I want to agree with higher education minister Blade Nzimande that perhaps it’s about time that we established a ministerial task team to probe why we continue to produce so few black PhDs, more than 20 years into our freedom.
I believe that an initiative to probe why we continue to produce so few black PhDs should take a lesson from the past when some task teams were established for higher education transformation which were unfortunately loaded with conflicted characters who held leadership positions at universities which were supposed to be the subject of the very transformation.
In the end, we were told that higher education transformation must be anchored on the so-called “pillars of academic excellence”, meaning historically white universities. In the process, historically black universities were turned into sacrificial lambs, sliced into pieces like Guinea pigs, to protect and preserve white control and monopoly of the knowledge production sector in our country. That today we are battling to produce a sufficient number of black PhDs is partially the result of that paradigm of “pillars of excellence” – that it’s whites who are good at thinking, not us, the darkies.
My years at the University of Cape Town as a doctoral student do not count much but may be worth sharing nonetheless. I first had to survive tough battles with my supervisor who was forcing down my throat his post-modernist ideas, and doing all he could to prevent me from completing my thesis within three years. I should be thanking him for helping me do my Masters degree in Switzerland to learn French, but this was sadly overshadowed by the dirty tricks he played to block the publication of my thesis into a book.
I had to change supervisors to complete my doctoral studies, but not without losing some friends along the way. I should be thanking my replacement supervisor for taking me to a higher level academically, including facilitating my fellowship to the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), but our relationship would be strained after I wrote a critique of South African historiography during my postdoctoral days at Princeton University. I suppose that he was upset that, in that critique, I asked the same question that Minister Nzimande’s task team will interrogate – why were those so-called left-wing, white historians not producing black PhDs? I tried to provide tentative answers in that article, which did not help me earn more friends among what was a rapidly dwindling circle of academic mentors. I tried to tell the story of some young, black PhDs candidates who couldn’t reach the finishing line because of a supervisor who was not keen at all, or a supervisor who took a student’s research topic and completed it as his.
For starters, structural factors should inform the work of the ministerial task team. The South African academia sees itself as a satellite of the Western-dominated knowledge empire that keeps pumping into our heads that Greece and Rome were the cradle of human civilisation; that ancient Egypt was inhabited by the blond, white males of Hollywood who speak with an Elizabethan-era English accent. In this Western world view, Africans are inferior, not capable of any serious abstract reflection, let alone the generation of ideas; their job is that of doing photocopies or, at best, serving their more cerebral masters as research assistants. Hence we were told after 1994 that the transformation of our higher education sector had to be executed through the preservation of the “pillars of excellence”.
This task team must also look deeply at the phenomenon of gatekeeping without which life in the academia cannot be fully understood. Some of us had to be initiated, endorsed, and anointed by the grandmasters of our discipline through conference networks and around dinner tables. Without being accepted into the closed cycle of “experts” in your field, you cannot publish, gain access to research grants, be invited to prestigious conferences, be appointed to this or that prestigious position, or be cited among the footnotes of a groundbreaking work of a grandmaster. Without this, you’ll become an academic only by name, not by stature or recognition; you’ll go around boasting with your academic gown at weddings without having published in an accredited academic journal which is controlled by the big boys, the grandmasters. For us, the grandmasters of our academic discipline are white and located at universities in the West.
To go through the academic ranks to doctoral level is mediated by many huddles. One must humble himself – the key survival trick is to subordinate oneself to the powers-that-be, especially one’s supervisor; to be a cheerleader who looks up to one’s supervisor with admiration. The supervisor is your demi-god throughout and on your way to the completion of your PhD. He’s your contact person with the faculty board, he decides on your external examiners, and he’s the one who clears your thesis for submission. If you dare rebel or refuse to toe the line, you’ll be thrown out through the chimney.
Important also are issues of research funding and the strategy for the retention of black talent at our universities. The remuneration of our academics is a big challenge that makes an academic career less attractive to working even as a middle-level officer in a government department. If this is the case, then why go through trials and tribulations and bother to do a PhD if you only have peanuts waiting for you as a reward for donning that red gown at the graduation ceremony? White colleagues manage this better – they have family resources to fall back on. They don’t even have cultural obligations that come with being part of an extended family structure that is so common among the Africans.
Minister Nzimande should be applauded. This task team is long overdue. It must be bold and courageous in its work, and the success to its work will be found somewhere on the creative side of the human brain. DM