Rhodes University Logo

Lessons from transformation of universities in South Africa

Principal and Vice - Chancellor of Unisa, Professor Mandla Makhanya
Principal and Vice - Chancellor of Unisa, Professor Mandla Makhanya


Pretoria - In the last three years, university students in South Africa have led countrywide protests demanding transformation, an end to the outsourcing of contract workers and free quality education.

In the mainstream media and literature, these protests have been branded the Fallist Movement based on their various themes: #RhodesMustFall, #OutsourcingMustFall, #SexualHarassmentMustFall and #FeesMustFall.

This movement demonstrated the potent role and agency of youth/students on a scale that was witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Many universities and academics had long lost the appetite or intensity for transformation and quest for social justice; and they had to respond or react to these demands.

Many universities have embraced transformation as an imperative that seeks to eradicate colonial, apartheid and imperial legacies, while also repositioning the higher education sector for global competitiveness and relevance.

Society has generally shifted its focus away from transformation programmes, and this is largely due to our obsession with ever-changing headlines of dramatic stories such as protests, corruption and scandals.

As a consequence, little, if any, effort is being made to assess progress, regression or stagnation of university transformation.

Furthermore, some informative literature analysing student-led protests for social justice is emerging away from the mainstream media headlines. These include The Struggle for #FeesMustFall: We are no longer at ease, edited by Wandile and Busani Ngcaweni and Fees Must Fall: Student Revolt, Decolonisation and Governance in South Africa by Susan Booysen, Gillian Godsell and Rekgotsofetse Chikane. But most of this literature is an analysis of the nature of protests than an account of what is emerging out of efforts to transform.

This article is an overview that highlights some lessons from transformation efforts in the Unisa and South African University sectors.

I am mindful of the fact that complexities and variations of transformation programmes cannot be adequately expressed within the confines of this short article.

Race matters and gender eclipsed: Various articulations of transformation have foregrounded racial issues as a whole, often overlooking gender and other social strata of reproduction of social injustice in society.

Most of the discourse and literature on decolonisation and Africanisation has mainly focused on the racial dimension, with the gender agenda receiving marginal attention. This needs addressing as it has been demonstrated in our history of post-colonial Africa that African nationalism does not automatically resolve gender issues.

Social sciences on the front line and sciences and professional fields on the defensive: The conceptual, theoretical and philosophical foundation of university transformation discourse is often led by social sciences and presented as a template for other fields such as pure science and engineering, as well as other professional fields such as accounting, health, economics and management sciences.

This has caused tension and the perception of imposition instead of co-creation and co-determination of the terms of transformation. Social sciences are more advanced in critical theory and have dedicated more time and effort in developing tools of analysing the weaknesses of our education systems.

There is an urgent need to affirm the principle of co-creation and a reciprocal dialogue among these disciplines to advance the transformation of content and pedagogy.

Indigenous languages, monolingualism and the dilemma of multi- lingual programmes: While there is a general agreement on the principle of promoting multilingualism at universities, there is no consensus on how to do this in practical terms.

The resentment of Afrikaans as a symbol of apartheid control and exclusion has led to a call for the removal of a bilingual official language policy, which translated to an immediate endorsement of a monolingual English domination by default, as the development of other African languages is a long-term process.

The rising monolingualism is a reality of unintended consequences with the hope that, over time, other African languages will be developed and resourced to be offered or used as academic and research languages in the mainstream.

Delicate balance of local context and global competitiveness: Part of the resistance to transformation of the curriculum is based on a misplaced notion that contextually-based and locally-focused or grounded studies will not be globally competitive.

Political history versus science history of Africa: Most of the existing mainstream literature tends to focus almost exclusively on the political history of pre-colonial Africa, with little to no attention given to science and technology achievements.

Cumulatively, this has created the impression that Africa had no contribution to human civilisation in the area of science and technology. In this literature, there is no comparative work that also factors in the role of oriental or Asian and indigenous American civilisations, which also contributed immensely to human and societal advancement.

Some contested dimensions of transformation: The primary focus in the transformation of curricula, pedagogy, symbols and names has not extended to a clear grasp of dominant institutional cultures within universities on other dimensions of transformation, such as procurement trends, as well as the staff composition of those producing knowledge or leading research. There is a lot of work still to be done to give full attention to all these dimensions.

The transformation programme at our universities is beginning to yield results, despite facing subtle resistance disguised in all forms, such as the ones conflating high standards with the preservation of the status quo.

The transformation of our universities is a national imperative given the legacy they inherited, but it will also give them contextual relevance and competitive edge if successfully implemented.

Please help us to raise funds so that we can give all our students a chance to access online teaching and learning. Covid-19 has disrupted our students' education.  Don't let the digital divide put their future at risk. Visit www.ru.ac.za/rucoronavirusgateway to donate