Defend Truth


Acknowledging systemic racism is the first step for transformation of institutions of higher learning


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

Those at the helm of our universities first need to acknowledge systemic racism, and then work sensitively and diligently to get rid of the problems. If not, the ‘pissing’ incident at Stellenbosch University and other racist incidents will continue in our education institutions.

A recent Daily Maverick op-ed penned by Monie Naidoo commenting on the “pissing” incident at Stellenbosch University (SU) argued that the incident is “a reality check that living and working among us are racists capable of such despicable and degrading acts. Moving beyond the shock, anger and pain the incident has provoked, it presents an opportunity to open up deeper conversations on racism in our homes, religious institutions, schools, universities and workplaces. This is a real-life, topical, learning and teaching moment that should not be missed”. 

Two comments by Daily Maverick readers to Naidoo’s op-ed showed that some people still do not understand the dehumanisation and damage caused by racist incidents like this. One called it a “stupid incident” and the other comment calls the op-ed an “ongoing dramatization of this incident” which “is in itself part of the problem.” 

Until everybody at institutions of higher learning in South Africa (SA) stops their rejection of the notion of systemic racism and believing that some people in the institution may be racist but that the institution itself is not, we will continue to hear and see racist incidents. 

It is incumbent on those at the helm of our institutions, first, to acknowledge the problem, and then to work sensitively and diligently to get rid of the problem for the good of mankind.

Society’s assumption – and correctly so – is that students and academics at universities should be educated enough on the reality of systemic racism and implicit bias. And to appreciate how the consequences of their actions deeply scarred those that are at their receiving end, especially black students.  

Systemic racism

Unfortunately, there may be some people who would want others to believe that youthfulness and stupidity, and not systemic racism, is the primary reason why a white student would piss on a black student’s belongings. Until proven otherwise, I take it that this was a race-based act to show how dehumanised blacks can be. Also, this was a typical demonstration of the vast power students from white privileged backgrounds wield over the lives of the most historically marginalised students from black societies. 

An expectation is that institutions of higher learning must be the safest places for all students and that institutions must proactively play a role in fostering a love of one another, learning, and a greater understanding that no race is superior to the other, unless if you believe in or have race ideology such as Hitler’s concept of Herrenrasse (master race).

SU last week announced the appointment of retired Constitutional Court judge Justice Sisi Khampepe to head up an independent commission of inquiry into allegations of racism at the university, following the May incident in which student Theuns du Toit was suspended after being filmed urinating on Babalo Ndwayana’s belongings at the university’s Huis Marais residence. The commission to be led by Justice Khampepe will focus on:

  • Incidents of racism at the university, with reference to the recent occurrences at Huis Marais and the law dance at the Faculty of Law.
  • The current state of diversity, equity and inclusion within the university campus culture, with specific reference to racism.
  • Given the university’s stance of zero-tolerance towards racism, whether the current structures of the university and its material university policies, rules and processes are sufficient and most effective to address the lived experience of students and staff concerning racism in all its guises.
  • Related issues and concerns that may arise in the course of the inquiry, including the need for further investigation or consideration of related issues.

The rector and vice-chancellor, Professor Wim de Villiers, assured the public that “the SU leadership is sensitive to the well-being of the entire student and staff community and the impact of such incidents on our SU community”.

One stand-out from the Huis Marais saga is that even an institution like SU  that has a well-established transformation office and retired justice of the Constitutional Court and human rights activist Edwin Cameron as a chancellor, continues to battle incidents of degradation and the pimpernel-existence of acute racism. 

This surely must be a difficult pill to swallow for an institution that has as one of its most distinguished academics, the country’s former public protector, advocate Thuli Madonsela, who was honoured with the distinction of the French Chevalier de la légion d’honneur (knight of the Legion of Honour) in recognition of her sterling achievements in the achievement of the Rule of Law and the Constitution, and as one of the role players in social development and education in Stellenbosch.  

This opinion, however, is not intended to bash SU. It is about generally questioning issues of transformation and eradication of racism in South African institutions of higher learning.

In 2008, for instance, there was a widely condemned incident at the University of the Free State (UFS) where white students tricked black mothers working in their dorms into consuming their (white students’) urine. Even former DA leader Hellen Zille agreed that “the abhorrent footage of students abusing university workers is a fundamental infringement on the victims’ constitutional right to have their dignity respected and protected”. 

Listen and learn?

SU, UFS and similar or related incidents on our universities’ campuses call into question the willingness and sincerity with which universities in SA are dealing with transformation, diversity, equity and the scourge of racism. Do our institutions have the ability to listen to and learn from advice from stakeholders? If they have that ability, then they should have listened and learned from the 2014 National Hearing on transformation in institutions of higher learning in SA convened by the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), following numerous complaints on transformation issues in universities. 

