Transformation Meeting with Black Staff

Wednesday, 13 May 2015


VC: We have a problem. The question is what to do about it. We are putting together an executive statement plus a series of strategic initiatives that we will take to Senate and Council. I’d like us to think through how to address the kinds of challenges that we have, but most importantly, what can we do?


  1. Is transformation as you see it simply about the demographic representation of African and Coloured colleagues in the academy and the professoriate, or is it broader – outsourcing, institutional naming, curriculum reform?
  2. Depending on your answer to question 1, what potential solutions are on the cards?

Open discussion:

Respondent 1: I’m disturbed that it took you 45 minutes to say the word “racism”. The word “transformation” minimizes the experiences that we are dealing with. I got excited when you mentioned equity appointments – where are you going to get these people from? Enabling environment – this suggestion creates the impression that Blacks aren’t able to create the outputs of White counterparts without an enabling environment. If the culture doesn’t change, nothing will change.

Respondent 2: Firstly, let me express my gratitude. Sometimes you can put the victims so far into a corner and always make the problem look like it’s there problem. What are you going to do for the White staff? Or is it only the Blacks who need to be empowered, who have problems? That is where the biggest problem is. Transformation does not mean more and more attention on the Blacks, without any attention on the Whites. Why are we not targeting that segment of the staff that is creating the worst of the bottlenecks and the worst of the situation. Have you gone around asking how to get White staff to unlearn the kind of behavior that keeps the victim as the victim?

Respondent 2: I second the gratitude and commend the appointment of Lindiwe (Manyika – Head of Transformation). I would like to reinforce what both colleagues have said so far. The executive needs to meet with the people responsible for making Black staff’s lives a misery. It is not only staff historically classified White. It is also particularly Black male staff in corridor leadership positions who are part of creating the bottlenecks. Corridor leadership is absolutely crucial and they need to be won over to the transformation agenda. We can’t just throw money at the problem, we have to work with the interpersonal. You need to talk to staff in their offices.

Respondent 3: We deliberately did not speak at the Faculty meeting because we want to hear what White people think. There are other meetings where only Black people speak. Corridor power: there are very powerful people in those corridors who are custodians of institutional culture. The moment you challenge that power you are criminalised as non-cooperative. That is why it is impossible to retain Black people here and at UCT. What does Blackness signify? Transform the way we are perceived as Black people by changing demographics of lowly paid positions, cleaners, security guards. Appoint Whites. Change the way that Blacks are perceived.

Respondent 4: I want to raise equity. Equity means equal qualifications, equal performance means equal remuneration. As a Black woman, I have no idea how much I am being paid. Who determined my salary and how was it determined? There are certain levels where you can negotiate but I was just given a salary. No one wants to be responsible for telling you exactly how your salary was determined. As long as salaries remain a secret in this institution, you will have people who are under-remunerated. Bands allow senior lecturers to be paid as juniors and vice versa. Numbers are important to transformation but how are we going to attract those people if the institution pays Blacks poorly. If you come from Africa it’s worse because you’re labelled a foreigner, an economic refugee, no one supports you. This is true for international students as well – they really struggle to settle. Therefore, is this an attractive institution? No.

Respondent 5: We are made to feel that these (equity appointments) are junior posts even when they employment is made to someone who is fully qualified, the person is made to feel like they lack institutional culture. How are you planning to address the issue of individuals who make those decisions? You have individuals in high positions who make sure that the lives of Blacks – whether equity employment or not – is so difficult that by the time they reach their third year of probation, they are ready to leave. It never comes out that he was pushed out, seen as resignation.

Respondent 6: When we are looking at transformation, are we looking at increasing South Africans or Blacks from anywhere in the world? If you want to increase SA Blacks, people in positions of power are not strong enough to take hard decisions. There was a time you would never see Blacks in engineering until a Black man brought in Blacks to the Faculty and appointed them as leaders and decision makers. Who are the people in committees? I am not in a single committee. I came to Wits 15 years post PhD and I’m not on any committee – no one has addressed that. Nepotism is happening in committee nominations. The same is happening with NRF funding. How do you increase Black professors? I don’t believe in getting anything for free. We should begin to tell our colleagues that this a worldwide game – you must publish. If you want to be a professor, go and be productive. Nobody should take an appointment because they’re Black. It is demoralizing. Our professors must give us records of the number of Black PhDs they produce. You can’t bring Blacks in on pity grounds – the University is a competitive place. We should not undermine this issue of salaries. Prospective employees should know that promotions are based on criteria. Professors need to be told to groom Black South Africans. Do your work well so that when you go for promotion, your CV talks. We must be committed to global standards.

Respondent 7: We are not looking for handouts, we just want the playing field to be levelled. Recruitment happens mostly from postgraduate students. Departments make every effort to ensure that good students are taken into lectureship positions, but it doesn’t happen with Black students. By the time they pass their masters degree, they don’t want to hear the word Wits. We are told that they don’t have a budget even though positions are created for White students. It is not true that there is no potential, the problem is with appointments – no monitoring of interviewing panels. If you are included on an interview panel, if you raise the issue of employment equity, you are seen to be a trouble maker. Blacks don’t make it because the people who ask relevant questions are excluded from the panels. Transformation committees don’t attend to relevant issues – I have stopped attending.

