UCT appointment escalates transformation row

White women are scoring top jobs at the University of Cape Town as a way to beat transformation targets, according to a group of black alumni.

Debates about staff transformation are nothing new at UCT but, with the recent appointment of a white female dean of commerce, the black alumni say they have had enough.

“The university can never convince us that, after 22 years since democratic rule in South Africa, it is still struggling to find suitable black (women especially) candidates to take up such positions,” the UCT Association of Black Alumni (UCTABA) in the Western Cape said in a statement.

Using statistics they obtained from the university, the organisation said that, out of eight dean appointments in the past three years at UCT, only two were black African men, one was a coloured woman and the rest were white people.

Professor Ingrid Woolard took up her position as dean of commerce earlier this week. She is the first woman dean in the faculty, but the association said that, for the university to be committed to transformation, it must consider black women professors.

“We hold that this appointment is indicative of a pattern at UCT where white women are convenient proxy appointments that doubly work as transformation candidates based on gender, but undermine broader and deeper commitments of transformation on race,” the association said.

UCT has had a long battle with staff transformation. In 1998, its vice-chancellor, Mamphela Ramphele, put an affirmative action plan in place in line with the university’s employment equity programme, which promised to stop appointing white males as deans. Ramphele said nine of the university’s 10 deans would be replaced.

According to the university’s statistics, Woolard is the third white female professor to be appointed a dean at the institution since 2013.

UCT perceived as ‘inaccessible and unwelcoming’
Sabelo Mcinziba, the secretary of the association in the Western Cape, said UCTABA was concerned about UCT’s lack of transformation at a time when student movements such as #RhodesMustFall are drawing attention to the limited diversity among the university staff.

Mcinziba said the fault did not lie with Woolard but rather with the institution’s confused priorities when it came to staff transformation.

“It’s not personal. She’s representative of a symptom – she’s individually herself not the problem. We wouldn’t want to target it to her and, frankly, she can’t help us with the problem we have here,” Mcinziba said.

The institution’s problem doesn’t only lie with the deans. Student activists have been vying to see more diversity among the professors.

In 2014 UCT’s vice-chancellor, Max Price, defended the university’s shortage of black staff, saying it “generally takes more than 20 years from getting a PhD to becoming a professor”.

In its statement, the association noted that was possible that black academics were leaving UCT, although it was unsure about the statistics regarding staff turnover.

Mcinziba added that black academics felt excluded from the institution. “UCT has a perception problem that it must deal with,” he said. “The perception is that UCT is inaccessible and unwelcoming.”

A UCT protest in February. (David Harrison, M&G)

UCTABA was formed in 2007, with the goal of driving transformation at UCT. The association has chapters in various provinces and provides funding to postgraduate and undergraduate students who are in dire financial need.

And it has had discussions with the university on issues of transformation in the past, with one being particularly well attended last year.

Although Mcinziba said transformation was a continuous process with no end in sight, he believed that UCT was moving in the wrong direction.

“Transforming UCT would be something of an ongoing process. We don’t think that one would ever get to a final stage where you say, ‘this is it’. What we can say definitely is that appointments such as this one [Woolard] are not helping us in that regard,” Mcinziba said.

The university said Woolard was a suitable candidate for the deanship, particularly in view of the key national role she played when serving on the employment conditions commission that advised the minister of labour on working conditions and minimum wages, and her role as an active contributor to the poverty and inequality planning group.

“She is highly acclaimed in her areas of research interest, which include labour markets, social protection, tax policy and the measurement of poverty and inequality,” the statement said. “Her contribution is undisputed and she is deserving of her appointment.”

Last year, UCT made seven senior appointments, five of whom were black people – three men and two women. The other two appointments were white women.

The university has a vacancy for a deputy vice-chancellor and said it is hoping to find a suitable black candidate.

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Raeesa Pather
Raeesa Pather
Ra’eesa Pather is a Cape Town-based general news and features journalist.

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