‘Glass ceiling for blacks’

2017-03-14 12:32

Professor Cecil Seethal relaxing at his home in Northdale.

Professor Cecil Seethal relaxing at his home in Northdale. (Ian Carbutt)

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Born during the struggles against the apartheid regime, internationally celebrated political geography professor Cecil Seethal researched geography and environmental studies in Pietermaritzburg in the time of the Group Areas Act.

“When I grew up as a young child it was my late dad’s dream that I become a medical doctor and after matriculating I was granted access into the University of Natal’s medical school, but I could not afford it.

“After I was unable to receive a scholarship, I had to decline my seat at medical school.

“I went on to study in the UK where I obtained a Masters of Arts Degree in applied geography and then later completed my PhD at the University of Iowa in the U.S.

“It was very difficult during apartheid to move into masters and PhD studies. I tried to do my PhD at Wits University, and after I applied I was called into an interview.

“The interview went well. But the interviewer told me to read 64 books over the weekend and come and talk to him about it on Tuesday.

“At the time I lived almost 200 km away from Johannesburg where the library with the books was.

“Those were the struggles we faced as black students at the time during the strife of apartheid.

“Today people talk about a glass ceiling for women, I think the same sort of glass ceiling applied for ‘blacks’ at the time in terms of the academic progression of students,” said Seethal.

Back in South Africa, Seethal first battled to pursue a career in academics, but educating people was always a passion for him.

“When I returned from the U.S. with a PhD and struggled to get into an academic career I worked in Durban for while in the Department of Local Government, Housing and Traditional Affairs.

“While there, it occurred to me that there was a need to grow the staff academically. So I obtained permission to run a course in development studies at the then University of Durban Westville for the staff. Some of them went on to complete degrees.”

Seethal then went on to facilitate the development of the geography and environmental studies post-graduate department at the University of Fort Hare, where he taught from 2002 to 2014.

Although it proved challenging at first because of the lack of resources and staff, the academic career at Fort Hare was very fulfilling.

“Five of my students were approached to submit their PhD theses for a book and that for me was a very important recognition for all the hard work we put in.”

Seethal has received numerous accolades, including Best Student Paper in Political Geography at the Association of American Geographers annual convention in 1993 for his paper on Pietermaritzburg. In this paper he researched the concept of non-racial geography and posed the idea of integration at a time when races were separated by the areas they were allowed to live in.

Although he is now retired, he still supervises PhD students studying through Unisa.


Read more on:    pietermaritzburg  |  pmb people

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