The race to equity in higher education institutions

14 August 2014 | Story by Newsroom
Jimmy Manyi of the Progressive Professionals Forum urges the audience to consider transformation as a fundamental change in which all people and cultures are respected equally. Manyi was one of the panellists at a recent debate hosted by UCT's Transformation Services Office.
Jimmy Manyi of the Progressive Professionals Forum urges the audience to consider transformation as a fundamental change in which all people and cultures are respected equally. Manyi was one of the panellists at a recent debate hosted by UCT's Transformation Services Office.

At a recent debate on employment equity and affirmative action, hosted by the university's Transformation Services Office and facilitated by Council member Buyani Zwane, panellists agreed that South African universities still reflected structural inequality in society, but disagreed on the extent to which race- and class-based lenses could diagnose and solve the problem.

Noting more than 300 years of colonial and apartheid oppression of South Africa's people, South Africa's Constitution speaks of "achieving equality" among its citizens '“ implying that this equality has not yet been achieved.

For Jimmy Manyi, president of the Progressive Professionals Forum, this means that fair discrimination, as a means to achieve this equality, is allowed by the Constitution. This argument framed his contribution to a debate on employment equity and affirmative measures for transformation at universities in South Africa, hosted by UCT on 7 August.

The discussion added to a broader conversation about transforming South Africa's historically white universities. Only 4% of South Africa's professoriate is black.

Manyi debunked several "myths" about affirmative action and transformation, including that the law unfairly disadvantaged white employment seekers, particularly white males.

"Did you know that the Employment Equity Act [No. 55 of 1998] is actually for everyone, including white males?" said Manyi. "Section 15, subsection 4 says that there should be no absolute barriers and so on for people that are not from the designated groups. So there is special protection for white males in the law.

"By the way, white women are part of employment equity. White males with disabilities are part of the designated groups. So where's the racism in the law?"

Discourse about "born-frees" '“ South Africans born after the democratic elections in 1994 '“ also disguises society's structural inequality, said Manyi.

"Who is born free? Free from what? Children born in 1994; don't confuse them and tell them they are free. They are not free. They are born into a structurally uneven playing field."

Manyi pointed to social capital '“ generations of networks among the moneyed and powerful classes, for example '“ to demonstrate that an individual's bank account did not necessarily paint the full picture of their standing in society, and argued that this was largely still organised along racial lines.

"When we talk about transformation, we talk about a fundamental change," said Manyi, adding a suggestion for UCT's transformation strategy in particular. "What UCT should do is an organisational audit to find what is prevalent at UCT that would create an enabling environment for everybody to thrive. We cannot have a situation where ... all we are doing is tinkering and [focusing on] assimilation, where the people that are here are going to do 'the UCT thing'.

"That's not transformation. That is assimilation. We want everyone that comes to UCT to be who they are, and UCT must enable that. That's transformation. We want a situation where the various cultures of everyone must be respected and learned from."

Affirmative action not the answer, says AfriForum

Ernst Roets, deputy chief executive of AfriForum, joined Manyi on the panel.

Academic freedom "without being bound by legislation" should be considered when speaking about transformation at universities, said Roets. He described how he had been asked to intervene in cases of possible academic exclusion during his time as a student leader at the University of Pretoria. Students that failed repeatedly were faced with exclusion, and often these were students that had been offered a place at the university despite not meeting the required matric points total, he said.

Referencing a quotation from former US president Lyndon Johnson that Manyi had used to illustrate a point '“ namely "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair" '“ Roets said that, while he agreed with the quotation in principle, there was another dimension to consider.

"The question is, how do you make [the competitors] equal? Do you move the one with the advantage backwards, make him run further?"

If all white people were removed from the economy, there would only be "a fraction of positions to occupy, because white people are so few in this country", said Roets.

Rather than the problem being the fact that existing top-level positions were mostly occupied by white people, "the problem is rather that there are not enough jobs", said Roets.

He criticised affirmative action policies for making "absolute classifications".

"If you are black, [the EE policy holds] that you are disadvantaged, regardless of your socio-economic status, regardless of all other facts," he said.

White job applicants were immediately regarded as advantaged by the EE policy, which Roets maintained was unfair because '“ "and I know many of you will disagree" '“ there were indeed poor white people in South Africa.

Employment equity and affirmative action policies were an ineffective solution to the country's problems, which would be better addressed by fixing South Africa's basic education system, Roets argued.

Adding a touch of class

Emeritus Assoc Prof David Cooper agreed with Manyi that employment demographics at South Africa's higher education systems reflected a society wracked by the structural inequality borne of colonialism and apartheid. But Cooper suggested that this was better diagnosed as a symptom of "global elitism", than mainly racial politics.

Acknowledging that there had been "some" transformation in South Africa's higher education institutions since 1994, Cooper pointed to huge salary disparities as an example of pervasive inequality. As a professor, he earned close to R1 million per year, while senior secretaries earned less than R150 000 per year.

Workers such as maintenance and cleaning staff '“ who the university now outsourced, earned even less, said Cooper.

"I think it's a class thing," he said.

"I don't think it's mainly racial. It's linked to this global elitism where everything that matters is that we stay top of the rankings. What we do for our local communities is not a central issue. Many people would like it to be, but we're not going to be judged by that."

Cooper reiterated that the inequalities could be defined along racial lines, but other factors needed to be added to the equation.

"I think we need a much more complicated picture for what's going on here," he said.

Manyi replied that because South Africa's class issue was embedded in race, fixing the problem along racial lines would, by default, solve class inequality.

Class embedded in race?

Professor Charlene Africa of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) agreed that a nuanced lens was necessary. UWC also struggled to meet its employment equity targets, Africa said, for a variety of reasons.

"A large majority of our student population are first-generation university-goers, and when they get their first degrees, a lot of them don't go on to do postgraduate studies because they have to go out and work for those that are coming after them," said Africa.

Africa also noted that the only two females on the panel were from UWC, highlighting the gender inequity that still exists in academia.

"I don't think we can have the transformation discussion in two hours. There's a lot more to it, and I think we need to examine all the different aspects."

Universities missing an opportunity

George Mvalo, transformation and cohesion manager at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), agreed that class needed to be considered.

Many South African universities were complicit in marginalising poor communities by systematically excluding the working class and the children of the working class from accessing its resources, said Mvalo. By outsourcing much of their lower-paid work, universities ensured that poor workers no longer enjoyed the benefits of being full staff members, thereby perpetuating structural inequality, he said.

"And then we complain that there aren't enough skilled [black] people!"

Universities needed to invest in their skills pipeline and ensure that employees, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, felt part of the institution's fabric and were not tempted to leave, he said.

Embedding the transformation ethic

Transformation was not simply a vice-chancellor's cross to bear, said Mvalo. While management should "set the tone", each employee should put their shoulder to the wheel to change the narrative of "historically hostile institutions".

This was not unprecedented in the country, as Karleen Mercuur of UWC pointed out, saying that the "transformation ethic" was "embedded in the leadership" at her institution.

"All our senior managers are responsible for transformation," said Mercuur. UWC did not have a separate transformation office, but entrenched its transformation objectives in all levels of the university's operations, she said.

This ensured that transformation became everybody's responsibility and remained a core item on the university's agenda.

Story by Yusuf Omar. Image by Je'nine May.

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