To make hope and history rhyme, listen
‘Change is neither easy nor comfortable. In fact, if it does not make us uncomfortable, we are not doing it right. Transformation is essential to serve all our stakeholders properly and for the sake of our sustainability as an institution,” said Professor Wim de Villiers, the new rector and vice-chancellor of the University of Stellenbosch.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian-British philosopher, reminds us that language is social, its meanings are never fixed and not labels for some “real world”.
Following Wittgenstein, British philosopher Peter Winch, in The Idea of a Social Science and its Relation to Philosophy, warns us that any inquiry into society and change can only be pursued in the language in which “society itself is conducted (or which could be intelligibly derived therefrom)”.
This then disqualifies the imposition of any explanation of social behaviour and change derived from some logic, universal theory, ideology or formula outside society.
What does this mean for thinking and executing transformation; or, as the great novelist Nadine Gordimer would have it, “making hope and history rhyme”?
Those charged with this rhyming task acknowledge that transformation is messy, complex and uncertain; and, if not so, is then not happening at all.
The first task of the transformer is the articulation and elaboration of a vision, and here, following Wittgenstein and Winch, is a selected presentation of past/present/future, packaged in elegant and inelegant linguistic and semiotic construct-(ion)s; a gospel of prosperity that will deliver to all people and is championed with missionary zeal.
Observed, then, is a not infrequent unilateral cranking out by the elite of majestic and magical visions of transformation, couched in wholesome and fulsome language and in terms of reconciliation, redress and inclusive development, derived from theories, ideologies and formulas of largely their own making.
Rarely do these grand constructs and constructions correspond to the real world, the lived experiences and the language of the poor (the majority of society) inhabiting the slums and shantytowns of the past/present/future.
So, in the case of our much-vaunted miracle transition, Madiba magic – forgiveness, rainbowism, ubuntu and reconciliation – enabled the harmonious transcendence from apartheid to peaceful racial post-apartheid coexistence, premised not on the previous master recognising and acknowledging the abject poverty and misery of the slave, but the slave being forgiving and magnanimous to permit the oppressive master back into the fold of humanity and history without any real and substantive commitment to redress, redistribution and substantive social justice.
Worded differently, the wizardry of Mabida resided in socialising a transformative narrative that was nonconflictual (a consensual model and view of society) – a society expunged of oppositional identities, interests and agendas.
Potential tensions, conflicts and disagreements around the notions of fundamental transformation, democratisation and restructuring, were, according to genius sociologist Harold Wolpe, “eliminated” by ideological fiat and “immediately offset by dissolving the differences into the goals”.
This permitted contradictory goals to be accommodated within policy frameworks, thereby obscuring or eliminating the need to examine or meaningfully engage with conflict, power, poverty and inequality.
Thumb through the pages of the Reconstruction and Development white paper (1994) and there is no reference to or mention of redistribution and substantive redress.
Is it any wonder that the elite so enthusiastically endorsed, embraced and celebrated the RDP white paper, rewarding and complementing this with “cappuccino” black economic empowerment programmes engineered in their boardrooms, corporate think-tanks and financial houses?
Fast forward to President Jacob Zuma and, although most would associate “radical socioeconomic transformation” with speedier upliftment of the poor and acceleration of meaningful black participation in the economy as owners and leaders, the reality is degrading poverty, enduring unemployment and hardship for the majority, alongside gross and perverse enrichment, mostly of the undeserved and unearned kind, of (a deracialising) elite – the vision writers and transformers.
Unlike the early days of transition, when the black business elite struggled to secure access to influence, power and money, the political and black elite are now intertwined, “sharing the same social aspirations and mixing in the same social milieu” as Carol Paton put it in Business Day.
This intertwining, sharing and mixing now provides the direct link between political connectivity and economic opportunity – unearned and undeserved wealth.
This programme is legitimated and justified by the skilful deployment of the “radical socioeconomic transformation” language that pays lip service to the Constitution and its values, and leads to the trivialisation and vulgarisation of the Freedom Charter.
On top of this is the ANC’s imposition on society of a National Development Plan (NDP), which says nothing about redistribution, redress and changing the unequalising character and exclusionary trajectory of our economy. Once again, the NDP, as with the RDP white paper, is enthusiastically endorsed, embraced and celebrated by the intertwined elites.
The question is: What does all this have to do with transformation at the University of Stellenbosch?
Some opine that, with systemic poverty, intractable unemployment and soaring inequality, the limits and limitations of Madiba’s reconciliation and Zuma’s radical transformation are becoming apparent.
No longer are the slaves – writes the thought leader Suntosh Pillay – prepared to adhere to visions that “constantly asked [and asks] to forgive, to move on, to work harder, to endure, to be patient, to reconcile, to stay calm, to pretend”.
Against this backdrop, it is elsewhere written that “we are a nation in search of a revolutionary catharsis in the absence of being able to successfully make real material change”.
It is further contended that, at the base of the defacing and toppling of colonial statutes at universities, the contestations of names of university buildings, affirmative action regarding lecturers, student admission policies, and demands for the transformation of the institutional cultures of the university – rhetoric aside – is black intellectual, student and middle-class frustrations over the pace and nature of transformation.
As one writer put it: while the challenges, contestations and demonstration may be “cathartic and fulfilling”, it “terrifies some white people because they see the statues [and institutions and culture] as metonyms for their race [and power]”.
The research shows – and here not lost on the angry and frustrated – of how white students consistently outperform black students, regardless of the degree being pursued, the year of study or institution attended.
