/ 15 June 2017

Why are there so few black professors?

(John McCann)
(John McCann)

Ahead of the budget vote for 2017-2018 of the department of higher education and training, Minister Blade Nzimande expressed concern about the scarcity of black professors.

It has been reported that he will set up a ministerial task team to find out “what is holding black academics back”. Last month, when he tabled the higher education and training budget in Parliament, he said it was important to “address the paucity of black South African academics in our institutions, which manifests in 66% [in 2015] of all university professors still being white”.

“What is holding black academics back?” is the wrong question for the higher education sector to be asking. The right question is: Where do African, coloured and Indian South Africans with PhD degrees from the universities in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal go to?

Before we answer this question, statistical proof that the universities have been producing black people with doctoral degrees is available in the higher education management information systems (Hemis) data. This data has been available since at least 1994.

The genesis of the question “Where do all the black South Africans with PhDs go to?” can be found in the colonial and apartheid legislation on education and the universities. Take for example, the Extension of University Education Act, 45 of 1949, which made it “a criminal offence for a non-white student to register at a hitherto open university without the written consent of the minister of internal affairs”.

This “criminal offence” aspect, without being written, came to apply to the prohibition of “a non-white” lecturer and professor from teaching and working in the universities. The case in point was that of Archie Mafeje at the University of Cape Town (UCT) from 1968. That was during apartheid education. When the post-1994 democratic dispensation arrived, it appears the Nelson Mandela presidency and the government of national unity had too many challenges and that a serious national dialogue about the practicalities of a paradigm shift away from “criminal offence”, in education broadly and in higher education specifically, was never a priority.

That is why the universities continue to produce citizens with PhD degrees but it is the white South Africans who get positions to teach and work in our universities. Black South Africans are graduated out of the university system to seek employment outside the very sector they have been trained to capacitate. I will elaborate on this through the myth that vice-chancellors and university leaders use as a response to the question Nzimande has posed, “What is holding black academics back?” They say that black people with PhDs chase high salary packages outside the university. Prior to his budget vote address, Nzimande said: “This worries me very deeply. Some say this is because black South Africans start work straight after their first degree to help their families; others say that’s not true — that gatekeeping is the problem.”

This is a myth and is used as a pretext to keep black academics out of the universities. Let me reflect on my own academic career experience to dismiss this myth: I studied for my BA, honours, MA degrees and HDE (higher diploma in education) at the former University of Natal, Durban campus. I was certain I wanted to be a teacher and a university professor. I have a doctoral degree, I am a publishing academic in accredited journals internationally and I have just completed a postdoctoral fellowship. But I am not in a South African university teaching and researching. Why? I am one example; there are many black South Africans with PhD degrees outside the university systems. Why?

From 2015 to 2016 I conceptualised a research project in my directorate of monitoring and evaluation at the Council on Higher Education (titled Paucity of Black South Africans with PhDs: Pretext for Transformation and Employability of Black Professoriate in the Universities in South Africa, 1994-2015).

The aim of my project was to provide adequate, reliable and factual information about the supposed minimal number of black staff in universities.

This is a research project in progress but, briefly, what it is uncovering is that university education is a battleground. Very little in that combat has changed from the content and context of the “Mafeje Affair” in the late 1960s.

The majority of students in our tertiary education is increasingly becoming black and this majority proactively calls for the decolonisation of the university, curriculum and staff demographics. In his budget vote speech Nzimande touched on this project of decolonisation and said: “Until these skewed demographics were fixed, there would be no decolonisation in higher education.”

During the students’ protests in 2016, Athabile Nonxuba, a UCT student, articulated this predicament best when she said: “We cannot be decolonised by white people who colonised us.”

Until the universities pre-emptively appoint black PhD-holding South Africans to teach in these institutions, decolonisation will continue to be a theory. The exclusion in the curriculum of the official South African languages and indigenous knowledge systems is a remnant of colonialism and apartheid; there is nothing democratic and liberated about our education in that context and content.

The year 2014 witnessed the intensification of protest about the snail’s pace of transformation in the higher education sector. The progression of African and black academics and professoriate was questioned.

UCT came to be at the centre of this debate when Xolela Mangcu, then an associate professor in the department of sociology, wrote an article titled “Ripping the veil off UCT’s whiter shades of pale”. Vice-chancellor Max Price responded with his article, “Nothing sinister about paucity of black professors at UCT”.

For that research, I conducted preliminary interviews at UCT in 2015. Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, then dean of humanities, said universities included academics from the rest of the African continent in their statistics to show the extent of redress, equity and access — to “fudge and skew” how transformed they were. When there is a redress and equity appointment, “a person from Ghana, which, as you know, became independent in 1957 … They cannot count [these people] as redress candidates.”

For the proposed ministerial task team to succeed, monitoring must be at the centre.

The team, to be headed by Professor David Mosoma, former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa, should receive adequate resources so that the curriculums, institutional culture and staffing in the universities cease to be the focus of student protests when learning, teaching and research should be the main focus of higher education and training.

Dr Neo Lekgotla laga Ramoupi is a postdoctoral fellow in the 2016-2017 African Humanities Programme and a senior researcher in the directorate of research, monitoring and advice at the Council on Higher Education in Pretoria. These are his own views