Deeply transformative leadership

2018-04-29 06:05
SibongileMuthwa and GeraldineFraser-Moleketi

SibongileMuthwa and GeraldineFraser-Moleketi

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Nelson Mandela University’s (NMU’s) installation of advocate Nozipho January-Bardill as chair of council, Dr Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi as chancellor and professor Sibongile Muthwa as vice-chancellor has to be ululated and celebrated, for this is history in the making.

Nowhere in the country, dare I say the continent, has a university seen such transformation in its governance.

It is clear that the university is positioning itself as the leader of meaningful transformation within the higher education sector, where less than 6% of A-rated professors are black women.

Remember that black women were never intended as first-class citizens of colonial and apartheid universities. They were something of an afterthought in these institutions. One of our foremost international black sociologists, professor Zine Magubane often quotes novelist Nellie Mckay, saying “to be black and female in the academy has its own particular frustrations because it was never intended for us to be here. We are in spaces that have been appropriated for us.”

It is this very “afterthought” position that makes this trio of black women significant and brave for the university.

This is why many of us are hoping that these leaders will tap into new practices of power in their tenure at the university. It is no longer enough to have black women as numbers at the helm of institutions – we need them to exercise radically transformative leadership that can steer our universities towards world-class, Africa-driven intellectualism.

After all, let us not forget that historically, power in our universities was defined from the perspective of men – white and black – usually from the middle classes. In such male-dominated contexts, Amina Mama has warned us that power structures tend to produce autocratic women. She called them “femocrats” – a word describing powerful women who ally themselves with oppressive male dominance in institutions.

For our university leaders to move away from crushing practices of power, I suggest we begin to create new frameworks of ethical leadership that speak to our context by drawing from African philosophy and idiom.

In my work as an African sociologist, I place great emphasis on studying the many dimensions of matriarchal practices among Africans. One concept that I find helpful in thinking of the difficulties of managing the tough process of change in our universities is ‘inimba’. Loosely translated from isiXhosa, inimba is the unbearable pain of labour. When it is said “inimba iyasika”, it refers to these pains that intensify in the abdomen of a woman giving birth.

This saying is also used generally to refer to a deep empathic and compassionate feeling towards children, called ‘imvakalelo’. The principle of inimba, is “life giving, life sustaining and life preserving”.

This for me should form the underlying foundation for managing change in education institutions within a violent and unequal country that has a history of brutality.

Inimba emerges as one matriarchal ideology that drives the character of African women’s leadership. This is why African feminist scholars including Nomboniso Gasa, Oyèrónk Oyèwùmí, Ifi Amadiume, Darlene Miller, Filomina Steady and many others have all argued for motherhood as a political tool of mobilisation for African women.

However, as Oyèwùmí says, “The challenge is to convince society that motherhood should not be the responsibility of just one woman or just one nuclear family. Motherhood should be the bedrock on which society is built and the way in which we organise our lives.”

For me, inimba forms an alternative point of departure for leadership, where the governance systems in universities continue to be domains of egoism. Within our universities, socially and economically precarious students, workers, and emerging and black academics are still contending with outdated curriculums, conservative senates, councils fighting to maintain old apartheid identities, administrations that treat learning as a factory process, and just a general disdain for the intellectual purpose of a university. The examples of regressive leadership are many. The example of a South African university where female lecturers complained about having to make slides for senior male professors for them to keep their contracts was particularly heinous. The abuse of power in our universities is systemic and often invisible to the public.

Both the newly inaugurated chancellor and vice-chancellor have emphasised “rootedness”, “social justice” and tapping into broader African intellectual histories in the continent, to craft the university’s transformative identity.

When I suggest that meaningful change to the university needs inimba, I am not trying to subject these black women to different moral standards, as Zenani Mandela rightly pointed out “men and women are held in different moral standards in our society”. What I am advocating, is that we unapologetically theorise from matriarchal wisdom to break with the narcissistic model of institutional power set up for us by the likes of Cecil John Rhodes, whose statue at the University of Cape Town was toppled by students in 2015.

Inimba means understanding that the black working class students now form the majority of our higher education system, and it is for their liberation that we labour.

It means understanding that most of the students coming into our universities come from a place of socioeconomic precariousness. Higher education becomes their last hope in an economy and society where youth unemployment sits at around 60%. Inimba is not a soft doting power – that is not the character of any African matriarch. Inimba implies a power that commands the stern, but affirming respect modelled by our grandmothers, aunts, odabawo, bomakhadzi and our mothers. Inimba as a matriarchal concept provides us with an idiom of change that dedicates itself to the development of institutions that will use scarce resources to ensure that even the most endangered student receives the most compelling education necessary.

We know of the rich power and strong character of African women such as Mkabayi ka Jama of the Zulu monarchy in the 18th and 19th century. With this history, it is almost laughable when debates about the “readiness for a woman president” in South Africa arise. Women have always been ready. The question is, will their being women make a substantive difference or not? I hope the NMU matriarchal triumvirate will show the higher education sector a radically new path.

- Magoqwana is a senior lecturer in sociology, anthropology and history at NMU

Read more on:    education  |  transformation  |  leadership

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