Why are there so few black professors in South Africa?

09 October 2014 | Story by Newsroom

A row has been brewing in South African academic circles over the paltry number of black professors at the country's universities, 20 years after the transition to democracy. With the latest figures showing that only 14% of professors are black, some white administrators claim the problem lies in a shortage of qualified candidates. Black academics have hit back to blame an outdated institutional culture.

The Guardian Africa Network asked a panel of South African experts why this might be:

Xolela Mangcu

After decades of institutional power it is not surprising that white academics would have a sense that the institutions of higher education, particularly the predominantly white universities, belong to them by right. How can you teach history, political studies, anthropology, arts, without a single black full professor in those departments? It is simply unconscionable in this day and age that the University of Cape Town would not have a single black South African woman who is a full professor.

Those who resist change use the well-worn but bogus language of standards. But the standards themselves, developed as they were over decades of isolation, leave much to be desired.

The government should support academics by using more university-based research instead of the over-reliance on private consultants, many of whom are white former apartheid government employees. Most importantly, the government must have a plan, without interfering with the autonomy of the institutions; the universities must show visionary leadership on race; and all academics must commit to excellence in teaching and research. But this cannot be achieved when the bulk of the knowledge production comes from such a tiny segment of the population.

Xolela Mangcu is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and the author of Biko: A Biography (Tafelberg, 2012)

Belinda Bozzoli

Twenty years ago the incoming ANC government chose to direct most of its efforts in the university sector into changing the face of the student population. They merged universities, and embarked upon a strategy of massification, with black students being the target population. This strategy has largely succeeded.

However, in two decades very little thought has been given by government to the expensive and longer term problem of addressing the composition of the academic staff. Many individual universities themselves engaged with this issue, and philanthropic foundations assisted them in various ways. But the scale and sustainability of these projects meant that they made only a small impact.

What was actually needed was a large-scale strategy, something like that used in neighbouring Botswana, and other African countries, which invested generously in grants to allow young local staff to obtain PhDs abroad, but retain their positions on their return. But government funding for universities has remained mean and pinched.

The state is the only body that can afford such a project on a national scale. A new "next generation" project has just been endorsed by government in order to address this problem, but once again its funding base appears to be uncertain. There is very little interest in universities and their plight in South Africa at the moment, so I am not optimistic that there will be any large scale change in the composition of staff in the near future.

Professor Belinda Bozzoli is a former deputy vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand and the Shadow Minister of Higher Education for the Democratic Alliance

Jonathan Jansen

There are three major reasons for the shortage of black professors within South Africa. Firstly, the much greater financial benefits (and generally better working conditions) for first-generation black academics with PhDs outside of universities, in government or the private sector.

Secondly, the small number of SA PhDs coming through the long pipeline from first degrees, in part a reflection of the low outputs in numbers and quality from a still largely dysfunctional school system. Thirdly, the lack of an effective strategy for identifying, funding and nurturing young black scholars from the first degree onwards.

Professor Jonathan Jansen is the vice-chancellor and rector of the University of the Free State and the author of Knowledge in the Blood (Stanford University Press, 2009)

Max Price

The main challenge with transformation of the academic sector in South Africa is that there is generally a 20 year trajectory between an academic receiving a PhD and becoming a full professor. Until 1994, aspiring black academics were not welcomed into many higher education institutions for postgraduate studies, teaching and research and the generations that should have launched their academic careers before 1994 are not here now to take their rightful place in the professoriate.

However, the University of Cape Town began years ago to put interventions in place to accelerate the pace of new academics up the career ladder. Achieving the necessary research track record is the most significant hurdle to promotion at all stages. UCT's Emerging Researchers Programme is one of the endeavours that aims to assist participants with this.

There are other obstacles, especially for new academics who do not come from a tradition of academics. Very often we find they just do not know how to work the system. We address this through a formal, two-year induction programme and through a mentorship programme of paid senior professors (often retired).

Finally, we try to recruit and mentor likely candidates for current or future vacancies. UCT search committees are routinely appointed to seek out promising candidates. But ultimately there is a structural problem of the size of the current candidate pool, which will take years to address.

Dr Max Price is the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town

Zethu Matebeni

Firstly we need to consider the investments and funding opportunities made available for full time PhD studies in South Africa. Locally there is a scarcity of these, which is an issue that needs to be addressed. If they are available, they are not always fully funded. Secondly, greater investment in supported postdoctoral studies needs to happen '“ universities often do not have supportive environments to nurture new PhDs and this tends to push people out of the system.

Thirdly, we are often told that it takes about 20 years for an academic to get to a full professor position. This is an incorrect claim, as there have been (and still are) white academics whose careers were fast-tracked and who received professorships even without a PhD. Such processes need to be monitored at universities. How are ad hominem promotions conducted, and who gets to be promoted, when? A number of black academics often share that they do not believe they would ever be promoted, even when they are well-published.

Fourthly, the claim that black academics go for more lucrative positions outside the academy is problematic, and without evidence. Not only does it suggest that black academics are only after money, but shifts the responsibility of universities to black academics. Not all black academics with PhDs think that job satisfaction is about financial reward. This kind of thinking is backward.

Dr Zethu Matebeni is a documentary film-maker and researcher at the University of Cape Town'™s Institute for Humanities in Africa

This article was originally published on The Guardian Africa Network. Republished with kind permission.

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