Rhodes Scholar and former Oxford Don RW Johnson, is a rare canary in South Africa’s politically correct coal mine. His masterful book How Long Will SA Survive? played an incalculable role in educating us about the disaster the country has been heading towards. It served to embolden other commentators, helping awaken the complacent and ignorant from their slumbers.
In another watershed contribution, first published on Politicsweb, Johnson focuses his brilliant mind on developments at UCT, the continent’s leading university. Having had a front row seat to the disaster which enveloped what used to be the country’s number three university, UKZN, Johnson shares worrying similarities with what is happening in his new home town.
Speaking with a Capetonian’s vested interest, he offers some forthright suggestions on how the city – and the province – must act to avoid its treasure sliding into the obscurity of academic mediocrity. – Alec Hogg
By RW Johnson*
Watching the ruin of UKZN under the Vice Chancellorship of William Makgoba was a dismal business. Early on certain departments and faculties were slated for cuts.
At the same time a series of “affirmative” appointments and promotions took place which gave administrative power to some people who were devoid of administrative ability and, often, with little real sympathy or understanding of the academic world. Simultaneously, the whole Admin was aggressively Africanised.
This meant the early exit of seasoned administrators and soon the complete loss of institutional memory so that no one knew how anything worked any more. A number of senior appointments were made whose holders seemed exempt from teaching or marking duties, thus increasing the load on those below them.
Author RW “Bill” Johnson behind his desk at home in Cape Town.
All foreign language teaching – Latin, Greek, German, Spanish and French began to disappear from the scene. (There was a tragi-comic interlude when the threatened subjects decided to band together for protection into a department of European studies which, in the light of that term’s unfortunate history in South Africa, was instead termed the department of Europe studies.)
Naturally, the department of Afrikaans-Nederlands also endured a lingering death as did the study of the various Indian languages. The medical school was purged of many leading Indian academics and serious gaps in the school’s ability to teach a whole series of medical specialisms began to develop.
The once thriving school of architecture shrivelled to the point where loss of professional recognition of its degrees became a hot issue.
The teaching of English literature was gradually dismantled and what was left merged into a vacuous “cultural studies”. History was similarly eviscerated. There was instead increasing emphasis on the use of Zulu, though of course in almost every subject there were no books in Zulu.
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When you spoke to academics you realised that all of them were very, very frightened. They had seen some of their colleagues brought low for trivial or even non-existent reasons and knew that one false step might bring the same fate upon themselves.
They were scared to speak on the phone and they believed that their emails were being read. And they feared for the loss of their jobs and pensions. Most tried to move elsewhere, of course, but inevitably many couldn’t, a fact which lowered their morale even further.
Meanwhile the white students who had been the university’s historic clientele simply decamped en masse for other universities and they were followed by many of the better Indian students. In their place came ever-greater numbers of African students from disadvantaged schools and homes. They were often only semi-literate, had no habits of study, seldom read books and depended entirely on regurgitating what they had picked up from lectures.
Their failure rate was enormous though many were still somehow coaxed through with a low pass, thus enabling them to become township teachers who would then re-create all the old problems with a new generation. A tiny few overcame all these disadvantages and achieved very commendably but these were rare birds indeed.
Inevitably standards slumped while at the same time there were so many of these newcomers that teaching loads soared. To complete the picture one should add that large amounts of money were spent on buying in “transformation” appointees on high salaries and also on all manner of symbolic events, publications and full page adverts trumpeting the university’s wondrous new achievements.
Yet at the same time donations from the horrified alumni had largely dried up. By the end of the Makgoba period UKZN was nearly R2,000,000,000 in debt: in practical terms it was bankrupt.
In February 2015 Dr Albert van Jaarsveld bravely took over as Vice Chancellor but no one could pretend that his was more than a rescue job.
There were several remarkable aspects to this process. One was that some of the white academics picked up the ball and ran, becoming born-again transformation zealots, militantly trying to reserve all appointments for Africans on frankly racial grounds, insisting on getting rid of “Eurocentric” subjects and so on.
In some cases such people went around wearing Afro shirts and hair, showing their own personal transformation. For some it was simply easier and more cheerful to try to make themselves believe the new ideology but few were unaware that such energetic collaboration with their new masters might win them some favour or, at least, a stay of execution.
One very pale young white academic at UKZN told me with great passion and enthusiasm of how he had helped devise a 20 year programme for Zulu to be the language of instruction. It turned out that he could not himself speak Zulu. Re-visiting the campus two years later I enquired after him. He had left. So much for the 20 year programme.
