Guest Column

Education 'an area of government failure'

2016-12-21 10:08

UCT Graduation Address by Sipho M Pityana

There can be no doubt that the past two years in UCT’s life have seen an unprecedented and divisive rupture, and the contestation of what is considered an alienating culture.

To say that it has been a traumatic experience is trite. We have seen fellow students set against each other and against their lecturers, executives against employees; with anxious alumni, parents and other stakeholders entering the fray.

As a result, it would be too easy to write off UCT as an irreconcilably divided community.

While we cannot do that, we must accept that UCT is no different from the society you, as students, are going out there to lead. Embrace that thought, and use your experience here to make a difference.

That’s because we have made some fundamental progress during the past year. At our last council meeting, for example, we approved the university's strategic plan, which has been a culmination of months of dialogue among ourselves. Something the public cannot imagine. Thanks to the leadership of the vice chancellor and all stakeholders involved. It's a consensus that will drive our agenda to 2020 when the term of this council ends.

Clearly inequality is at the heart of the strains and tensions felt across society. Whether it's the heightened number of service delivery protests or increasingly violent nature of work place disputes, the message is clear: rising poverty in the face of increased concentration of wealth represents an intolerable scourge and a betrayal of a new South Africa that we envisioned. And with it has come the marginalisation and alienation of a large segment of our population.

The dominant culture that we thought was defeated with the demise of colonialism and apartheid turns out to be alive and kicking – on campus, in the workplace, or even, as we found out again this week, on the beach.

We seek to assimilate and even acculturate the majority of our citizens to a way of life of a minority on the pretext of building a rainbow nation. We get surprised, for instance, when young learners from Pretoria Girls High insist on a hairstyle they believe is part of their identity despite disapproval by the establishment. Their response is not dissimilar to what we have seen on our own campus with the rejection of symbols of a UCT with a discriminatory and oppressive past.

And yet our national leaders can be said to be guilty of the same assimilation process. We cannot ignore the irony of government renaming part of the Union Buildings as the Nelson Mandela Amphitheatre – and yet the name of the Union Buildings itself remains as is, in memory of the union of four provinces in 1910 that excluded blacks.

This subordination of a real icon and symbol of a united South Africa is a tragic irony, and it is upon you as a new generation of intellectuals to share these lessons with society. Point out the irony and insist that the Union Buildings should be Nelson Mandela House - and never again should we continue to live with symbols of an oppressive past overshadowing a diverse and yet inclusive future that we seek to build. And then let’s do the same about the many other offensive symbols in our society.

Similarly, we need a tough conversation about how we fund education. The Freedom Charter is very clear on this. It proclaims: "The doors of learning shall be open". And so they should. And yet societal inequalities make that dream a mirage.

Stellenbosch University’s Nic Spaull tells us of a recent study which shows that 60% of university students have emerged from the wealthiest 30% of high schools. That means, World Bank and Prof van der Berg have estimated, that as much as half (48%) of the university funding in South Africa accrues to the richest 10% of households. Or, to put it more starkly, 68% accrues to the wealthiest 20%.

Whilst it's clear that the current funding system is inequitable, we must ask the difficult question as to whether proceeding to a free university education for all would not result in intensifying that already regressive system.

There can be no doubt that education as a whole is an area of government failure. As we talk about better conditions for students at universities, we need to worry about the deep inequality of opportunity for many to access higher education. The doors of learning are yet to open for the very many. Such progress as there is, suggests that they are only ajar.

We also cannot ignore the other significant strains on the national fiscus, and the needs beyond education – such as social grants, health care and housing. These constraints are compounded by an avoidable leakage of public money through wasteful expenditure, mismanagement and corruption that has escalated to endemic proportions.

In the face of this, with the president leading the charge in enabling the looting, it is hard to convince anyone that these legitimate social infrastructure demands including free education cannot be met. The destabilising effects arising from distrust engendered by our president's dishonest and unethical leadership can be felt everywhere, including university campuses.

