Opinionista Mandla Lionel Isaacs 25 February 2016

University decolonization: Why not build our own?

It makes no sense for African universities to be European in character, grounded in European thought and values. It makes no sense that the few black South African students who are able to attend our leading universities are marginalised once they get there and unable to see themselves, their languages, struggles and histories in the institution and curriculum they are asked to learn from and engage with. A powerful civilisation should not primarily occupy itself with pleading with others to change the terms by which sites of power are organised; a powerful civilisation occupies itself with building its own sites of power, wherein it sets its own terms.

The debate on transformation has hit something of a stalemate. Black academics, students and government have long complained of the extent to which university teaching staffs remain largely white, largely male. Holdouts such as Max Price at UCT argue that it takes 20 years from obtaining a PhD to becoming a full professor, so it’s not that they are currently institutionally racist but that they remain hamstrung by the unfortunate legacy of the past.

What is missing is the on-going debate is an emphasis on building new, elite African universities that we control and can shape to suit our own purposes. This aligns with my general philosophy on race, which I will expand on at length separately, but which can be condensed as follows.

It is obviously important to render visible the legacy and ongoing impacts of racism, sexism and social injustice, particularly as oppression has been insidiously effective in conditioning us to accept its ongoing and damaging manifestations as normal. But a careful reading of the history of black struggle against white supremacy and close engagement with the ideas of black consciousness and African renaissance, demand that protest be considered only one tactic among many, and perhaps not the most important one. In other words, and this is my central argument: a powerful civilization should not primarily occupy itself with pleading with others to change the terms by which sites of power are organized; a powerful civilization occupies itself with building its own sites of power, wherein it sets its own terms.

What does this mean in practical terms?
Many of the few talented black post-graduate students leave academia for more lucrative jobs in the private sector (partly and understandably, due to black tax and the pressure to create wealth for historical reasons).


I don’t accept that the way our academic career paths are structured is above scrutiny. It certainly should not be this rigid. Harvard University made Jeffrey Sachs a full professor of economic with tenure at 28, because his work justified it. Our universities need to focus more on attracting, nurturing, recognizing and rewarding talented black academics than enforcing antiquated ideas about career paths. And let’s not forget that the previously advantaged academic elite, which dominate university councils, benefit from the path of aspirant black academics being long and rigid.

And that is the crux isn’t it? Advocates of transformation are relying on beneficiaries of the status quo to disrupt their own comfort, accelerate the entry of competition and share their privileges. The main difference between these advocates and me is that I am not surprised by this.

Government has periodically mused about legislating to give itself the power to compel changes at universities. Universities, understandably, have been zealous about protecting their autonomy. Committed black academics continue to raise the issue, but in considering how strongly to agitate for change within their workplaces, ultimately have to consider their individual career aspirations and personal responsibilities. Student activism provides much needed ballast, but students graduate every three or four years, allowing universities to ride out spikes of protest by particular cohorts. Hence the stalemate.

So what would my approach look like?

South Africa needs an elite university whose character and animating project is truly African. None of our current universities completely and unquestionably fulfills both of these two criteria, eliteness and Africanness. To fulfill this need we can create a completely new university or improve one or more of our existing universities towards this end (all of them more or less proclaim this ambition, we should note.) Let us focus here on the former.

We should create a flagship, elite African university. In the spirit of both African renaissance and of Sankofa – an Akan idea which tells us to look backward to know how to move forward – let’s call it Tehuti University (TU), after the Kemetic or Ancient Egyptian deity associated with wisdom and writing.

The state would fund it as it is a project of national importance which would require significant initial investment, resources which may not be available or forthcoming from our existing black industrialists. (In the current economic climate, how to fund public goods identified as necessary is a major issue which I can’t adequately address here.)

A small council of seven of the best African academics and intellectuals would guide the formation of the university from the ground up. Four would be South African, and three would be Africans from elsewhere in the continent and diaspora. This could include South African/SA-based academics like Nomalanga Mkhize, Phumla Gqola, Xolela Mangcu, Chris Landsberg and Achille Mbembe and from a Pan-African perspective, people like Mahmood Mamdani, Greg Carr, Oyeronke Oyewumi and Kwame Anthony Appiah. I’m sure such academics would leap at the opportunity to be part of a once in a lifetime, civilizational project such as this. It should include one or two non-academic intellectuals, as well as young people who can bring the experiences of African millennials into the room. The council would be solely responsible for nominating a founding VC which the government, as sponsor, would approve in an up/down vote.

The council would be tasked with reimagining the university in African terms. They would decide whether and what disciplines should make up the university. They would conceptualize a university which is both an elite bastion of knowledge, research and erudition at a remove, as well as an active participant in local and national economic development. The university would not open its doors until 60% of professors and department chairs are black South Africans, and 50% are women.

TU would be founded on picturesque land on the KZN North Coast, close to the Indian Ocean, granted by the state. Gauteng has its dense cluster of universities in the Highveld. UCT has its prime location between the mountains and the Atlantic. TU would complete the triangle on our East coast.

A nation’s universities reflect its economic and social power. A university’s economic base is a product of the historical influence and affluence of its graduates and philanthropic supporters. Their institutional relevance is a function not just of the quality of the knowledge they produce, and the extent to which business and government fund its activities, but also the extent to which the public and private sectors value the graduates, academic staff and research they produce.

So for TU to truly attract the elite, the government would have to make clear that TU will be the first place it looks to for young talent to enter the public service, to commission research, for advice, and for consulting work. It would have to encourage key state institutions such as DBSA and IDC, and continental ones such as the African Development Bank and African Union to do the same.

The creation of this flagship university would accomplish several important things. It would demonstrate unequivocally that we can build our own elite institutions which serve our needs and that excellent black academics do exist. Holdouts in other institutions would be exposed and disarmed of their rhetorical weapons. It would demonstrate what a truly African university looks like, in character, curriculum and social function. Strategically, it would also allow the state to begin to prioritize resources towards universities which truly embrace transformation. TU would demonstrate that transformation is possible when the will is present.

The state could then tell universities that they have three years to make measurable progress on agreed targets or risk losing funding incrementally. And the state can’t be held to ransom by universities threatening to reduce access or warning of damage to the economy, because it will have a flagship institution which can take up the slack.

I think it is evident that building at least one, flagship greenfield university is imperative. Certainly strengthening existing universities is also critical. This was one of the aims of the university mergers, but unfortunately we have not funded universities adequately. But if we truly understood the importance of history, we would pour resources into turning institutions like Fort Hare – the institution which nurtured so many African statesmen, including arguably the greatest statesman of the 20th century in Nelson Mandela – into the Harvard, Oxford or Peking of South Africa. We would do with Fort Hare what Nomsa Mazwai, the university’s first ever female SRC President asked us to do recently, which is “use it to chart a new way forward, not only for the institution but for the country and the continent.”

Transforming our current universities is important. Every university in South Africa is ours, and should be decolonized. Where the institutional autonomy of universities allows holdouts to resist change, we would be wise to accelerate the project of the elite, African university by building completely new ones, or shifting our attention to building up those which are willing, rather than focusing our energies on those intent on remaining bastions of white privilege. DM


Don't believe Han Solo's evasion of Empire TIE Fighters. There are many miles of vacuum space between each asteroid in a field.