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Meanwhile, throughout this disastrous evolution the university’s PR machine purred smoothly on. UKZN was “the premier university of African scholarship… dynamic teaching… diversity… innovative…. transformation and redress… rich heritage of excellence” etc.
The university’s pamphlet on postgraduate education summed up the desired image – a young smiling black woman wearing traditional Zulu attire with Zulu beads around her head: learning with the maximal degree of traditional African-ness.
The second remarkable aspect was the way all this was allowed to happen without any attempt at restraint by either the Durban city, the provincial or even the national authorities. Yet the city and the province depended utterly on UKZN to produce the teachers, lawyers, architects, doctors, dentists and engineers it needed. They could not afford to see this supply cut off.
Even nationally, the effective collapse of the country’s third best university was bound to have some significant impact. Yet not only did nobody do anything but Professor Makgoba received praise for the wonderful job he had done.
In truth, the ANC politicians of Durban and the province were often not educated men or women and were much preoccupied with questions of their own personal welfare but in time to come their silence will seem odd.
Now, because I happen to live in Cape Town, I am inevitably conscious of many of the same things happening at UCT. Again, academics there all tell you how terribly frightened everyone is and how the sight of their Vice Chancellor kow-towing so cravenly to a small minority of radical black nationalists has merely sent the message that he is more scared than anyone and that they are therefore wholly unprotected by any sort of leadership.
Once again there are the sums that don’t add up. On the one hand the failure to put up fees (and that decision was never the President’s or the Minister’s to take: fees are decided by each university) means that the university is already talking of a 4% budget cut.
Yet the university has now agreed to in-source all staff posts, thus hugely increasing its costs. (No one ever seems to remember that it was an ANC education Minister, Kader Asmal, who first pressured universities into out-sourcing these jobs to save money.)
On top of which all sorts of new measures are envisaged to attract, nurture and retain black staff including the appointment of new academics on an opportunistic basis, even when no vacancies exist. This is pretty certainly going to mean picking a whole lot of very highly paid black staff, some of whom will probably do little teaching.
And to this equation, which already does not add up, one will almost certainly have to factor in a falling income from donors, judging by the angry voices of alumni that one hears all around. And will UCT even attempt any further fee increases or just accept a steeply falling real income year by year? That road leads to job cuts, pay freezes and higher workloads.
To anyone who lived through the Calvary of UKZN many of the notes sounded in the Vice Chancellor’s new Draft Strategic Plan are distressingly familiar. The plan is to “forge a new identity for the university…. fully embracing our African identity” and to “interrogate the role dominant epistemologies play in constructing curricula” (Trans: radically change curricula in an Africanist direction).
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It will “redress the legacy of colonialism and apartheid”, “bring an African lens to research”, intensify networking and co-operation particularly with African universities, contribute to “positioning African academics and scholarship as thought leaders”, graduates are to have “communicative competence in at least one African language, other than Afrikaans” plus investigate “requiring all students to do a communicative course in Xhosa”, “as a norm, include statements in advertisements that preference will be given to appointable Black South Africans in the first instance, then extended to other black South African candidates” (trans: the capital B means Africans; if none can be found Coloureds and Indians may possibly get a look in; whites need not apply); UCT must “seek funding for more career development posts to retain up-and-coming early/mid-career black academics” (trans: these posts will be more highly paid, reserved for one race only and may carry lighter duties).
All appointments and selections will have to be monitored and reported to a Transformation Advisory Committee: one can imagine what that means. There is a lot more like this.
What this means is that UCT will give up all ambition to be a world university and will vote to fall steeply not just in the international rankings but in the national rankings too. No one could imagine, after all, any major world university artificially restricting itself to appointing candidates of one race or ethnicity.
And in particular not just to Africans, given that Africa has fewer world ranking universities than any other continent. Not even the old tribal colleges were willing to cripple themselves to that degree: they were always willing to appoint multi-racially. But logically this would soon reduce UCT to the level of Turfloop, Venda or Fort Hare.
The requirement that all students become competent in Xhosa more or less rules out any further intake of international students, certainly any from outside Africa. And note how peculiar is the choice of Xhosa: Africa’s dominant languages are English, French, Arabic and Swahili.
It will be seen that this is an even more striking case than that of UKZN. UCT has normally seen itself as the country’s top university and is, with Wits, the best known internationally. The Draft Strategic Plan is a plan to end all that. It is, indeed, a remarkable document, a singular case, a university setting out to plot its own decline. But, as at UKZN, one will no doubt find at least a handful of somewhat freakish born-again transformation zealots on the campus, hoping to ingratiate themselves with the powers-that-be by embracing the terms of their own capitulation.
