Building Universities for a Democratic South Africa

As we continue our soul searching on this 20th anniversary of South Africa’s democratic era, should we not take stake stock of our success and failures in transforming higher education and our university sector? Is there no merit in asking hard questions about whether our institutions are the embodiment of the values of our much acclaimed Constitution?  Should we not applaud the fact that our university system has more than doubled its student enrolment and significantly transformed its racial, cultural and class diversity? Should we not bemoan the fact and try to understand why almost 55% of our students who enter the university will not complete at all, and less than 20% will complete their degrees within the minimum allocated time?  Should we not ask why our universities receive only R22 billion in subsidies when the Department of Higher Education’s own task team argues that we should be funded at R37 billion if we are to be at the world average? Should we not ask why is it that so many institutions remain racial enclaves 20 years after our transition and whether this is an appropriate social setting for the training of professionals and citizens in the 21st century?

I tried to reflect on these issues with Carryn-Ann Nel in an interview in Beeld about a week ago (19 June 2014). It of course provoked a storm of responses – some downright racist, but most were thought provoking and reflective. At one level we should not be surprised by this controversy. If we want to review how well we are doing and whether we are on the right path, then we must learn to ask hard questions and grapple with difficult and sometimes emotional issues. In the interest of enabling this difficult but necessary intellectual engagement, I thought it wise to lay out, in my own words, my argument for the building of diverse and cosmopolitan universities.

Let me begin by identifying the dilemma that I confront at the helm of one of South Africa’s great universities. The essential purpose of the university in the contemporary era is to produce cutting edge research and knowledge and to train the professionals and citizens of the 21st century. Two compatible sets of principles govern how my colleagues and I undertake this responsibility. The first, found in the preamble of our constitution, demands that we simultaneously address the historical disparities bequeathed by Apartheid, and build a collective national identity. The second, written in the manifesto and architecture of any great university, is the imperative to be both nationally responsive and cosmopolitan at the same time. The responsibility of the university is not to undertake one or the other. The real challenge is to advance all of these priorities simultaneously. Managing the balance between these competing imperatives is then the real challenge confronting executives in South Africa’s universities.

The practice of managing these competing imperatives has also spawned two distinct approaches to student enrolment at universities: multiculturalism and non-racialism. The former is the practice of some institutions which see racial and cultural groups as homogenous, and directed by the imperatives of our transition, they plan the enrolment of these groups as distinct entities. At the most basic level this entails enforced implicit or explicit quotas, often with the intention that a university retains a historical racial or cultural character. At its most notorious level, this approach is reflected in the university adopting a principle of racial federalism in which distinct campuses come to represent distinct racial and cultural interests.

This approach has spawned universities in South Africa where today – 20 years after the democratic and non-racial transition – some universities have white students approaching 70% of their student enrolment, and others have essentially established a federal university comprising what effectively are distinct campuses of racialised ethnic groups. It is true that many other universities are completely black.  But most have such racial enrolments by default, rather than by design. Where these racial enrolments are a consequence of design, they should be criticised. Where they are a consequence of systemic default, we need to think through mechanisms that would enable us to deracialise these institutions.

But the real concern about the segregated white campuses or the largely white universities is that they have such student enrolments because of an explicit political agenda to keep them largely white or Afrikaner. I want to underscore the fact that the problem is not that the language of instruction is Afrikaans. There may indeed be merit for this to be the case in some institutions. The real problem is when Afrikaans is used as a mechanism to promote an ethnic project and undermine the emergence of non-racial and cosmopolitan institutions.

This is defended by some on the grounds that our constitution allows for a diversity of cultural expression. But our constitution also requires of us to both address the historical disparities of our past and to build a new national identity among all of our citizens. In its essence, our constitution is a clarion call to build an integrative and cosmopolitan identity, where we are not only white or black, English, Afrikaner, Zulu, Sotho or Xhosa, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jewish, but we are all these things and simultaneously so much more, South African, African and human. Those who defend the racialised or ethnic campuses and universities are essentially paying lip service to our constitution, while subverting its very essence.

By contrast, the alternative approach – the one advocating racial integration – rejects cultural homogeneity and believes in constructing an organisational space in which new national identities are built. Students from a variety of racial, religious and cultural backgrounds are enrolled as individuals, and the university is organised to enable constant intermingling and reciprocal engagement of these individual students. This approach holds that through these processes, students come to interact with each other as individuals and not as representatives of racial or cultural entities. In the process their identities evolve into a non-racial one where one can simultaneously be Afrikaner and South African, African and human. This approach then speaks directly to the substantive intent of our constitution.

Wits – and many other universities – are firmly ensconced in this non-racial tradition. We are still required to strike the right balance between diversity and cosmopolitanism, and this will change from one institution to another, from one geographic area to another, and from one historical epoch to another. For Wits, in this historical era, we have tried to strike a cosmopolitan balance where about 70% of our students are black, and about 30% are white. Of the black students, about 55% are African. This non-racial setting we believe, not only reflects an appropriate balance between the competing imperatives of historical redress and cosmopolitanism, but it also it creates the necessary social environment that prepares our graduates to thrive in the non-racial work environment of the 21st century in both South Africa and across the globe.

Some responses to my interview interpreted my criticisms as constituting an attack on the Afrikaner community and its institutions. Nothing could be further from the truth. I firmly believe that the Afrikaner is an essential component of the South African and the African. But I also believe that to be Afrikaner – or African, Zulu, Sotho, Xhosa, Jewish, Muslim or Christian – does not require one to retreat into a homogenous chauvinist identity. Bram Fischer and Beyers Naude – perhaps the Afrikaner community’s most illustrious sons, were also committed non-racialists. They were simultaneously Afrikaner, South African, African and human. They – like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe, Ahmed Kathrada, Helen Joseph, Joe Slovo, Ruth First and many others – were the true pioneers of the non-racial tradition. They are the kinds of citizens and leaders South African universities should aspire to develop in the 21st century. And such citizens and leaders cannot be produced in racial or ethnic educational enclaves.

Professor Adam Habib is Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand. An edited version of this piece was published in Beeld on 27 June 2014. Read the article here: Beeld 27.06.14.