It matters who teaches: A response to the UCT Chancellor

17 March 2015 | Story by Newsroom
UCT Chancellor Graça Machel at the 16 December 2014 graduation ceremony for the Faculties of Law and Health Sciences.
UCT Chancellor Graça Machel at the 16 December 2014 graduation ceremony for the Faculties of Law and Health Sciences.

On 16 December 2014, a few of us who are academics committed to transformation in higher education in South Africa were present when Mrs Graça Machel addressed postgraduates at the graduation ceremony for the Faculties of Law and Health Sciences. Others watched the address later online. We were heartened by the recognition of the work that the University of Cape Town, through its staff, performs daily to nurture, teach, and learn with students. We agree that the struggle for transformation in which the Chancellor, many of us, and others still participate has won considerable gains. And yes, twenty years into this hard-won democracy, we have made considerable strides.

However, as a group of concerned black academics at UCT, and as we take stock of where our university is at the start of 2015, we feel it necessary to challenge one aspect of the Chancellor's speech – namely, that the composition of the student body is more important than the composition of the academic staff. It is our understanding that the Chancellor would have been informed of the current discussions around staff transformation at the university; consequently, we are disheartened by the statement that she made. On 5 February 2015 we sent a letter to Mrs Machel to raise our concerns directly with her, to which we have received no response.

The Chancellor is correct to point out that diversifying the demography of our students is vital to transformation, but we cannot agree that the composition of the student body is more important than the composition of the academic staff. We lack both a diverse student cohort AND a diverse academic cohort – equally significant aspects of the many-headed hydra that is thwarting transformation in South Africa, certainly in higher education. The argument that we are advancing in the debate about transformation – that more black academics are needed in all tiers of university life – does not presume that only certain academics can be transformational; however, we ask that the executive recognise that the lack of diversity in the academic staff complement has much to do with institutional racism, cronyism, and the need for new discourses and practices that can take these into account.

Many of the black students the Chancellor addressed – brilliant, and brimming with potential – though celebrated as students, are often denied access to academic careers. Code words and phrases such as 'potential', 'not yet ready', and 'not UCT material' often make their path from promising black postgraduate to academic colleague an obstacle course, haemorrhaging them out of the PhD-to-professor pipeline. The Chancellor's address was a missed opportunity to invite them back to remake this relationship between those who have been traditionally understood to be the 'recipients' of knowledge and those who are the 'producers' of knowledge. If we continue to close our eyes to this, the South Africa that the Chancellor asks us to envision twenty years hence may maintain the same contrast that we witnessed that day: a growing number of black postgraduates, and little change among the majority of white experts on the stage.

Under-representation of black people among the academic staff, particularly in the professoriate, is a central hindrance to transformation at UCT. It limits access to the Senate and other centres of power at the university, which goes against the founding values of building inclusive and diverse institutions in our country. It also has ramifications, both in terms of the knowledge projects that are made possible and in terms of students' academic achievement and aspirations. Indeed, a transformed university is one in which scholarship actively includes our knowledge and experiences as black people.

As we begin 2015, the turbulent times that the Chancellor refers to are certainly still upon us, and have consequences beyond the classrooms and lecture halls. We await the fate of at least one UCT student who may have been involved in a violent, race-based attack on a 'coloured' cleaner. We know of a black taxi driver who was urinated on by another one of our students. Both students were white. We believe that what happens in classrooms and lecture theatres – 'who teaches' and 'what is taught', as well as to whom – is vital to building a healthy, diverse university and city for all who participate in it.

The signatories of this letter are all academics from different departments and faculties at UCT and part of TransformUCT, a grouping of black academics at UCT:

Shose Kessi, Mbongiseni Buthelezi, Shadreck Chirikure, Horman Chitonge, Berni Searle, Victoria Collis-Buthelezi, Floretta Boonzaier, Lungisile Ntsebeza, Harsha Kathard, Zethu Matebeni, Kevin Thomas, Jay Pather, Adam Haupt, Imraan Coovadia, Maanda Mulaudzi, Collet Dandara, Meryl du Plessis, Roshan Galvaan, Harry Garuba, Shamil Jeppie, Daniel Munene, Elelwani Ramugondo, Rael Salley, Xolela Mangcu.

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