Professor's journey to the top: ‘To hell with it, I’m not going anywhere!’

2014-08-03 15:00

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When Pumla Gqola was a junior lecturer, a group of white students went to the dean of humanities and said they “didn’t want to be taught by a k****r”.

Gqola was 27 and lecturing in South African ­literature at the University of the Free State.

It wasn’t the students’ flagrant racism that bothered her – she says she expected it during the country’s political transition – but that the dean had even entertained their complaints.

The proper procedure for students dissatisfied with a lecturer would have been to complain to the head of department first. But she says this group knew the head wouldn’t “entertain” their racism and “went straight to somebody they ­believed in”.

“This showed they were confident he was going to side with them.”

Gqola (41), now an associate professor at Wits University, has a reputation for frank and fierce opinions, and has never been afraid to ask questions, so she emailed the dean.

When he hadn’t responded 15 minutes later, she marched to his office and demanded an explanation.

That incident could have broken many other black academics, she says, but she refused to give up her dream of being a professor.

“Now that I think about it, it did scare me a bit but because I had support from this community of black women academics, I just said: ‘To hell with it, I am not going anywhere!’

“If I had been alone and didn’t have the support of the [academic] community, I would probably not be here today. I know many black PhDs who just give up because of the racism and the intellectual insults, and go abroad.”

She’s spent years studying African literature, publishing scores of research papers as part of her journey to a professorship – a title she earned in 2007 after a rigorous panel review.

Gqola delayed starting a family to prioritise her career and says there is time for everything in life.

“All you have to do is make a choice that suits you.”

White students may not be marching to the dean’s office any more, but it remains difficult to be a black academic.

“They are constantly intellectually insulted by their [white] peers, who always think they need development,” Gqola says.

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