10 November 2003

In last week's Monday Paper (3-9 Nov), Mr Serote expresses his dismay and frustration at UCT's failure to "transform" itself. He levels his writing guns at academic and administrative staff, "the majority of whom are white" and who need from within " a fundamental change of heart and attitude".

The trouble is that Mr Serote's broadside will leave his targets and readers quite unsure of what he has in mind as the goals to be achieved and the practices to be avoided. He writes of "an equitable and transformed UCT–responsive towards the needs of its immediate environment with a staff profile that mirrors the image of South African society." Then he claims that the major reason why black staff leave institutions like UCT is because research (by a Professor Potgieter of UPE) shows "that neo colonial institutional culture in English-medium universities is to blame".

If the Monday Paper conducted a snap survey among UCT staff and students concerning their understanding of these phrases and others used by Mr Serote, one wonders how wide the range of responses would be? I predict extremely wide, and therefore extremely confusing.

Unfortunately, such vagueness and abstraction seem endemic to the subject matter. Other protagonists of the "Africanisation" of South African universities also have great difficulty in descending from their rhetorical horses. In a recent article, Professor Makgoba of the University of Natal, sketched the case for Africanisation as "a fundamental restructuring of higher education" (Mail & Guardian, May 2003). But at the end the reader is still mystified to understand the content of his highly non-specific phrases like "the call for the introduction of African knowledge systems [and] African values and ethics within the corridors of academe...which would give our higher education system an African brand in the globe".

Mr Serote and Professor Makgoba may know what they mean in more concrete terms. But they need to inform the rest of us academics what those down-to-earth meanings are. Otherwise they will not persuade us that what they want is [1] desirable, [2] affordable within national and individual university budgets, and [3] feasible in the current market (international as well as national) for academic staff trained to the level and standard required.

In my own department we struggled for years to hire black economists. Our selection committees offered them attractive packages but during the period before political change almost always they were lured away by large companies or NGOs. After the 1990s we lost them to government. At the moment we have a complement of valued black staff members, but they tend to be young and most come from elsewhere on the continent. Having them is good for us, yet not so good for Mozambique, Nigeria and Zimbabwe. But such is the confusion on this matter that one wonders whether the advocates of Africanisation approve of such developments in our higher education system, which seem to be duplicated elsewhere at UCT? Perhaps Mr Serote can be persuaded to write a paper and mount a seminar or lecture in time-honoured style? I hope this practice of "neo liberal English institutions" falls outside his target range?

Sean Archer
Economics Department

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Please view the republishing articles page for more information.