What is to be done?

Barney Pityana (Picture: Supplied)
Barney Pityana (Picture: Supplied)

There are two points I tend to associate with the struggles today for transformation in higher education. The first is contextuality and relevance. Is it not the case that a more rigorous critique of those sociological structures of society that have become embedded in our social reality and politics need to be interrogated? It seems that what is taken for granted needs interrogation to determine its relationship with the past, historically, and for consistency in terms of the vision, culture and ethics of struggle.

The second is to more properly understand what we mean by “blackness” today. I do not believe that blackness means much the same thing now that it did for Stephen Bantu Biko in 1970.

This requires, in my view, the harder task of acknowledging that South Africa today is in a different period in terms of relations and social environment. It also means black people have a different relationship to power than they did those many years ago under apartheid. What, then, does it mean to be black today? If that is so, as I believe it is, then should we not rather take responsibility to change or reconstruct the relations of power in a manner that expresses our social relations today?

Rather than complaining, I fear that the harder task is to work hard at changing social relations. One of the great lessons of black consciousness was that black people must take responsibility for the change they want. That is as true today as it ever was.

One often hears much about the pain and suffering black people experience (or experienced historically, I am never quite sure which). But are we not in danger of depicting black history and experience as having been an unmitigated river of pain, suffering and misery?

I know it to be true, just as Chinua Achebe says of the Igbo people of Nigeria, that the black people of South Africa have always lived in a “world of continual struggle, motion and change”. From time immemorial, life was punctuated by migration and conquest. Like the Igbo, words like ‘tribe’ – if by that is meant uniformity and cohesion beyond mere language or dialect – make no sense. The people have never been a uniform lump, but collected and became what they are with others, who joined and separated over time. Achebe explains the Igbo’s cockiness as them being argumentative. I believe that much the same can be said about South Africans. Therefore, there is indeed nothing to be ashamed of in the past, not least because there is nothing one can do about the past. The task, however, is to give the past back its value, as Frantz Fanon put it.

The struggle against colonialism, in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s words, is to undermine the purpose of making Africans see their past as “a wasteland of non-achievement”. In this paradigm, it is not necessary for us to view Africa’s historical past as a wasteland, but as something dynamic and full of purpose and opportunity.

This, then, is the point at which I come to my subject. There is much that we can agree upon about the extent of the advances made towards transformation in South Africa’s higher education system. This transformation is reflected in the legislation and the policies successive ministries have put together in advancement of the Constitution. And yet, South Africans will also agree that much still needs to be done. In the area of student admissions, it is now generally agreed that almost all higher education institutions show a vast increase in student enrolments from people in previously disadvantaged communities. The executive management corps of higher education institutions is largely integrated. A growing number of women and black people are finding spaces at the highest echelons of our universities. Much of the debate has to be about the academic culture, especially at senior levels such as the professoriate, as well as about institutional culture.

Public universities are state institutions. They draw support and funding from the state to the extent that the fiscus allocates revenue. The deal is that universities will enjoy institutional autonomy and academics academic freedom. In other words, universities are not there simply to execute government policy. Universities have a duty to provide learning and to advance knowledge.

It is true, though, that to the extent that universities played a function in the colonial system, they became the conveyors of that system of knowledge, and became associated with the knowledge and learning environment wherein they thrived. They still reflect, therefore, in large measure, some of the cultural norms that were taken for granted in society.

In situations where those prescripts are being challenged, the university rightly becomes a boxing ring for the contestation of the ideas and ideals that society has not yet resolved for itself. And yet, in South Africa, this debate has been alive since the commission on higher education was established in 1995 and through the series of episodes in which its reports were considered and implemented. It is also fair to say that what is now being presented with some urgency are both the failings of the system and the ease with which it catches up with the mood of the nation.

Africanisation of the curriculum, for example, has long received at least theoretical acceptance at many of our universities. There does tend, however, to be a mischaracterisation of this as exclusive rather than inclusive, as essentialisation rather than engagement.

It needs to be stated that academic life at a university is less about ease and acceptance as about challenge and engagement that can be painful. University students should never run away from having their own cognitive world put under stress and challenge. Understandably, at a university, much of what we bring into the learning environment might bring discomfort and pain, and the process of discovery may well feel like labour pains.

Without labouring the point, I understand transformation, therefore, to be a desire to design institutions both in terms of their organisational and ordered life, as well as in the content of what they teach, and how learning, research and the pursuit of knowledge takes place – as well as having an abiding concern about and ideological commitment to being of service to others and shaping a worthy, quality humanity that makes a difference.

On this basis, I believe that the transformation of higher education is necessary and urgent. It is correct that higher education institutions should be judged and subjected to critique about the extent to which they ultimately serve the common good, or that in all their systems and processes of learning and research they are imbued with that sense of purpose that will create a better South Africa and Africa.

Let’s face it. Today, the trigger for “transformation” is that a growing number of young people at our campuses are disaffected from the mainstream political thinking. They are also anxious about the future – their future. They have no sense of the relevance of what they do – at home and on campus – to what they will experience in life. They are also morally disaffected by a society that is ordered and arranged to exclude and deny opportunity.

We are fast drawing towards a society that denies hope to so many. They are angry that we have allowed the promise of liberation to be corrupted to the extent that it has been in our country today. As in almost all situations, such disaffection by the most sensitive and perceptive members of our society, the students, is almost always where the seeds of revolution are planted. Disillusionment runs deep in our country. One trusts that we are heading towards just such a revolution of ideas and, to that extent, university campuses are the right locales for such debates. But it cannot end there, because ultimately it is less about universities than it is about a society at breaking point.

A word of caution. Whatever we may do about higher education transformation, ultimately we would do well to discern and possibly agree upon the purpose of the university for us. That means transformation will be counterproductive if, at the end, it produces a university system that creates party cadres of a narrow ideological design, or tribal initiation schools to build impi whose purpose is to destroy others and advance the ambitions of the powerful overlords. My sense is that universities as transformed moral institutions for the common good are necessary for any society to advance knowledge, build character and connect the academic community collectively with the highest ideals of humanity. I believe that we have an opportunity today to grow universities as the kind of institutions we desire.

What do we desire? Is that in fact not the crisp question we should be asking ourselves and finding collective answers for?

This is an edited extract from a speech Pityana delivered at the annual Steve Biko Bioethics Lecture at Wits University’s faculty of health sciences on Friday

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