The meaning of transformation in SA universities after #RhodesMustFall

The #RhodesMustFall protest movement, which was originally directed against a statue at the University of Cape Town (UCT) commemorating Cecil John Rhodes, ignited a national debate on racial transformation at institutions of higher learning in the country.

The statue of Rhodes has since been removed. However, some pertinent questions around the transformation of South African universities remain. We spoke to UCT Vice-Chancellor Dr. Max Price about what university transformation means and how it ought to be implemented.

We mustn't lose the momentum. Between various student activist groups, staff groups, a commitment from management and the UCT Council we want to maintain the focus and accelerated energy on transformation. I don’t want it to return to business as usual.

Dr. Max Price

Student protesters at the University of Cape Town. Picture credit: EWN.

What does transformation mean?

Price says that different universities in South Africa face different transformation challenges. He told CapeTalk and 702's Redi Tlhabi that transformation at UCT involves four different dynamics and measures.

1. Student access and success:

Price says that student access involves adapting the admissions policy to recruit more black and previously disadvantaged students (which he says are not necessarily synonymous) as well as creating financial aid provisions for them.

He says that student success entails academic development programmes that grant those previously disadvantaged students additional support and assistance, considering that they often do not have the same access to resources at the high schools they attended. Price says they have seen a progressive narrowing of the pass rate as a result of this effort.

2. Staff transformation

Price says that this dimension involves employing more black South African lecturers and professors which, in his view, the university has failed to do. He says this may be partly attributed to the fact that there are not enough of these candidates at PhD level that are pursuing a career in academics.

3. Institutional culture and climate

According to Price, institutional culture encompasses what it feels like to be at the university and whether or not it feels inclusive. He says that the university has made some progress, but that the Rhodes statue debate represents some of the failures in this regard. He says that the term "institutional racism" may not be a fair definition, in light of this. Price told Redi Tlhabi that the #Rhodesmust fall campaign has highlighted a broader concern around symbols and portraits at the university.

What you see reflected on the walls of the university is portraits of mostly white male role models, there are very few who are black. It is disproportionate. The protests have opened the eyes of many white people and the older generations who see the world differently. So we have set up a task team to look at our art.

Dr. Max Price

4. The knowledge project

Price says that the knowledge project reflecting diversity in the research conducted and curricula taught at the university. He says that the research element is on a successful path, but the curriculum side is more difficult to achieve.

He says it is a challenge because other parts of the curriculum in disciplines such as science are not as affected by Eurocentric versus Afrocentric focused studies. He offered that it may be necessary to implement extra courses to introduce ideas of contested knowledge, particularly from the continent, to students across all faculties.

One of the risks we face in the language of decolonisation. As used by some of our students it may be interpreted as being anti-settler, with settlers being white. It suggests that whites don’t have a place in South Africa. We need to be careful to draw that distinction. Decolonising the knowledge project is about challenging the view that Western knowledge is superior and that other knowledge systems and ways of seeing the world don’t have validity.

Dr. Max Price

Listen to the full conversation on the Redi Tlhabi show:

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