The resurfacing of racist incidents after the 2014 SAHRC national hearing is an indictment on Universities South Africa (USAf), a body tasked with promoting the interests of South African universities. It would be pleasing to see sustained advocacy from USAf, whose membership is constituted by vice-chancellors in their capacity as accounting officers of their respective institutions, and also as Board of Directors of USAf, regarding transformation and the need for full protection of black students at universities. USAf should rebuke strongly and publicly any practice or incidence at any of the public universities that dehumanises students and staff because of their skin colour.

One wonders if the Transformation Barometer Framework issued by USAf in 2017, intended to provide universities with guidance on how to self-regulate their performance concerning the issue of transformation, is being used meaningfully. 

As Mark Paterson correctly observed in his 2021 opinion in University World News, what is apparent is that our universities have no shared idea of transformation. Paterson further hit the nail on the head, observing that public institutions of higher learning continue to oversupply the society with transformation rhetoric, and offer little or slow implementation. In some areas, transformation is primarily a box-ticking exercise, with no clear trajectory for development and growth into an inclusive community of people. 

The 2014 SAHRC hearing resulted years later in a report titled: Transformation at Public Universities in South Africa, which “encompasses a record of the systemic challenges that hinder the attainment of substantive transformation in higher education and therefore constitutes an important tool for assessing progress in attaining substantive transformation in this sector” (p.viii) is worthy to recall in the light of past incidents of racism at SU. In particular, SAHRC calling on the Department of Higher Education & Training to take a leading role in the transformation of the higher education system, and for it to use its powers to hold universities that fail to transform, to account.

They also recommended that all universities should develop transformation charters or plans, which at the very least, set out the following: the institution’s transformation goals and objectives;  encouraging universities to develop human resources policies that prioritise the recruitment of underrepresented and/or previously disadvantaged persons, particularly academics and leaders in senior posts; calling for the redesigning of public universities’ curricula to ensure its social responsiveness (both locally and regionally); and designing programmes that not only promote tolerance but an understanding of diversity, while giving recognition to the inherent dignity and equal worth of all persons. 

Broader transformation questions

The broader questions are: what is the state of transformation in South African public institutions of higher learning? Have institutions of higher learning sufficiently transformed in the last 27 years? Are there institutions that fail to transform in practical terms – and not only in policies that are not implemented – being held accountable? Do all institutions of higher learning have transformation charters that are adequate, practicable and implementable?  

Transformation of public institutions of higher learning is non-negotiable, particularly given the fact that all these universities are supported by public funds, to be what they are and to continue existing. The mainstreaming of transformation within annual plans and strategic goals of these institutions must be prioritised.

The following excerpt from the concluding section of the SAHRC report still rings true today: 

While many of the underlying challenges have developed under a discriminatory and oppressive history, the prevalence of these challenges also lies in the inability of the post-1994 state and institutional policies to achieve substantive reform, with many policies inadvertently reinforcing historical inequalities. Over a number of years, transformation in the country has largely become over-simplified, with predominance given to a quota system aimed at changing demographics, while the transformation of institutional cultures has become somewhat sidelined. Although most universities have developed transformation policies and plans, the adequacy and implementation of these appear to be lacking. This is largely due to the lack of capacity and/or the lack of institutional will to implement reform in a meaningful way. [p. 74]  DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Stephen T says:

    I disagree with the entire premise of this article. One person did one unacceptable thing so we must now assume the whole system needs to be upended and forcibly reformed? Get real.

    Here’s a better premise: Let the (individual) punishment fit the (individual) crime.

  • Craig B says:

    Racism is not a big problem, it tears its head randomly and sporadically. While this happens 60-70 black people are murdered daily. This is systemic and the cause is most likely economic and due to apartheid. Nobody gives a s*** about them, gov just loots, the private sector doesn’t create jobs and life just rolls along. The solution starts in economic policy and not BEE transformation which is just a cartel system in the little economy. I can’t drink this kind of Cool aid anymore.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    The only real transformation we require is in public education. Simple professional delivery in functioning infrastructure by dedicated people so that children have a real opportunity to improve their lives. Prejudices are part of the human condition – how we deal with this is a choice – you can be a victim or a victor.
    The writer perpetuates the victim narrative which is unhelpful.
    SU has maintained high standards of education whilst dealing with all sorts of noise from people like the writer. Let them get on with the job of education where both lecturers and students are there on merit. Social engineering is a destructive academic pursuit and has no place in South Africa. It was wrong before and it is wrong now.

  • Hugh Amoore says:

    I disagree with the reader who disagrees with the premise of the article.

    I have wrestled with the idea of systemic racism, but have come to the realisation that it has been and remains endemic in our HEIs.

    Simple examples are the surprise (and exceptionalism) evident or implicit in the way achievements at our HEIs by first-in-family or black faculty or students are too often trumpeted in ways that suggest that the person has achieved in spite of – with the subliminal implication that the person whose laudable achievement is being lauded because the achievement would not be expected of a black person (or in parallel cases by a woman).
    There are more important and more complex examples.

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