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Wits political studies post-graduate students: On a quest to revolutionalise the academy

Simamkele Dlakavu is a human rights television producer and runs a social enterprise aimed at developing rural and township youth in South Africa. She was included in the Mail and Guardian Top 200 Young South African's list of 2014.

Our academic spaces in South Africa are often referred to as an 'extension of Europe': due to the settler colonialism we were not seen as an African state, but rather an extension of the European colonial project in which white supremacy still reigns supreme.

White supremacy says that African history, experiences, and thought are inferior compared to Western history, thought and experiences. Furthermore, it says, black African lecturers don’t have valuable contributions to make to the academic space, and the larger production of knowledge. One of the two important moments where this debate has formed part of mainstream public discourse in post-apartheid South Africa was with the ‘Mamdani affair’ at UCT and the ‘Makgoba Affair’ at WITS. Both these academics were challenging the post-apartheid academy and the ways it should reflect its African grounding in its curriculum.

At the University of Witswatersrand, post-graduate students in the Political Studies department are reviving this debate and taking it further by challenging their department to transform. They have gone beyond complaining: they have now self-organised and formalized the process. Together, these post-graduate students drafted a ‘Transformation Memorandum’ which has been circulated to the Political Studies department, the Vice-Chancellor and the general university management. In their twenty-nine page memorandum, these students present two grievances, firstly: the lack of transformation in the demographics of the departmental staff. As it currently stands, the department has no black African lecturer and only has two female lectures (with the third just recently retiring). The students state that ‘the bulk of knowledge production can no longer issue from a small segment of the population’. Their second grievance is the lack of black and African thought in the university curriculum. They state ‘the lack of even a single black staff member in a department concerned with the political history of South Africa, among other topics is problematic’ and therefore they demand ‘a literal and physical demographic shift’. As affirmed in their document, these students are of ‘different races and [and genders]; espouse different political stances and religions; and come from different social and economic backgrounds’.

As a politics post-graduate student myself at the same department and although not based on campus – partaking in this process represented three main questions for me: how the university reproduces the status quo and maintains its power; issues of exclusion (of who belongs in this space and whose experiences matter); and the ideas around the society we want to create (and the problems we expect young people to solve).

The academic space is not a neutral space; academia has been used and is used to serve racialised interests of dominant ideas, classes, and interest in society. This is clearly evident in our country’s history. This is one of the major points highlighted by the students when they state that ‘it seems inconsistent and hypocritical of Political Studies that we learn certain narratives and paradigms within politics that only serve the status quo of [the] political past and interests’. Furthermore, they affirm that political theory is not universal, nor is it neutral: it is rooted in power and therefore the department ‘fails to recognize that ultimately Western scholarship will always leave out the story and viewpoint of the colonised. In the end theory is not universal nor is it neutral, even though currently we act as though it is’. To challenge this, in their draft, they also provide ‘suggestions of courses that could be offered rooted in the work of African thinkers’. Thinkers such as Ali Mazrui, Ben Magubane, Archie Mafeje, Anna Julia Cooper, Kathryn Gines, Noel Chabani Mangayi, William Jones, Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Paul Saba, Raj Patel, Lewis Gordon. And courses such as ‘post-colonial studies’ in which they state would ‘include the study of post-colonial African leaders who were also prominent writers, philosophers and political theorists’. They go on to name leaders who became the first president of their African states such as Léopold Senghor (first president of Senegal and creator of the concept ‘Negritude’), Ahmed Sékou Touré (first president of Guinea), Kwame Nkrumah (first president of Ghana), Julius Nyerere (first president of Tanzania). Furthermore they want ‘The mainstreaming of African literature in all current courses from Democratic Theory to Development Studies to Political Sociology, which will require willingness on the part of lecturers to research beyond their comfort zones and familiarise themselves with new literature’. One of their other objectives is ‘an increase in black academics within the Social Sciences.’

In an African institution, it is surprising that we are having the same debates that the black minorities is having in the United States (especially at predominantly white institutions) and in the United Kingdom, where they feel that their history and scholars are not reflected in academic institutions. In an African state, a country were black people are the overwhelming majority, it is surprising. Black students want to feel like they belong, that their history and the experiences of their people matter. Even when it comes to language, they state that ‘the presence of black lecturers creates the space in which those who are simultaneously working through their degrees and improving their language skills can potentially engage with one of their lecturers in their home language for the purposes of explaining concepts and words’.

Additionally, what was quite striking in their memorandum, were the students personal reflections, in which resonated with me. I remember in the second semester as a first year student, having only been taught by white lectures and my first encounter with a black lecturer coming first in the powerhouse that is Professor Pumla Gqola in that Media Studies class on Visual Culture. Words cannot express what that moment represented for my then 18 year old black girl self to see an accomplished professor, who shared the same race, gender, home language and province as me. It made me believe that I too can reach that level and I can belong in that space. What Gqola represented for me is the same feeling that honours student Nduvho Ramulongo expresses here:

My mother was a domestic worker. I lived with her in the white residential area [in which] she worked. In my eyes white people were always superior and I could never relate to them in any way but as [superioriors to me]. I did not realize it but unconsciously because of their position in that sense I have always just accepted what the lecturer was saying without questioning it and this restricts my ability to engage in class… Having some black lecturers in the department will go a long way in making black students feel that they belong in these institutions…”

Exposure to Professor Gqola also introduced me to the work of other black scholars and black female scholars, something that Masters student, Luke Feltham, says is missing in the department:

I personally find it lamentable that I have reached Masters level in this subject at one of Africa’s leading universities yet the only non-Western theorists I have studied in course work are Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko- brilliant thinkers but only a drop in the ocean of African intellectual thought”

With the average age of a South African being 24 years old and Africa being the youngest growing continent in the world, we are looking to young people to solve our societal challenges, to be innovative, to create employment. But how do we expect young people to solve Africa’s problems when they know little about the continent and cannot even situate themselves within Africa? As young people who have been challenged to be the leaders of today and not tomorrow, as we grapple with the kind of society we want to build and the problems we want to solve, more universities and schools in the country and the wider continent should place greater value in teaching African history and thought. As Dr Maya Angelou states, “he/she who does not learn from his or her history is doomed to repeat it…. at nauseam”.

As the memorandum written by the student’s state, “the department is now in a unique place to begin the process of inwardly reflecting on itself and becoming a beacon for transformation that the rest of the university can learn from and follow”. I hope that it will. DM


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