Up programme, which should be lauded for its efforts to tackle a mammoth task, is a tacit admission of the problems posed by racialised class inequalities in higher education. The programme targets township schools so that their pupils are eligible for admission to UCT. It is too early to claim that any university in South Africa addresses class adequately.

Machel, framed by white professors in the YouTube video, suggested that it did not matter who teaches cohorts of students because the evidence of transformation stood before her – but, as I have already suggested, this evidence is highly debatable.

TransformUCT took issue with her claim. After much debate about whether a response to her remarks was needed and about whether the chancellor had wittingly entered the debate, the black scholars sent her a letter to engage her in dialogue. A few weeks later, TransformUCT had not received a response. In the absence of a reply, this group of scholars decided to publish its response to Machel on UCT’s Monday Paper website.

I am not going to repeat the contents of that letter because it is available online. However, I would like to argue that it does matter who is teaching students. It is not enough to say that your curriculum is transformative in some way or that a particular white job applicant’s research area is Africa- or black-focused.

Permit me a few anecdotes. The first is the most recent case at the University of the Witwatersrand, where a black law student, Sinethembe Memela, was reportedly assaulted and called a “black bitch” by white students. What set the alleged incident off? The white students mocked a black law lecturer’s accent.

Memela’s account is hardly new or surprising. The 2008 ministerial committee report on transformation in public higher education institutions, headed by Crain Soudien, now a deputy vice-chancellor at UCT, tracked accents as markers of black lecturers’ competence, among other forms of prejudice, on a national level. Regardless of how qualified or experienced black scholars are, students treat their accents as indicators of their competence.

This is a perception that my own department has had to negotiate often, despite our being arguably the most diverse department in our faculty at UCT.

I have often had to address first-years on levels of prejudice directed at my Zimbabwean colleagues’ accent on a number of occasions when I convened our first-year course on media studies.

More recently, I have had to deal with a student who attempted to get out of my media studies tutorial to join a tutorial group headed by a younger and less experienced graduate tutor, who just happened to be a white woman. The student’s stated failure to “cope” with my accent outweighed the fact that I was one of the staff members who helped to establish the media studies major at UCT over the past 10 years.

The Standard English spoken mainly by whites is still seen as the gold standard to which we all should aspire; anything less makes you incompetent.

Narrow frames
Students who come from historically white, English-speaking, wealthy schools come to universities – such as Wits, Rhodes and UCT – and expect to find an extension of what they experienced in their mono-cultural, class-specific schooling. They do not expect to widen their frames of reference to engage with a multilingual world and with what sociolinguists call “Englishes” – the varieties of English spoken globally.

Another anecdote relates to the UCT Summer School’s attempts to diversify its range of lecture topics in 2014 and, thereby, attract a younger, blacker audience.

The summer school hosted lectures on hip-hop activism in efforts to transform. The significance of this shift in the school’s curriculum was not lost on Soudien, who came to introduce the lecture series.

However, behind the scenes, a new summer school staff member and I met obstacles in the woodwork: lecturers and panelists do not get paid much to participate in these prestigious events and yet the hip-hop deejays I had invited were expected to bring their own public address system at their own cost.

Participation in the lecture series would therefore place them in the red, which defeated the purpose of bringing them in from the margins and into the ivory tower. It turned out that certain staffers were concerned that these Cape Flats hip-hop artists (read: hooligans) would break UCT’s sound gear.

One staffer summed it up nicely. When she met DJ Ready D at the event, she remarked: “Oh, but you don’t seem like a thug.”

Not a hint of irony was discernible.

Ingrained prejuduce
The levels of prejudice that black staff and students experience are therefore far more ingrained than Machel may realise.

It does matter who teaches you. A more representative spread of black scholars at historically white, wealthy universities will help to address the dehumanisation of everyday racist discursive practices of varying subtlety in lecture theatres, campus cafeterias and residences.

For black students, having a larger contingent of black scholars in the classroom could help to bridge the divide and assist UCT in mentoring the next generation of black scholars.

Adam Haupt is an associate professor in media studies at UCT. He is the author of Static: Race and Representation in Post-Apartheid Music, Media and Film (HSRC Press, 2012) and Stealing Empire: P2P, Intellectual Property and Hip-Hop Subversion (HSRC Press, 2008). Both books are available under open content licenses at www.hsrcpress.co.za