Opinionista Thandiwe Matthews & Faraaz Mahomed 12 December 2014

Moving a very stubborn mountain: The difficulties of addressing racism in South Africa’s universities

South Africa’s first year without its great liberator has been a challenging one, fraught with painful signs of an only half-won freedom and a slow descent into the Orwellian Republic we promised ourselves we would never become. As we consider the state of our nation 20 years into democracy, and one year into its post-Mandela incarnation, it is in reflecting on the lived experiences of South Africa’s ‘born free’ generation that we are able to fully capture what our nascent democracy is slowly achieving or, indeed, not achieving.

It is disturbing to note the proliferation of racist incidents occurring on South Africa’s university campuses. In 2014 alone, two white students at the University of the Free State’s Bloemfontein campus deliberately drove over a black student and then assaulted him as he confronted them. A newspaper at the same institution carried an advertisement for a student seeking a ‘non-affirmative action’ flatmate, while the incidents of students donning blackface’ at the Universities of Pretoria and Stellenbosch made headlines. Even at the crown jewel of South Africa’s higher education sector, the University of Cape Town, students have reportedly been accused of beating up a woman old enough to be their mother and urinating on a taxi driver’s head. Not only have these acts been perpetrated by born frees’, but what is particularly troubling is that these young South Africans represent our educated elite, and possibly even our future leaders.

In 1997, Nelson Mandela, perhaps himself the most fervent proponent of an egalitarian education system, was quoted as saying, “The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation building and reconciliation. Our previous system emphasised the physical and other differences of South Africans with devastating effects. We are steadily but surely introducing education that enables our children to exploit their similarities and common goals, while appreciating the strength in their diversity.”

Judging by the events at numerous university campuses in 2014 alone, the “nation-building and reconciliation” that the former president referred to seems to be a way off, and the ‘contribution’ that he sees educational institutions making appears to have fallen short.

Academic Paul Douglas refers to institutions of higher education as a ‘complex microcosm of a complex society’, reflecting the same social patterns characteristic of their surroundings and plagued by the same ills. He goes on to note that they are both products of the social fabric in which they exist, as well as participants in them, shaping the way knowledge is generated and shared and informing the way we think about ourselves, our communities and our countries. By virtue of this place in society, institutions of higher education have an extremely important role to play.

Recognising the central role that tertiary institutions play in any free society, the department of education committed itself to undertaking a process of transformation of universities and technikons in 1997, seeking to shift the imbalances that typified apartheid’s education framework and, in the process, embark upon the exercise of ‘nation building’ that Madiba refers to. This has proved to be an intransigent challenge, as might have been expected when considering the proposition of uniformly administering institutions that were once purveyors of white Afrikaner nationalist rhetoric and those that were bastions of radically alternative positions. Indeed, the process of mergers undertaken by previous administrations has altered the post-Apartheid higher education landscape somewhat, but it is this very process of transformation that invites further examination and that necessitates a closer look.

In the wake of the Reitz incident’ that took place at the University of the Free State in 2008, the minister of education set up a committee to consider transformation and social cohesion at institutions of higher education in South Africa. The committee’s findings, published in what is now widely referred to as the Soudien Report, suggested that transformation had failed in South Africa’s higher education sector, because of numerous inter-related obstacles to the advancement of the term’s truest meaning. These included a considerable lack of institutional will, as well as deep-seated divisions at all levels of the enterprise. In addition, however, the report cited a lack of structural and macro-level changes in institutional cultures as impediments to sustained transformation, with the result being pervasive patterns of prejudice and human rights violations.

In a very real sense, the experience of higher education in South Africa is reflective of the broader intricacies associated with shifting experiences, attitudes and identities. In taking over the vice-chancellorship of the University of the Free State in 2009, Professor Jonathan Jansen summed it up nicely, saying, “The deeper issues of racism and bigotry that conflict our university – and many others – will not be resolved in the courts. Whoever wins and loses in the Reitz case, I will still wake up on Monday morning dealing with the same social, cultural and ideological complexities that stand in the way of transformation.”

