Transformation issues in South Africa- Focus on Lenses

2015-03-20 19:01

Lenses refers to the mental frameworks through which we view the world around us. These lenses are part and parcel of our being. Most times it is actually not easy to realise how what we think, say or do is based on these frameworks set within our minds. A more familiar term which people often use without realising the gravity of the word is ‘mind set’. This term describes the ways in which one’s mind is ‘set’ i.e. established, entrenched in a particular way of viewing life. It also brings out that there is a ‘set’ (remember the sets in maths) where there are elements one’s mind constantly gravitates towards.

In order to be able to embrace change by virtue of receiving new knowledge which challenges what you already have, you need to be open minded (ready to receive). Inability to change your standpoint regardless of having learnt that what you know is not correct points to the presence of a ‘stronghold.’ There is a mindset (way of thinking) which is strongly holding you to its manner of doing things. Lenses play a role in the way in which we see things and therefore they shape our actions and reactions. Bias and prejudice are some of the things which emanate from our inability to embrace those who are different from us.

Some lenses in South Africa

In our South African society there are many ‘sets’ which have been created chief among which is the race set often referred to as the race card (it’s called a card because people take it that this is one of the cards in people’s deck of sets).  Other sets which are entrenched in our society include tribal and nationality from which tribalism and xenophobia emanate. It is important to constantly take a step back, analyse and evaluate the things we believe about people of a different race, tribe or nationality. Certain things we see or say are coloured, clouded or enlarged by the lenses through which we are seeing these people- without us realising this.

Transformation lenses

Recently in the media there have been some incidents which have been at the fore tying in with the issue of these lenses. One of the trending topics is the ongoing debate concerning the removal of Cecil John Rhode’s statue at the University of Cape Town main campus.

My invitation is for every person reading this to take a step back from whatever your standpoint is regarding the issue to try and see things through the lenses of others with a different view. Debate and discussions around the issue of the statue has created space which has enabled UCT, South Africa and beyond to see the lenses which are shaping people’s worldviews.

A call for UCT’s transformation

In December 2014 I attended my wife’s graduation where the Chancellor Graca Machel gave a speech on the day. Her celebration of the strides which have been taken by South Africa in 20 years of democracy is something which I applauded. Addressing the graduating class she said, “…you are (and it is your choice) in areas of extreme importance for what our country is going to become in 20 years to come.” Being a development economist my lenses are often long term focused and this part of Mrs Machel’s speech resonated a lot with me. On average the graduating class was in the mid-twenties which means they will be in the mid-forties in 20 years’ time. These are the people who will be at the helm or getting to the helm of different strategic roles in the South African economy.

During my tenure at UCT I once served as a secretary general of the Commerce Student’s Council and one of the responsibilities of the portfolio was to focus on the issue of transformation in the Commerce Faculty. My stand point (lenses) then and now, is that transformation of the faculty needed to be holistic chief amongst the issues being composition of staff and the curriculum. Staff play a critical role in dispensing lenses through which to view and interact with society. Curriculum helps to shape ones world view. Actually the Latin origin of the word means ‘the course of a race/action’. Other ‘lense dispensers’ include anyone in a position of influence and affluence i.e. business moguls, politicians, sportsmen and celebrities.

Something in Mrs Machel’s  speech  brought me a foreboding apprehension (listen from 9 minutes in the video). “I know we are criticised that we are not transforming enough. This is an issue we are going to deal with. But, more important than who is teaching, is who you are teaching and how they come out of this institution. And when we see the mixture both in race, in gender and class- regardless of who teaches, the product is the one we are proud to offer to society…Yes, we will walk this journey of transformation but the most important transformation is already happening.”

At that time I somewhat brushed it aside and thought maybe I was reading too much into her statement. A few days ago when I came across a letter signed by academics from different departments and faculties on the UCT site, it took me back to that day on the 16th of December 2014 (Reconciliation Day) in Jameson Hall. To downplay the importance of the impact ‘lense dispensers’ have on the product that walks out of the doors of the institution is something I agree with the academics to have been out of line.

In her own words the Chancellor’s send off to the graduating class mentioned the following (from 7m 53s in this video), “…take the challenges of the field you embraced by choice and transform the sectors you are going to be acting or – you are acting in. Offer generations to come the pride of having children who really are equipped not only in knowledge but also in values, in behaviour, in attitudes. Children and youngsters who will not only be comfortable with themselves, but they will be comfortable in their relationships with others and they will not fear others. The divisions we have in this society whether they are racial or gender its because we fail to embrace others. And I’m not talking of reconciliation in terms of tolerance- you don’t have to tolerate your fellow citizen, you have to embrace him or her. And you have to accept him or her as equal.”

Concluding remarks

The transformation of society is to be brought about by the products which come out of this leading institution and therefore there is a major importance to examine those shaping these student’s world view. Depending on one’s lenses, the ongoing protest concerning Rhode’s statue emanates from different standpoints.

As an alumni of this institution my stance is that the focus of the debates and discussions should go beyond the presence of a physical statue on UCT’s upper campus. The statue is representative of things which have always been done a particular way and which have a strong hold on those doing them, such that the people might not even see it. This period offers an opportunity to the UCT Senate, Academic Staff and the Student Body to tackle matters which might have been going on in a ‘business as usual mode’.

True transformation (trans = movement + formation = production of new state of being) requires UCT to take stock of the current state of the institution and make strides which will shape and mould the products (students) in a manner that will equip them to go out and transform society positively.

The Chancellor’s call for holistic shaping of an individual who is comfortable in their own skin and also with others in a different skin (regardless of race, tribe or nationality) is what I deem to be the ideal transformation my alma mater must strive towards.

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