Top university tackles transformation in South Africa

The University of Cape Town (UCT), one of South Africa’s top institutions, is undertaking an ambitious programme to balance race relations on campus. The university is accelerating its pace of transformation in the light of a government-commissioned probe into racism in higher education. “The report forced universities to think about these issues and to respond, which is what its real benefit has been,” said Crain Soudien, chair of the committee that oversaw the investigation and head of the transformation programme at UCT.

The investigation, launched in March 2008 following a racist scandal at the University of the Free State, exposed pervasive racial and sexual discrimination at university campuses across the country, and the failure of institutions to confront these challenges.

The subsequent report, based on questionnaires and visits to the country’s 23 universities, provides a range of key recommendations that universities are expected to adopt to varying degrees. They will be expected to talk about what steps they have taken at a conference to be held later this year.

Soudien, a professor of education at UCT, said both black and white racism occur quite predictably at the nation’s higher education institutions, although generally not on the same scale as the Free State incident. “Race relations continue to be a problem,” said Soudien. “The ongoing transition we face is extraordinarily difficult.”

A key finding of the report is that institutions have complied with national legislation and drafted policies to deal with racial integration, but that these have in most cases not been put into practice. “The response to the new legislative platform is largely one of compliance,” said Soudien. “With this report we’re trying to get universities to think about what this platform is truly about.”

The report did draw criticism. The official opposition Democratic Alliance released a statement accusing the committee of providing impractical recommendations by not grasping the funding crunch plaguing universities. But the party did acknowledge that it raised legitimate concerns about racism at various levels in universities.

The report’s recommendations fall into four categories: curriculum, student life, governance and institutional climate.

UCT has, for the moment, chosen to focus on institutional climate, which looks at staff relations. It has so far tackled the issue by circulating two sets of surveys, which polled staff members on whether they feel fairly treated by the university and their colleagues. It also launched the Kahuluma programme, a series of two- and three-day workshops that look at the relationships between staff members.

But, like any programme of this nature, there are challenges to overcome. The surveys are not representative, with low return rates of 30%. Soudien said many people see transformation initiatives as tedious and as an administrative burden.

“I think our challenge as leadership in a university is to help people see what a real opportunity this is to getting down to business,” said Soudien. “With global issues such as climate change and sustainability, this is an important moment in thinking about our responsibility as producers of knowledge around the world.”

One recommendation affecting many universities is the issue of governance. The report revealed that university councils in particular are not providing adequate leadership to their institutions, largely due to limited leadership capacity.

One result of many decades of apartheid is that the number of black people with university experience is considerably less than their white counterparts, which means many of the people serving on the councils are not necessarily qualified.

But for UCT, issues around governance are less of a problem than at other universities. Soudien said historically UCT has had a very active council, with council members deeply involved in policy issues and able to anticipate questions surrounding issues of racial integration.

“We’re leading by example,” said Soudien. “Other universities have started to look at what we’ve done here.”

Other universities have also been making strides. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University is launching a center for the advancement of non-racialism and democracy, for instance, and the University of the Free State last year appointed its first black Vice Chancellor, Professor Jonathan Jansen.

But UCT believes it is the leader in crafting policies around racism, sexual harassment, and the integration of residences. It has also developed an admissions policy that uses race-based criteria when admitting students. “The policy recognises the need for redressing the difficulties and injustices that arose from the past,” said Soudien.

But the policy is contentious. Opponents have argued that in a post-racial society, with race no longer on the statute books, disadvantage not race should be the qualifying factor.

“The position we’ve taken is that we’re looking at the vestiges of ongoing effects of racism in the lives of young people,” said Soudien. “But we do want to get to a point where race isn’t in the admissions criteria, so that we can recognise other forms of disadvantage in young people.”

It’s not only staff members taking up the issue. UCT’s Student Representative Council has undertaken a campaign to draw attention to and encourage racial integration on campus. The campaign is aimed at getting young people to question whether or not they are racially integrated, and whether their inter-racial interactions are on a meaningful or a superficial level.

“We decided this year that we wanted to look beyond UCT and speak to broader societal issues,” said Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh, SRC president and a third year politics, philosophy and economics major. “We felt young South Africans weren’t thinking about racial integration so it was the first issue we wanted to address.”

The campaign will have an aggressive run in the first two weeks of the academic year, which is just starting, and is centered on specific projects, using UCT media to promote the cause. Students will arrive in February to posters strewn across campus and to artistic constructions relating to racial integration erected in Jameson Plaza, the main social meeting ground for students and hub of campus life. The SRC will also organise screenings pertinent to the issue of race and arrange for diversity workshops for students.

“This campaign is absolutely necessary,” said Mpofu-Walsh, who calls himself black and white, being the product of mixed race parents. “We saw what could happen with the Free State incident, and we didn’t want that to happen at UCT.”

South African tertiary institutions face a particularly tough challenge in recreating their identity in a post-racial sphere. There are very few universities worldwide that have come out of an unequal and divided past, leaving institutions here without a model to serve as a guide.

But for Soudien, thinking of transformation issues presents educators with a valuable opportunity. “We have the chance to imagine this university in a new space and time,” he said. “It’s exciting and so stimulating. It’s a privilege to be a part of the process.”



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