That's why I remain firm in my view that there can be no meaningful engagement on the many challenges facing our nation with Mr Zuma at the helm. He is untrustworthy, and ill-suited to be the president of a country that has an urgent task of lifting itself from poverty. Therefore he must go.

These are perhaps systemic problems which no doubt have a bearing on our university. While we seek to shape these national debates, there are things we can do in our environment to make a difference and provide leadership.

At UCT, we have done many positive and transformative things, and yet we have to do even more. For example, the demographic profile of our student body has positively changed beyond recognition since 1994. With it, our approach to everything we do as an institution should also have changed -from teaching and learning, research, student life and our community outreach and others.

Our expectation was that the new majority should adapt to the dominant culture that they found at UCT. What we have found, however, is that this has been an alienating and marginalising experience for many.

Because of this, the centerpiece of our new transformation agenda is to forge an inclusive identity recognising a changed profile of student body, and realising that the staff complement must also hang. This must take on board the diversity of cultures, values, heritage and epistemology of students and staff. This will be reinforced through an appropriate display of artworks, symbols, names of buildings and use of indigenous South African languages.

We seek an improved completion rate of all our students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will be achieved in part by creating and affirming an inclusive teaching, learning and research environment for race, gender and sexual diversities. We will interrogate ways in which the curricula may be marginalising certain identities and reinforcing certain dominant cultural assumptions and epistemology. More support will be provided in residences to facilitate learning success and an holistic learning experience and quality education.

We will also incorporate scholarship from the rest of the African continent and the global South, and pay particular attention to advancing the agenda for employment equity in respect of both academic and professional staff roles. We will work to attract and retain established Black South African staff at the same time as we invest in enrolling more postgraduate and post doctoral fellows, to broaden the pool of potential future academics.

There's no pretence that this transformation agenda is conclusive, but important to remember is that it is an outcome of our internal conversation. After all, as an academic institution, we are ill-equipped to deal with violent confrontations and disruptive conduct that sometimes accompanies certain demands. Relying on a heavy security presence on campus is undesirable. Our tool of trade is robust, provocative and sometimes combative intellectual discourse that assists in the search for answers to difficult question. We might be better served by sticking to our knitting as we navigate our way through these challenging times.

It is for this reason that we support the VC and team's approach to keep the door open to all in our community seeking to engage to find lasting solutions. After all, many parts of the world - including our own country - would be mired in conflict if we always insisted on proof of representation before we interact with each other.

We consider the establishment of the Institutional Transformation and Reconciliation Commission (ITRC) an important platform to assist in that regard. I would invite everyone to both support this process and take an active part in its deliberation.

We are keenly aware that the credibility of leadership comes with making good on the promises made. As council we will hold the university executive leadership accountable for delivering on these transformation commitments.

Although many of these commitments should be funded as part of our normal budget, we will commit at least R150 million over the next four years to support these programmes. The vice chancellor will no doubt elaborate on other details of this plan.

In conclusion: You enter the realm of leadership of society at a time of great uncertainty, not only in South Africa but across the world. Anti-establishment politics prevail, and convey an important message: that honour and integrity counts in leadership.

And despite the promise of an equitable society where social justice prevails, we are seeing widening inequalities, marginalisation and alienation – and we now have to deal with the backlash.

A trust deficit has set in between leadership that is distant from its followers and the people who are looking to them for well-considered strategies and programmes to get the world back to economic growth, social justice and peace.

In some cases, this discontent is fueled by evidence of illicit gains and often unbridled corruption involving the powerful both in business and in government. We've seen this in Brazil, South Korea, Iran and even closer to home.

There is, therefore, a huge responsibility on your shoulders.

We need reliable and reasoned solutions, founded on the sort of intellectual rigour you have gone through at this esteemed institution. Because, in the same way that UCT needs new thinking, new ideas, new intellectual rigour and a new inclusive way of living and working, so does the world in which we exist.

And that, I believe, is why your graduation today is so important, and why the world needs you.

All the best!

*Sipho is the chairman of the UCT Council, and looks at the transformation struggles that have taken place on campus over the last two years.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.



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