/ 18 November 2022

Tackling systemic racism in South Africa’s higher education system

'Who will the country blame when the tens of billions pumped into ‘free higher education’ don’t yield the expected returns?' Seán Mfundza Muller writes.
The recent department of higher education and training report on universities’ research productivity is interesting but it is only part of the picture. (Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

South Africa ushered in the democratic era almost three decades ago. However, coloniality and white supremacy are still deeply entrenched in the higher education system, as well as in broader society. 

At universities, black students and academics find themselves having to navigate a system that is built on a racialised and oppressive social architecture. They are perpetually engaged in a struggle for space, equality, equity, social and epistemic justice and recognition.

During apartheid, education played a key role in promoting and maintaining white supremacy by imposing Eurocentric world views while sidelining and erasing African knowledge and ways of knowing. Institutions of higher learning were driving research and discourses that validated and upheld racism. 

While South Africa’s historically white universities have opened their doors to black students, not much has been done to transform university spaces, institutional cultures and the curriculum. 

Academia continues to be dominated by white academics who ensure racialised grooming for succession. The academic agendas, institutional cultures and curriculum remain largely Eurocentric.

Historically white universities, while quick to dub themselves African universities, remain the guardians of white supremacist and Eurocentric traditions, views and values. The institutional cultures and curriculum detach black students and academics from their languages, cultures, communities and lived experiences. 

In these often toxic and oppressive environments, students are expected to assimilate by speaking well, gaining skills and Eurocentric knowledge that will allow them to enter the marketplace, but not allow them to make fundamental changes to the status quo in South Africa. 

White students, on the other hand, enter a space that is welcoming to them and upholds their languages, culture, norms and values — a space that is engineered for their growth and advancement, allowing them to hold a dominant position over black students and academics by virtue thereof. 

Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres argues that coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in the self-image of people, in aspirations of self and many other aspects of our experiences. 

Apart from the Eurocentric hegemony in South African higher education, the country often experiences racist incidents on university campuses. A mistake universities often make in addressing and documenting acts of racism is in framing them as isolated incidents, whereas this is a systemic issue. 

Universities are complicit in continued racism through institutional cultures that allow it, protect the perpetrators and lack the political and moral will to make meaningful systemic and structural change. 

Every time there is a racist incident, there is an expected outcry and a call for change. Performative commissions, committees and task teams are set up; recommendations are made and symbolic measures are put in place to deal with racism, yet nothing really ever changes.

South Africa does not lack the research, reports, findings and recommendations on how to systemically and structurally address racism in higher education — but it lacks the political will and willingness to bring about change.

In the 2008 Report of the Ministerial Committee on Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions, the department of higher education and training highlighted the problems and offered recommendations. These recommendations have been ignored by the institutions and the government has, unfortunately, failed to hold universities accountable for their failure in implementing the recommendations.

The report highlights that “unless attention is paid to changing the institutional culture (at universities), racist incidents and practices will continue unabated”. 

It also discusses in detail how institutional cultures at historically white universities in South Africa continue to “favour white experiences and marginalise black ones and, in so doing, result in pervasive feelings of alienation among black staff and students”.

The 2008 report notes the focus on individual acts of racism “detracts from the underlying basis of individual action on the part of the perpetrator, i.e. the racism embedded in the institutional culture”.

Yet, this report has been largely forgotten and ignored by the institutions. Some institutions are starting their own committees and task teams to investigate the same. They are likely to come up with similar, or the same, conclusions and recommendations in a year or two while doing little to nothing to work on systemic changes.

Universities continue to take a reactive stance on racism as opposed to being proactive. When incidents of racism are publicly exposed, universities centre their attention on reputational damage and meaningless assurances, instead of creating conducive environments and working on fundamental transformation. 

They laud the transformational work done by black academics and students, often parading it as their own, with no understanding thereof, nor any interest in supporting it in an impactful and sustainable way. Transformation, cloaked in a corporatised version of multiculturalism, is viewed as an optional extra and a “nice-to-have” that is not deeply embedded in the institutional culture, policies and practices. 

It is about management, efficiency and box-ticking. Institutional engagements and programmes about transformation are often attended by black students and staff only, making invisible and distorting the face of the perpetrators of racism in the institution. Instead of a deep, meaningful confrontation of the problem, universities choose to brush over history and host artificial celebrations of diversity. 

A response to and celebration of diversity does not deeply challenge the hegemonic system. It only appeals to it and tries to assimilate and make blackness more palatable to it. 

The language is then changed from “racism” to “lack of diversity”.

The response of universities to transformation has been to appoint more black academics to meet employment equity targets — a mere addition of more African faces to white-dominated spaces. 

Without dismantling whiteness and white supremacy in higher education first, adding black people to white-dominated higher education spaces will only contribute to their alienation.

The leadership of universities needs to be genuinely invested in and committed to the transformation of higher education in South Africa and courageous in its pursuit thereof. Universities need leaders who are not held captive by the fear of upsetting white supremacist alumni and donors/funders. 

University policies need to be very clear on their transformation targets, timelines and monitoring and evaluation frameworks. Policies should further exhibit a decisive institutional stance on racism and the consequences of acts of racism by both staff and students. 

The government needs to step up and take a zero-tolerance stance on racism in society at large and all public institutions. 

The elected ministers and the relevant parliamentary oversight committees should work to ensure the implementation of the recommendations resulting from any report and these should be binding in one way or another.

Public universities must heed the call for decolonisation. This will assist immensely in the dismantling of institutional cultures that make racism not only acceptable but protect perpetrators when they should be held accountable. 

Decolonisation needs to be a strategic priority for the higher education department, so it is unfortunate that in its Strategic Plan 2020-2025, decolonisation is not a priority but a touch-on.  

Systemic changes in South African higher education must lead to an Africa-centric curriculum, geared towards sustainable development and solutions for Africa by Africans, not merely an insertion of African voices, as an afterthought, into an assimilative Eurocentric epistemological network. 

Professor Andre Keet says this means challenging the ways higher education, research and publication remain complicit in and vital to continued [neo]colonial domination. We need to examine “systemically the philosophical foundations of African universities” in order to make headway with the decolonisation of knowledge to “advance the established agendas of African universities for their own epistemic and institutional decolonisation”.

African universities can then start producing graduates who understand African societies and their socioeconomic conditions, as well as the complex and unjust world, and have the skills, drive and interest to develop solutions for Africa and for the world. 

Awethu Fatyela is a transformation communication officer at Stellenbosch University’s Transformation Office and previously worked as a researcher for the Economic Freedom Fighters in parliament. She writes in her personal capacity.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.