Achieving transformation at So

Achieving transformation at South African academic institutions

I’ll hazard a reasonable sum that this headline evokes a visceral response in almost everyone that reads it.

Achieving transformation at So

Whether your allegiance stands with it, partly with it or wholly against it, this can, to some degree, cast a light on the type of racial biases (or prejudices) that you may hold.


It appears that in South Africa the National discourse has decomposed, or is decomposing into something that bears all the hallmarks of an extremely frustrated populace. That is to say, a frustration that does not border on hair-pulling and gnashing of teeth, but rather borders on real violence of a radical and revolutionary kind.

This can be largely attributed to an unyielding economic status quo, and very much because of a thoroughly corrupt executive that treats black people in South Africa in a manner that is alarmingly reminiscent of pre-1994.

What we see in frustrated discourse is the loss of a commitment to reality and a reduction in the breadth of a spectrum of views – that is, we are reduced to ‘you are either with me or against me’.

Hence, my wager above. If we are provoked to anger before reason and compassion we risk betraying our underlying base views and giving these sometimes ill-formed views strength instead of weakening them in the light of well-informed knowledge and allowing that to mature into wisdom.

South Africa is not the only Nation at the brink of a leftist Supernova. Today it is easy enough to find almost any group reduced to a rabid attack on another for a perceived injustice. Often co-morbid with such frenzied victimization is hypocrisy. For example, Black people in the United States demand better representation in the Arts, whilst sidelining other minority race groups with similar claims.

Scores of Muslims will protest against some of the illegal activities of the State of Israel, yet are completely silent on the extensive Human Rights abuses in the Gulf states, and in other Arab Countries. The Holy See will decry homosexuality, but have to date completely and utterly failed humanity by allowing the systematic abuse of children by priests to continue unabated, and protecting those who are responsible. Pro-life advocates will kill in order to defend life. It goes on and on.

Universities across South Africa have taken on a very demanding task of commencing a program of redress that has for the most part been ignored until now. Included in this inspiring movement, unfortunately, has been recourse to violence; attacks on Institutions themselves (the UCT VC’s office was petrol bombed for example) and the people making up the academic body. For a brief reprieve students eventually and correctly directed their anger towards National Government, but they sadly returned to attacks on Academic Institutions after Zuma’s Chamberlain-esque appeasement strategy managed to quell their appetite for real regime change. After all, attacking a University is easier than attacking a Government.

In the aftermath, Universities spun up think-tanks tasked with discussing issues around decolonisation and transformation; rooms and auditoriums full of righteous, angry, lettered people started to discuss what decolonization meant, and what true and lasting transformation might look like and how it might be achieved. No doubt papers will be written, more speeches made, think-tanks will turn into weekly meetings with wine and snacks, perhaps they can shove in some people of colour into Academic roles here and there. Is that it? Students should be wary that they are being taken seriously, anyone who has studied at a tertiary institution will tell you nothing happens at the administrative level unless you keep your finger on the pulse.

Beside taking real action against the instigator of social injustice (National Government), there is some real low-hanging fruit the Student Body and Universities could reach for, right here, right now. It is quite shameful that despite standing in full view, it has gone completely unnoticed. Is transformation only about having people of colour in Academic positions? Not it is not. It is not enough. I think that real change touches most importantly the lives of the student bodies at tertiary Institutions.

To put my proposition in perspective, I’d like to provide you with an example. When I was studying, a friend of mine grew up in a hut in Limpopo; she had few monetary resources, no family in Cape Town, and education that would have fallen seriously short of the kind offered at most predominantly white suburban schools. Imagine being in a new place on your own, in a class full of people grasping concepts faster than you, with a lecturer who only really cares about the smart ones, the ones wearing really nice clothes, who drive to campus each day in a car their dad bought them, from a home with a warm meal each night. Can you imagine the fear of such a task ahead of you? Don’t get excluded, get great grades while trying to hold everything together all on your own. “All on your own”

I think one of the profound ways a University can engage with students on the issue of transformation, is to provide without fail the following:

  • Free Mental Health support.
  • More General Entry programs that fill in the gaps in their education.
  • Effective teachers who care for their students as young academics and young people – some researchers are not effective as teachers at all. It requires more than a couple of publications to be able to teach your subject as well engage in a mature way with each student and to support their individual needs.
  • Adequate financial support for disadvantaged students.

Many will argue that these do not fall under the academic mandate, or that universities are already providing adequate support. The truth is that they are certainly not providing adequate support. In addition, this falls precisely under the academic mandate because thankfully, human beings are not machines but wonderfully complex and special with great gifts to bear to the world should someone have the maturity to coax it out of them.

Many academics I have spoken to have decried the complete an utter ineffectiveness of some of their colleagues, the damage it has done to their students’ prospects and how by extension it has helped maintained the divide between the privileged and less fortunate. My close friend runs free workshops on weekends for his students, he counsels everyone who comes to his door.

It is not unusual for him to be approached in the street by old students of his thanking him graciously for providing them with the support he gave them. This is because they have now risen so high and masterfully in the world. He gives over and above of himself. Why? Because he has heeded the call for true and lasting transformation in South Africa.

This is part of the model for real transformation, it can begin so easily right here, right now.