Undoing these “social, cultural and ideological complexities” should, ultimately, be thought of as part and parcel of the transformation exercise if it is to succeed. Unfortunately, to date, ‘transformation’ has become a somewhat amorphous and often politically charged term. Policy-makers, whether at institutional or national levels, pay considerable attention to shifting the outer structures that formalise power, while rarely taking the time to deconstruct the systems that, in Jansen’s terms “stand in the wayof substantive change. In his book Lost in Transformation, Professor Sampie Terreblanche makes a similar argument, illustrating how only elites have benefitted from models of transformation thus far employed, because there has not been an emphasis on actually reducing inequality or promoting systemic change in the ordinary lived experiences of ordinary South Africans.

That change in lived experiences remains elusive in higher education as well, as demonstrated most strongly by the fact that, six years after ‘Reitz’, the University of the Free State is still grappling with very real challenges. This is largely because a change in culture is dependent on more than just the implementation of policies and frameworks. In the aftermath of Reitz, the University did, in fact, undertake to make several changes in the form and in the substance of the institutional culture, attempting to embed human rights as a central part of the UFS experience. To its credit, the University, and several of its peers, have established human rights desks or institutes and have made concerted efforts to develop measures aimed at addressing the negative attitudes which continue to be a barrier to reconciliation, some with the assistance of the South African Human Rights Commission. A number have incorporated first-year modules related to constitutional principles and the encouragement of dialogue on diversity and inclusivity. Complaints handling mechanisms have been instituted to deal with incidents of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and other grounds when they do occur.

Even so, in 2013 and 2014, the South African Human Rights Commission has been involved in investigating what seems to be not only a resurgence of a very dangerous problem, but also, the significant lack of progress in transforming lived experiences at universities around the country since Reitz. The continued occurrence of violations of the rights to equality and dignity demonstrate the stubbornness of the problem of racism, inadequate institutional forums and under-reporting by victims as well as seemingly arduous processes for seeking redress when these rights are violated are a testament to the barriers that continue to impede the process at institutional levels, despite very real and commendable commitments from administrators.

Jansen’s acknowledgment that racism and bigotry will not be “solved through the courts” is a vital one, because social problems do not easily lend themselves to legalistic or political solutions. Scholar Louise Vincent argues that while laws, policies and frameworks governing an institution may transform its exostructure, “the prevailing ways of doing things, understanding things and ‘being’ in the world” are far more resilient to change. This is why efforts at transformation and at developing new institutional cultures need to be equally resilient if they are to succeed. Certainly, policies, frameworks and protocols need to form a significant part of such a process, as do the formation of established focal points and development of programmes related to justice and reconciliation. Ultimately, however, what is clear is that there remains a substantial gap in the ideals we aspire to and the actions and attitudes we espouse.

Perhaps this gap is reflective of a very similar divide between what our Constitution provides for and what lived realities are like for most South Africans. This is, of course, a disturbing truth, but it may not be altogether surprising when one considers the fact that knowledge of the Constitution in South Africa is not particularly well developed. Human rights literacy can go a long way to shaping the prevailing ways of doing things at our institutions of higher education. So, too, can changes in what is taught and how it is taught. Fundamentally, institutions cannot transform if their curriculums do not.

We acknowledge that the fact that incidents of racial discrimination continue to occur does not, in itself, reflect the inability or unwillingness of the institutions concerned to counteract a seemingly prevalent social ill. Nonetheless, the occurrence of these incidents does demonstrate the recalcitrance of the problem, within society, within institutional cultures and within individual attitudes. Moreover, this is despite the enactment of numerous frameworks and the establishment of numerous bodies dedicated to the advancement of social justice and reconciliation. Sustained commitment and continued dialogue can assist us in accomplishing progress and, hopefully, in furthering what Mandela and his comrades started. Only when we are able to eradicate these worldviews in each and every institution, and in the hearts and minds of every individual that enters them can the born free generation really live up to its promise. DM


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