OPINION | Transformation as a contradiction at UCT

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The University of Cape Town.
The University of Cape Town.
Jacques Stander, Gallo Images

The University of Cape Town has released a report which looks at various contradictions, but also moves towards transformation, writes Gabriel Hooisan Khan and Professor Loretta Feris.


Cape Town is a city of contradictions.

100-year-old mosques and churches sit uncomfortably beside colonial monuments; informal settlements stretch a stone's throw away from affluent mansions; and contemporary art by Black artists shuffle uncomfortably beside anthropological photographs of the indigenous other.

On campus at the University of Cape Town (UCT) new buildings lie adjacent to the uncovered burial grounds of enslaved persons.

Like an artist raising her wings at the moment that Rhodes' reign ended up on the Jammie Stairs, as we build a more transformed university, we are confronted with our history of oppression and inequality.

This inequality is not just ancient history, it is unfortunately very current.

In 2019 Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) released the Multidimensional Inequality Trends Report putting a spotlight on those stubborn and persistent racial and gender disparities.

The report found that while racial disparities were diminishing, our rainbow was less about colourful diversity and more about a spectrum of differing access and opportunity.

Black and Coloured South Africans were most likely to be unemployed, earn less and more likely to rely on the public health system. Conversely Indian and White South Africans were least likely to be unemployed, earn far more and are most likely to use a private healthcare facility.

In addition, the richest 10% account for half of all South Africa's household expenditure and regardless of the level of education, women were paid less than men for work of equal value.

These are just a few examples of how unequal South Africa is.

While we have all worked hard to build a nation, social relationships and programmes which challenge inequality, more work is required. It is in this context that we need to ask: what role does a university have in the struggle towards social justice and equality? What mechanisms can we use to hold universities accountable?

"The university is facing the challenge to listen to the marginalised voices and to undo the epistemic abyss that keeps on drawing worlds apart along the colonial difference. Decolonising the university is a necessary step for the university to become a social actor engaged with processes of environmental and social justice, engaged with the formation of citizens who are aware of their positions in a globally divided world. The transformation of the university that is being led by the student movements is nurturing a university for an open and plural society."
– Rosalba Icaza and Rolando Vázquez

UCT, alongside other universities, exist within this inequality.

On the one hand, we need to appreciate the strides that have been made to build a more transformed, inclusive and critically diverse higher education environment.

Whilst on the other, we need to hold and acknowledge the undeniable consequences of systemic racism, sexual and gender-based violence and xenophobia, and the everyday indignities that come with these forms of oppression.

It is in this contradiction that UCT developed a report which creates a transformation baseline for the university.  

"The university knows full well what their problems are. We need platforms and resources for staff and student support. Their problem is that they are just not doing enough about it... I want to come to a meeting where we're talking about implementation... a meeting where there is less conversation and more implementation."
- UCT staff member

The report draws on international best practices such as the United Nations System Wide Action Plan (UN-SWAP) on gender equality and empowerment, the World Food Programme's Gender Transformation Programme and the Aids Rights Alliance of Southern Africa's qualitative approach to human rights reporting to develop transformation benchmarks.

The benchmarks align with and expand on the Transformation Barometer developed by Universities South Africa.

These benchmarks offer criteria onto which the university can systematically track actions taken to enhance transformation, enable inclusion or support critical diversity. While benchmarking has its limitations - it simplifies the complexity of inequality, this approach foregrounds doing something and developing actions rather than ruminating and analysis.

The report launched on 30 June offers a colourful reflection of the hundreds of persons who came together across UCT in a range of formations to challenge inequality.

Through innovations in teaching and learning, research which centres the African continent, awareness raising, capacity strengthening and tailored support for students and staff, UCT has started to dismantle inequality and oppression within the institution.

In addition, the report is curated in a uniquely visual manner through foregrounding African artists critically engaging themes related to gender, race and culture, among others. These newly acquired artworks compliment the themes emerging in the report.

The report also surfaced many challenges.

For example, the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall protests were critical of the hierarchical positioning employed in the university thinks about, talks about and refers to students.

In thinking about transformation in higher education it may be important to move away from positioning students as consumers and passive participants in education and to reflect on the ways students can be truly included - not only as active participants and contributors to teaching and learning, but as co-creators of the university environment.

On the flip-side, bullying and harassment (including sexual harassment) within academic institutions have been well documented. In addition, the gladiatorial approaches to critique and the foregrounding of certain forms of knowledge as authoritative leads to an environment that doesn't affirm emotional well-being, and silences workers who aren't academics.

To protect staff and workers: preventing and responding to bullying and harassment, encouraging open communication and feminist approaches to governance could offer solutions.

Lastly even the creative responses to oppression are places of contestation - for example, on the one hand an artwork may offer a gender diverse response to a cultural practice and on the other this could be read as disrespecting cultural norms. In our collective efforts to unravel oppression, we're constantly negotiating with and learning from this contradiction. 

"We can change structures and bodies and write reports, but I worry that when we're engaged in that kind of activity we look better on paper than is people’s lived experience. Until we shift people’s lived experiences, until people come into work every day and say: 'Today was different because I was looked at, spoken to, held, respected in a way that previously has not been my experience', we have work to do."
– UCT staff member"

Transformation is slow work and changes occur over a long arc of time. The process is arduous, progress is not linear and those who lead transformation work rarely get acknowledged.

The benchmarking process piloted at UCT offers a new (and still imperfect) way to track progress and hold institutions accountable. These approaches track the footsteps and mark the path the university has taken, but they cannot capture the often-contradictory journey we have taken. 

The benchmarking approach offers a new approach to foregrounding strong actions which challenge inequality and oppression and hold higher education accountable.

However, this is only part of the work, to echo the voice above accountability, mechanisms need to be matched by activist approaches which affirm the dignity and rights of those still facing oppression daily.

- Gabriel Hoosain Khan is with the Inclusivity Capacity Building at the Office for Inclusivity and Change and Professor Loretta Feris is UCT Deputy Vice Chancellor for Transformation.


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