Letter: Climate Survey will muddle debate

03 November 2003

My association with UCT extends over a period of 10 years. It first took off in 1993 as an undergraduate student. I am currently in my fifth year as a PASS staff member. I must confess though, that on the surface, there has not been much, if anything, that would suggest to me that there is a firm commitment towards an equitable and transformed UCT, a UCT that is responsive towards the needs of its immediate environment and with a staff profile that mirrors the image of the South African society.

The baseline data is there for all eyes to see. The number of black staff who have left in the last five years far exceeds that of new recruits from the same category. Some in the top university management, and of course most in middle management, have been taking comfort in the wrong assertion that blacks leave purely for attractive positions elsewhere, and most often, such reasons for leaving are purely economic (better pay prospects in industry and in the public sector).

It came as no surprise that very recently, this assertion was refuted by empirical research. The much publicised research by Professor Potgieter of the University of Port Elizabeth concluded that neo colonial institutional culture in English-medium universities is to blame for the unprecedented exodus of black academic staff from the higher education sector altogether.

Heads of academic departments and executive directors in PASS departments have done very little in changing their staff profile.

Very few have taken the trouble of formulating equity plans in their respective departments. The trouble is that this is where real power resides. The prerogative to appoint and dismiss resides squarely on the shoulders of a group of people who wholly represents white privilege.

The way forward therefore is not a survey! The Senior Leadership Group and heads of academic departments, the majority of whom are white, must take a critical look at themselves and recognise the privileges conferred upon them by virtue of association. There ought to be a fundamental change of heart and attitude. The desire to change must, in the first instance, come from within and be complemented by forces from without. It ought to be a personal conviction of those in positions of influence to want to change and this grouping (more than anyone) is better placed to champion this ideal. At the moment, there are no signs that there is commitment, however tentative.

At the first Steve Biko Memorial Lecture in 2000, the Vice-Chancellor conceded that even though white racism no longer exists as a formalised structure, it still does exist, albeit in very sophisticated forms. The Vice-Chancellor further observed that:

"With the disintegration of apartheid as a formal structure, white racism has reacted in a number of ways. In some cases, it has simply died, while in other cases, particularly where strong pockets of white power remain, such as in commerce, industry and in higher education, it has either mutated and assumed the colour of change while retaining a core of self-interest – "

In putting UCT under the microscope, there is an interesting irony here that at the very institution whose chief executive officer is the speaker above, all strides towards change seem to have bordered more on the cosmetic rather than the fundamental.

For example, in the past five years there is nothing to say on equity and transformation except to make mention of two appointments made, namely the appointment of employment equity manager and that of transformation manager, needless to say even these two developments have been quite recent.

The Climate Survey of course is the most recent and interesting development. As in the two appointments aforementioned, the Climate Survey also offers very little hope as a road map towards a transformed UCT. All these events are evocative of the Vice-Chancellor's address of 2000, particularly on institutions that do not seek to embrace change but rather seek to create an idea for it.

By way of conclusion, the way forward is really two-fold. Firstly, the Senior Leadership Group and heads of academic departments ought to turn more inward. They need to do some serious soul-searching so that they would want to change. Secondly, it must be seen as a good management practice for persons at this level to make strides in transformation, as is indeed part of the core business. Those that make concerted efforts and have certain quantifiable measures of success must accordingly be rewarded via a performance management and reward system, while at the same time having poor performers face severe consequences.

I do submit that the Climate Survey in itself will not produce the desired outcome. The intention here, I believe, is rather to create a wrong impression that change is underway and much is being done. The survey will, I'm afraid, muddle up the debate for transformation and reduce it to a futile academic exercise (as has been typical of neo liberal English institutions).

It is therefore with regret that I have to inform you that I will not be taking part in this survey, given the rationale outlined above.

I do, however, wish you well in your endeavours (however tentative they might be).

AC Serote
PASS Staff member

* For a response to the issues raised in this letter, read the interview with Prof Njabulo Ndebele on pages 4 and 5 of this week's Monday Paper. The Monday Paper welcomes letters but the authors should supply their full name and contact details. We reserve the right to edit letters due to space considerations.

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