(Written on 26 April 2015) Dear All, UCT alumni, friends and acquaintances who know I work at the University of Cape Town (UCT) have asked the question with concern; why did UCT’s management cave so easily when a relatively small group of students went on the rampage? Where will this end? Now that Rhodes has fallen…, will UCT also fall? To answer this question it is necessary to consider what the actual social problem at UCT may be, as well as to consider what it may mean for the university ‘to fall’. There is no doubt that there is a portion of the black student population at UCT who suffer from a sense of cultural alienated at the university. To quote Prof Mohamed Jeebhay’s view published in the special edition of the Monday Monthly, (April 2015), “the changing demographic patterns in the undergraduate student population… has contributed towards the creation of a growing critical mass of black students who articulate an increasing sense of alienation due to the (university’s) pervasive Eurocentric institutional culture”. There is some truth in this statement. My observation is that those students who come through what may be usefully described as a “model-C school experience” adapt readily to the institutional culture of UCT; while those who come from a township or rural school are at first bewildered, but those who cope with the work and adapt to the institutional culture generally go on to success. Unfortunately for those who find the academic work tough, the experience soon turns to something of a cultural shock. As these students battle to recover the characteristic ‘white impatience’ and the occasional expression of indifference with which they are met – sadly something that is part of the institutionalised culture – is interpreted as colonialist, imperialist, racism. The culturally shocked student’s reaction may range from a simple crestfallen shake of the head and a sad “eish wena”; to emotively irrational rants like that by Ntebaleng Morake about a “white supremacist capitalist misogynist system” where “nappy headed Black women (are) suffocated by the shackles that celebrate white supremacy and male entitlement”. (Why decolonising UCT is imperative, even after the fall of Rhodes statue, News24, 15 April 2015). Black students at UCT who experience this sense of cultural dissonance ask themselves, quite rightly, why they feel so uncomfortable at an indigenous institution? After all, they are Africans in Africa at an African university? Why do they feel like foreigners? Who or what is to blame for their state is readily described as colonialist, imperialist, etc., etc. Here I must point out that it is my observation that while the proportion of UCT students who struggle with what is essentially a Western culture is growing, they are not in the majority…, as yet. My observation is that the majority of students – and here I mean the black majority – have embraced what Jeebhay calls the ‘Eurocentric institutional culture’. The clothes they wear, the music to which they listen on their iphones, and the pictures of cult-heroes they paste on the covers of their books are largely Eurocentric. So for example, while a group of some 200 or 300 Rhodes-Must-Fall supporters would be singing and chanting and protesting at selected spots on campus, the significant majority of students, including black students, could be seen to be going about their usual business without much more than a passing interest in the protest. It is clear that the dissonance of some does not resonate with most, but this does not mean that there isn’t a problem that needs to be addressed. As the proportion of UCT students who come from township and rural schools increases the need to assuage this cultural dissonance becomes more urgent. Having acknowledged the cultural difficulty experienced by a growing portion of the black students at the university, what of the perception that in accommodating this cultural change the university will ‘fall’. The perception of the failure of South African institutions has become our daily experience. Eskom was once a financially A-rated, reliable generator of electricity; now we are reminded every other day of its fall as the lights go out. The South African Post Office was once the place where you opened your first savings account; today they cannot be relied upon to deliver a parcel. Even our parliament has been seen to degenerate into the kind of shambles that was once a risible news-item associated with lesser countries. Alumni of the Cape Technikon are presently at pains to point out that they graduated from an institution quite different from what became the Cape Peninsula University of Technology; as industry’s perception of the kaput CPUT’s qualification is a shadow of what the Technikon’s once was. After UCT’s management was seen to cave to the unruly student behaviour shown on national television we are left asking if this is UCT’s fate? What now? Will the management cave to other demands? Will UCT’s alumni also have to make the case that internationally recognised degrees conferred in 2000 are not the equivalent to some down-rated UCT qualification conferred in 2030? Of course, we have to ask ourselves if it really matters whether UCT ‘falls’ or not? Perhaps – to make a dent in the massive unemployment problem facing the country – esoteric research should be trumped by the need for vocational training at any price. From figures published by Stats SA in 2014 we know that in South Africa there is presently some 5 million unemployed black people between the ages of 17 and 24 years; and to this must be added the 16 million who will be coming through the school system over the next 15 years. Over the last five years the black population has grown at a rate around 11%, but the annual economic growth rates have been around 1.5% – so there is no way that a considerable proportion of these people will ever be employed. Under these dire social circumstances, does it matter that the country should have a university among the world’s top 150? (Incidentally, at present rates it is expected that by 2030 whites will make up less than 2% of South Africa’s total population.) So, we probably agree that it is inevitable that UCT should transform into an African university. Now we have to figure out what that means. How is an African university different from what would, worldwide, be considered a university worth the title? As far as I can see, this point has not been clearly communicated simply because it appears to be poorly defined in the minds of the agitators for transformation. Yes, there has been a clear expression of what is broadly described as ‘black pain’, and specifically described as the sense of failure ‘to make it’ at what is seen as a European (colonial, imperialist) university. But what is not clear is what the transformed university would actually look like. The Rhodes-Must Fall campaigners have festooned the university’s notice boards with posters happily proclaiming, “Transformation has taken a leap forward”, while its companion poster shows a jumble of words that convey no specific meaning…, reminding one of the central problem with China’s Great Leap Forward; it destroyed but put nothing in its place. As agitating students, staff and supporting newspaper reporters resort to defacing symbols, demanding changes (inter alia for easier curricula and academic race quotas), occupying administrative offices, and mindlessly repeating slogans, one wonders if this is what they believe the ethos of an African university should be. In the Monday Monthly Special of April 2015 we are shown a picture of a demanding student proudly posing in front of an occupied building with a slogan and a clenched fist, but he has placed duct tape across his mouth… one wonders if he has any notion of the deep contradiction this image presents at a university, whether an African university or any other sort of university. Unlike some of my friends who have taken the view that the Rhodes-Must-Fall program will energise a wholesale change in the institutional culture of UCT, I expect that there will be some shifts to becoming a bit more African (however that may be manifest), but the university will nevertheless remain much on the same course as it is now. The reason for this is because UCT has a significant international exposure and connectedness which steers it away from the parochial. One is reminded of how, as the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs in the 1960s, Albert Hertzog tried in vain to prevent television from being introduced to South Africa. Hertzog’s self-serving motivation was to preserve his specific brand of culture but ultimately the internal and international pressure prevailed and all his efforts were swept aside. So I expect it to be as with email, twitter, pop music, sneakers and tee-shirt slogans. I expect that despite the present cultural dissonance experienced by a section of the black student population, the youth at the university will adapt to the ethos of a pervasive International institutional culture…, I believe that UCT will remain a university for the foreseeable future, with some African flavour. I guess only those who will be around in 2030 will find out for sure. Regards Jeff
Tag Archive: UCT
(Written 20 Apr 2011)
If you have the patience to watch this video you will see a demonstration of the cartesian diver.