Critical commentators attribute this difference to the predominant university model: that is, the student as decontextualised learner. There is little acknowledgment in this model of the way, and how, modes of teaching and learning are culturally, socially and politically embedded – namely, that teaching and learning practices mostly favour white middle-class students from educated homes, who, because they are comfortable in this system, perform far better than mostly black, poorer students.
By applying this model, universities largely absolve themselves of any responsibility for failure, with poor pass rates and performance blamed on the lack of the attributes vital to successful academic learning and “constructing the [black students’] pasts simply in terms of disadvantage or under-preparedness for the kinds of learning expected of them”.
But is it realistic to expect universities to overhaul and rapidly transform this model, and the structures, cultures, practices, prejudices and biases that underpin and undergird them in a (linguistically) elite framed and defined vision that is decontextualised or socioinstitutionally nonconflictual?
Reminiscent of the RDP white paper and NDP semiotics, manifestly clear in most university transformation visions is one that simultaneously elevates privatisation, decentralisation, commercialisation, entrepreneurship, global competitiveness, international benchmarking and international rankings, on the one hand, and redress, inclusivity, affirmative action, desegregation, deracialisation and inclusive development on the other.
In a recent piece in the Sunday Independent, the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib states that “you cannot switch from a racialised past to a colour-blind present without continuous racialised outcomes”. A “colour-blind future”, he says, is to innovatively overcome this burden of history.
And here lies the rub: How to hold a creative tension between the so-called post-apartheid liberal dividend – equality of opportunity – with the endurance and reproduction of frustrating racialised inequalities while, at the same time, being world-class?
The first step might be to confront racial legacies directly and affirm apartheid victims. De Villiers and Stellenbosch University should be commended for recognising and acknowledging the complicity of the university in the apartheid project, apologising for this and unequivocally committing the university to redress and development in terms of broadening access to the university for those who had “previously been excluded solely on their skin”.
De Villiers first installed a comprehensive permanent exhibition in the university to commemorate the forced removals of coloured and black people (Die Vlakte 1960s) to make way for the arts and social science building, erected on the expropriated land, and established a bursary fund for the children of die vlakte (the plains).
Second, unlike the vice-rector of the liberal University of Cape Town, Max Price, who, in the face of student protest against the visible racial metonym Cecil John Rhodes, venerated him “as a great man … a businessman, diplomat and prime minister of the Cape, a military strategist and a philanthropist and very committed to education”, De Villiers removed the HF Verwoerd plaque in the accounting and statistics building, which he writes was a “painful reminder to many of a period of second-class citizenship and an affront to human dignity”.
New appointments in management; initiatives aimed at the full subsidisation of the costs of study (residence, fees, books, living expenses) of top students drawn from previously poor and historically disadvantaged students (the ZERO Project); mentorship programmes for emerging and promising black academics; and concrete programmes and projects to build African research excellence lend hope and promise to conjoined and substantial projects of redress, affirming and international ranking.
A cautionary word, though, to De Villiers. There is little to fault your transformation vision that is about “innovation, inclusion and [is] future oriented”. There is little to disagree with that the necessary qualities to achieve this are “curiosity, energy, will, stamina, focus and discipline”.
There is, however, something to be said about how you intend to manage and balance the aims, goals and narratives of your multiple transformations –that is, transformation as a “discussion without borders”, transformation as “imperative” (“creating the future we want”), transformation in action (“passing the lighted torch from person to person”), transformation through education, transformation “by recognising and developing potential”, and transformation as “best interest” (the best interest – and success – of the student is the only criterion).
Where is there in these multiple transformations the sequencing and prioritisations, and the calculus and the geometries and trignometries of the trade-offs? Who wins and loses? And what about burden sharing and carrying in the short, medium and long term?
Second, who will lead in defining and driving the transformation agenda, cognisant of the powerful teachings of the revolutionary gangster Prince Machiavelli on how to hold and wield power? “He who introduces [a new order of things]” has “all those who profit from the old order as his enemies” and “only lukewarm allies in all those who might profit from the new”?
Finally, De Villiers needs to be alert to the limits and limitations of the presentation, packaging and championing of his vision. At his inauguration, he said that “Vision 2030 shares with South Africa’s National Development Plan, the desire to create a country that works for all its people”.
This is unfortunate because the sad reality is that this elite-scripted, elite-endorsed, elite-celebrated and elite-imposed gospel of prosperity does not work for all people and no longer can we demand of slaves to forget, forgive, reconcile, move on, work harder, endure, be patient, stay calm and pretend.
Vision 2030 must produce real material and meaningful change in the immediate and short-term, otherwise it could meet the same fate as the NDP: rejection, rebellion and revolution by angry school students denied admission to university by dint of history, legacy and poverty; decontextualised teaching and learning models and continued racialised outcomes; and a frustrated and dispirited intellectual black middle class whose mobility is determined and defined by those who wrote and policed the old rules and are now tasked to script and drive a transformation agenda and define performance regimes that have strayed from the founding missions and goals of a university and that they themselves would fall short off.
Vision 2030 must produce real material change in the immediate and short term. After 20 years of democracy, and only 15 years left to achieve the “big, hairy, audacious goals” of Vision 2030, we dare not, once again, squander this unique opportunity.
Doing it right, making hope and history rhyme, is only possible if the visionaries listen and visions are attuned to the collective eyes, mind, language, pulse and gyrations of society and the real world.
Doing it right – to serve all properly and for the sake of institutional sustainability – demands the pursuit, celebration and delivery of non-elitist, vision-writing projects of the many in the immediate, soon and slightly further away futures.
Firoz Khan is a senior lecturer in the school of public leadership at the University of Stellenbosch