Chair of Council warns against racial chauvinism

31 March 2017 | Story by Newsroom
Sipho Pityana stresses that transparency, commitment and frank discussions are crucial to the IRTC's success.
Sipho Pityana stresses that transparency, commitment and frank discussions are crucial to the IRTC's success.

UCT's Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission (IRTC) has the potential to feed into the national transformation project, said Sipho Pityana, who chairs the IRTC's steering committee.

In a broad-ranging interview with the UCT newsroom, Pityana, who also chairs UCT's Council, touched on what the IRTC's goals are, what it might take to achieve them and why it could be decisive in setting up new, fair power relations in post-apartheid South Africa.

The IRTC was borne of an agreement between UCT management and groups of protesting students in November 2016. At the time of writing, the IRTC steering committee was developing terms of reference, choosing commissioners and otherwise laying the foundations for the IRTC to begin its work towards the middle of 2017.

Sketching the context of the IRTC, Pityana commented, “You need to address the fact that some people were angered by what they considered to be an alienating culture, which they refer to as exclusive [and] rejecting of the phenomenon of the other, and as a result of their protest against it got punished and excluded from the university in various ways.”

Decolonisation of higher education and curricula have been mentioned almost to the point of cliché along issues around offensive symbols and so on, said Pityana. The university, as a “festival of ideas”, has to get to the bottom of these concepts, understand them through a discourse of assertion and a contestation of those ideas, he added.

A robust, inclusive discussion was an imperative for the IRTC to succeed, said Pityana.

“Fundamentally, we're not going to be able to shift the direction of the institution unless we are engaged … and we have an understanding of what we're talking about.”

Later citing a recent Daily Maverick opinion piece in which Jay Naidoo discusses the importance of defending South Africa's democracy, Pityana said that the IRTC process was one of the ways in which UCT could “lay the foundation for a better, broader, participatory dialogue on the purpose and the future role of higher education in building a fair, just, humane, peaceful and vibrant democratic society”.

Was an IRTC inevitable?

Was an IRTC-like process inevitable even if the very visible altercations at Shackville had not taken place?

It's hard to say, mused Pityana, but he suggested that crises tend to accelerate an urgency to find solutions.

“It's quite possible that there would have been a sense of complacency, because these issues that we are talking about now, we've been talking about them [for] over 20 years in a free South Africa. So the crisis has exercised the minds of everyone that you can't have a status quo in an environment that pretends to be new.

“There's a lot, not just about UCT, but South Africa generally, that represents continuity from the past, and yet there is a great pretence about a rupture from that past. And that's tension we have to deal with.”

Transparency is vital

For Pityana, transparency is central to getting much-needed buy-in to the IRTC process. This included making all the documentation and information available, and making sure that no unrealistic promises about what the IRTC could achieve are made.

“We mustn't be short-termist in our approach and make commitments that we'll never be able to live up to,” he implored. “All that [false promises] will be doing is to postpone the day of reckoning.”

Being tolerant, honest and frank in the engagements is also essential.

“We need to be honest with each other and not pander to populist notions,” he said.

“These are difficult times. The easiest thing would just be to make glowing promises on what people are expecting, and that would just be postponing the day of reckoning,” he repeated.

Pityana also warned against being parochial when debating issues like funding. These were issues being battled across the globe, he said.

Be wary of 'racial chauvinism'

The tricky balance between dismantling the unfair power relations that the apartheid state left behind and not simply reversing the power structure is important to get right; a simple reversal would not be fair nor would it constitute genuine redress, said Pityana.

“In our context, it would be a manifestation of racial chauvinism, if you like,” said Pityana. “This process should help us make a clear distinction in defining our journey to ensure we affirm the efficacy of creating a non-racial and non-sexist society and not entrench the gender-based and racialist divisions that characterised the past.”

How confident was Pityana that the IRTC would be a progressive step in that direction?

“The jury is still out,” he said. Much depended on the commitment of key constituencies.

“But there is great potential here to be a benchmark,” he said.

Watch the full interview:

Story Yusuf Omar. Photo and video Saadiq Behardien.

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