Black academics must stake their claim

2013-01-13 10:00

‘We are here to stay!” The words of Dr Mzikazi Nduna, of the School of Human and Community Development at Wits University, rang out, jolting the gathering I was attending recently.

She displayed a combination of crassness, cheekiness, subversiveness and irreverence. She meant black academics are here to stay.

Her words led to bristling and ­discomfort among some of the guests. She was asserting a new truth for higher education’s formally white institutions.

Those of us who have participated on the fringes of the knowledge-production process were listening and watching.

Not much heed is paid to our academics.

While undergraduate student numbers have rapidly and naturally changed to mirror the reality of the South African “race” demographic profile, these changes haven’t been matched among our lecturing population.

To some degree, this is as it should be. But even though change is moving at a glacial pace, something is happening. The foundation for fundamental change is being quietly laid.

We see it with the slowly increasing number of our young black academics who are getting their PhDs.

More importantly, we see it in the change in the numbers of those who are choosing to stay in higher education, in spite of the huge challenges they face.

The face of merit in our higher education institutions has largely been white and male.

Black competence has been under regular scrutiny while that of their white counterparts has been generally assumed as given: akin to a birth right.

This is apparent when students question the credentials of accomplished black academics, or when students second-guess the advice they receive from black academics by going to ask (even junior) white academics the same questions.

This prejudice is there when students claim not to understand the South African accent of a black academic based on the assumption that there are local accents that are more audible and understandable than others.

Prejudice is there when a course is taught by two academics, one white, the other black, and very few students ­attend the black academic’s class.

The rule of true meritocracy triumphs when ­advocates of colour blindness invalidate ­people’s prejudices.

When Dr Nduna said “we are here to stay”, she was challenging white normativity in higher education and stating that new norms are ­being negotiated that recognise the value of black scholarship.

This is not a negation of white contributions. It is normalisation of society when the work of professors Pumla Gqola (humanities), Melissa Steyn (sociology) and Lee Berger (paleoanthropology) are equally valued and validated.

Obtaining a PhD is a slow and painstaking process that tests one’s levels of resilience and ability.

Publishing journal articles and books is nothing short of painfully hard work, which requires huge time investments.

An academic career does not result in much material gain because it is common knowledge our academics are hopelessly underpaid.

When blackacademics decide to stay, research and teach at our universities, they change the face and accent of merit.

They signal to students this is a viable career choice and they too can speak and write sense in spaces that otherwise repel and kill their confidence.

Universities need to move apace to support blackacademics so that the destructive and non-affirming face of “merit” is dismantled and reconstituted in mutually affirming ways.

» Canham is a visiting fellow at Harvard University

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