The question again arises, though, as to whether the Western Cape and Cape Town city governments can really accept such a capitulation. It is not that they have always relied on UCT to produce competent professionals.
It is much more than that. UCT, as the country’s top university, has always been the jewel in Cape Town’s crown – that is why, after all, Iqbal Surve’s Cape Times has gone to such lengths to make trouble for the university and sought to undermine it.
This has all been part of the larger ANC strategy to undermine DA-led Cape Town. There has, after all, been no similar campaigns against their local universities by the Independent Newspaper group through the Mercury in Durban, the Star in Johannesburg, or the Pretoria News in Pretoria. And there is no doubt that Surve and the ANC have understood how vital UCT is to Cape Town. But even they cannot have hoped that UCT would commit hari-kiri.
There seems only one logical alternative. All the world’s most successful universities are either private foundations (as with the US Ivy League) or enjoy significant
independence from the state (as with Oxford and Cambridge) because they have substantial private endowments. UCT has some endowment but nothing like enough to go independent and present policies are actively turning donor funds away.
So what needs to happen is for the province and city governments to come to its rescue, assisting it with money from a large bond issue. UCT itself needs to set course in a different direction and must begin by using its power to increase fees, dealing firmly with any attempted violence that that might produce.
Instead of down-grading itself to the level of a tribal college, the university should capitalise on its No.1 status in Africa. It should be obvious to both the city and the province that this is in their own vital interest. The more that UCT is a beacon of learning for the whole of Africa, the more that the Cape becomes the continent’s intellectual capital. But if UCT goes down the drain, both the city and the province will suffer disastrously.
UCT has, after all, an incredibly favourable market position. Africa’s growing middle class desperately needs to find an affordable university destination for their children which is competitive with what European and American universities offer at a much higher price.
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Currently only UCT, Wits and Stellenbosch are really in the market to satisfy that demand – for a market of one billion people which will almost double in size in the next thirty years. And UCT is currently No.1 and is already drawing some students from the rest of Africa. Instead of imposing a Xhosa language requirement to drive them away, UCT has to grow that base energetically.
At the moment the Nigerian, Ghanaian and Kenyan elites all send their children to British and American universities (they want English, not Xhosa and not even Yoruba, Hausa or Kikuyu) at great expense. They would be delighted to send them to UCT instead. No doubt quite a few of their academics would like to teach at UCT as well. In other words, UCT should copy what most South African big businesses are doing and move energetically into the rest of Africa.
The last thing any of them want is to be confined to the South African market which is parochial and stagnant: they want growth. UCT should be the same and should become Africa’s top university, not just South Africa’s. The only thing that really matters is maintaining and increasing UCT’s position in the international rankings: merit, merit and more merit is the key, not race.
That is the basis on which all other leading universities in the world work and anyone who wants to count among their number has to play the game the same way. That is simply non-negotiable. Harvard, Oxford or Stanford would never dream of handicapping themselves with what passes for “transformation” here.
Meanwhile, being an African university is not a new identity which needs to be chosen; UCT ineluctably has that identity anyway, though it would do well to increase its French, Arabic and Swahili language skills. As it is, it can thank its lucky stars that it is English-speaking since more and more of the world wants degrees in that language.
As it launches itself towards that market leader position UCT would need to galvanise both domestic and international financial support. The big international institutions are keenly aware that there are almost no good universities left in Africa and know how vital it is to the continent’s future to keep some bright lights burning in African higher education.
The aim should be for UCT to be able to decline any further financial assistance from the South African state and move towards financial independence, buoyed initially by support from its city and province.
Of course, financial independence would doubtless mean that the university would have to accept the disciplines of the market, though the aim would be – as at all the world’s best universities – to have sufficient funds to be able to offer scholarships to bright but needy students.
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There is little doubt that the adoption of such a target could do wonders for UCT’s demoralized and fearful faculty and could inspire real enthusiasm and commitment. It is an ambitious target and getting there would require courage, determination and leadership. But since the alternative is to plan for a steep and inevitable decline, there is really no point in refusing to set one’s sights high.
Already many better-off South Africans are wondering whether they should try to send their children to British universities because they are fearful of what disruption and decline will do to local universities. It is crucial for the whole country that that does not happen for then we would end up in the position of, say, Nigeria, where the better-off have off-shored their money, their children’s education and all too often their children’s futures.
It is very difficult for a country to develop from such a state of dependency. And there are still at least some people of intelligence and patriotic commitment within the ANC. It should not be impossible to convince them that the country’s future is best secured by having strong, independent and successful universities, not more train-wrecked institutions, of which we already have too many.
• This story is republished with permission from Politicsweb where it first appeared.