/ 3 September 2023

Wrestling to exist: Womanist struggles of junior scholars in South African higher education institutions

Obtaining a foreign PhD is seen as attractive but data suggests local alternatives shouldn’t be dismissed.
It is imperative that we break the silence and change the narrative of black women who enter academic spaces

The scholarly contribution in “Wrestling to Exist: Womanist Struggles of Junior Scholars in South African Higher Education Institutions”, deals mainly with the experiences of black women occupying junior academic roles. The paper adopts a research method called narrative study. This approach allows the researcher to narrate people’s experiences in the participants’ own words. 

It disrupts the usual approach where the researcher is required to interpret and analyse participant responses. The traditional approaches often misrepresent participant responses or present them in complex inaccessible academic jargon. 

We adopt this approach not only for its scientific relevance, but also as a political decolonial rebellion. 

Marginalised groups are silenced in different ways in the academy and to give expression to our participants’ experiences in the manner that we do, helps in some ways to counter the erasure that “othered” groups are exposed to. 

This paper tracks the experiences of three young black women scholars in previously white universities. They narrate their insider/outsiderness and how it negatively impacts their scholarly research mainly in the form of their PhD and masters studies. 

They struggle to find belonging as they are neither students and the academy often bars staff from engaging in student resistance and discourse, even when their struggles intersect with those of students. 

They are also not seen as staff because there are hierarchies that see them as less than because they are often still in the process of concluding their Postgraduate studies. These women struggle to meaningfully integrate into workplace culture as they navigate these challenges, because in some ways they are neither staff nor students. They exist in an in-between space, wrestling to exist.

Insider/outsiderness: A struggle for identity

Their insider/outsiderness also revolves around their black womanhood. The academy, which we view as a very western and patriarchal establishment, by design reminds them of their “non-belonging” in the space. 

These are not experiences unique only to these three participants, many black women experience varying levels of marginalisation in higher education. These negatively impact their research and scholarship, which helps the institutions prove their violence flawed theories that; “black women are unqualified and incapable”. 

One’s mental health is also threatened because at times, significant portions of our scholarship is linked to who we are and our experiences. When politics and bureaucracies disrupt our work, we attach it to our own lack, we struggle to fire at the oppressive systems. We instead fire inwards at our own sense of self and start to believe we are less than or unimportant. 

How to survive: Finding Comfort and Success in Hostile Universities

The participants all mentioned that the one thing that gets them through the difficulties caused by academia is the formal and informal support of other women. This is something the authors understand, two of whom are members of the University of the Free State’s Women’s Forum (UFSWF). 

Nombulelo Shange and Kelebogile Boleu both make up the leadership structure of the Women’s Forum, which tries to provide a safe space for women to work together and produce research together in similar ways to what has been done for this academic paper. 

Academic publications give young emerging scholars more credibility and access to funding which enables them to support their engaged scholarship, community engagement and future research projects. 

UFSWF strives to create a space where women can work together, access the available funding structures, while strengthening their careers and likelihood to get promoted. This is usually difficult to achieve given the demanding work environment of the university and because junior staff members often carry the biggest teaching load, while being postgraduate students themselves. 

Creating structures where some of the workload can be shared, while strengthening networks and creating strong communities is of utmost importance. 

Academic articles such as these do not only serve to grow the field of knowledge but to practically change the narrative of black women that will enter these spaces. It allows for the unveiling of the masks we put on to survive and gives a way to unmute ourselves. 

This could ultimately become the instrument that fuels the changes that need to happen in the structures that victimise us and those that erase our sense of self as women. We can no longer wrestle to exist, we need to make practical, loud efforts towards recreating these spaces to become accepting of us. 

A simple way we can do this is to become more aware of formal and informal mentoring opportunities around us. When juniors or new members enter our spaces they must know that they can find allies in us as women. 

We are already here and we won’t be removed, shaken or broken.

* “Wrestling to Exist: Womanist Struggles of Junior Scholars in South African Higher Education Institutions”, a qualitative narrative research study conducted and written by Kelebogile Boleu and Nombulelo Tholithemba Shange from University of the Free State, and Busisiwe Ntsele from Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam

This study is featured in the University of Johannesburg’s academic journal; Pan-African Conversations: An International Journal. The study forms part of a larger conversation, where various scholars have written about the challenges facing black scholars in higher education. The special issue is titled; “Black Academic Voices: South Africa and Beyond”

The issue was edited by University of South Africa’s (UNISA) Prof Grace Khunou. The special issue is a continuation of a 2019 Human Sciences Research Council book publication titled; Black academic voices: The South African experience. The special issue is a follow up on the same politics as presented in the book. Prof Khunou adds;

This special issue is part of efforts by the Department of Leadership and Transformation, at UNISA in Pretoria, to contribute towards the building of the scholarship of transformation. The attempts to minimise or completely erase the contributions of Black women is not only a reality in the academy, but in society generally. One of the attempts is the juniorisation and lack of support of Black women. This contributes to their early exit and low numbers in administrative and research leadership positions.

Nombulelo Shange and Kelebogile Boleu write in their individual capacity.