Respondent 8: I am a Black female academic on contract – I’ve been saying year in and year out: what is the plan for me? I’ve been told that there is money but if I get funded for three years, the School has to fund me afterwards and there is no money. My contract gets renewed year after year, so in August I have to start being nice. There are people in the University who have a masters and are permanent and get paid more than me. I go beyond the call of duty but when it comes to making decisions, I get told that I am on contract so my opinion doesn’t count. How long am I going to sit on this contract position without a permanent post? If you say nothing, nothing happens; if you stand up, you lose your job.

Respondent 9: I want to apologise to you for walking off your stage during graduation. I did it because I observed that 90% of the students graduating with distinctions were all White. We are suggesting that Black students are not performing as well as White students. I have research: White lecturers will go into class and face only White students. I go to class and teach everyone. We are preparing this institution to continue to have White academics only. Why does the goalpost keep changing every time a Black lecturer puts in for promotion? We know White colleagues who’ve been promoted for three articles only?

Respondent 10:

  1. Your listening means you are potentially a leader and a champion for transformation. I like your approach but we need much more. We’ve had a statement from the University on sexual harassment. I’d like a statement from your office saying you are opposed to racism, that it will not be tolerated.
  2. As colleagues we need to realise that running away from Wits will not resolve our problems. Wherever you are, the problem persists.
  3. Statements and initiatives are fine but I want a plan of action around transformation. Here’s the context, here’s the plan of action – you will get a lot of support. I want to move away from small pockets of initiative. I want us to have a total plan.
  4. The most radical thing you could do is a moratorium on appointment of White staff. That’s risky but maybe we need it.

Respondent 11: As our leader, it’s important for us to know how you define the problem. Many of us can tell individual stories but what I’m interested in is that the institutional culture is creating an enabling environment for racism. Many of the stories here are testimony to that. Racism by staff and students. There is institutional racism and it is important to address that. You are talking to the wrong people – the group here is not against transformation, there needs to be conversation with those who are causing the problem. It is important that when we leave here, we go out with a plan. We have been talking for so many years, we need action.

VC: Suggestion: Separate racism office – (met with sounds of broad agreement)

Respondent 12: We have Black academics who are in positions of power who have become the puppets to the White institutional culture so that the White academic can no longer be seen as practicing racism because they have delegated that duty to the puppet. You might not be able to succeed if you are just looking at the Head of School – the dirty work gets done by the Black colleagues who are interested in self-preservation and self-advancement. They confront colleagues and say that we are using the race card to advance your career. We are no longer just fighting a White face. Don’t think you can advance the Black academic within this institution by confronting just the Whites. They have recruited Blacks.

Respondent 13: Transformation is not about demographics. You have to transform the committees, the panels who sit in promotions – they are mostly White. You have to transform the committees and structures that affect us as academics. Representation in committees is not enough, there needs to be openness about criteria and the whole selection panel.

Respondent 14: In the long run it is difficult to attract academics if you don’t groom students while they’re still young. We have an opportunity for honours students to stay and do masters. I identified six of the brightest Black kids but I don’t sit on the panel. So out of 18 candidates, one was Black. Adjudication panel – not a single one was Black. The visionary idea is that transformation must happen but at a practical level it is not happening. There have been 28 staff appointments in my school since January 2014 and not a single one White. If I raise an opinion, I’m one out of 50 individuals and I get victimized – there is a dichotomy between this forum which says transformation should happen and the practical level.

Respondent 15: We are talking about White supremacy. Whites need to recover from themselves. Curriculum transformation – Wits is still northbound, still teaching students for a world that is not theirs. White students end up with distinctions because the knowledge speaks to their culture. Northbound gaze and colonial epistemologies need to be undone. Black students are explicitly told by their White supervisors not to bring in Black scholars. It is because of the demographic superiority that you have a conceptual Whiteness. First part, decolonialisation. Second part, trace the history of the discipline – be taught the dark side (health sciences). Many academics are produced through White supervision so some of the knowledge isn’t there. The conversation has to happen between those who know there are problems with a deeply Eurocentric curriculum. White mediocrity – some academics only know half the knowledge, we have to point out that that is not excellence.

Respondent 16: When we seek to transform the university, we must look for inclusion. I don’t look for inclusion – why is it that Blacks must seek to be included? Implies ownership. We do not seek to be assimilated by something that we are here to speak out against. Transformation should explicitly commit to destabilising of White power. It’s not all about becoming professors – the very things that we valorize are the things that exclude and marginalize.

Respondent 17: Mentorship: My experience at Wits (this is my fourth year) is that when I came, mentorship was not formalized. Your contract says that you will be given a senior mentor. My former mentor insisted that I identify someone who is a star. I asked about this in my interview. In my interview they said yes. Senior people see those who look like their nieces and nephews and so they get mentored. Soft landings get prepared for some people and others are left to sink or swim. The Research Office – wing responsible for transformation – is amazing. You need someone senior who is looking out for you. If the university is serious about this, it needs to be structured and formalized. Tie it to people’s performance bonuses. I don’t want to feel part of a club where we are not sure why we’ve made it – I am not asking for special conditions.

Respondent 18: I tell my students that you need to be exceptional just to be ordinary. There is a difference between equality and justice. We are starting from -5 just to get to 0. I use African examples in my classes and I received an email from a student saying my classes are not relevant. I remember Black theories being taught as alternative. Black theory is left to last and examined as a multiple choice question. Head of Schools are not equipped to deal with Black people. Racism Office – when I say something is racist, I have to cite my sources, I must be able to say this is racist and be believed.

Respondent 19: Appointments – equity should be seen as an investment in human resources, we have not all been equally equipped to be able to hit the ground running, we should rewrite employment equity not as policy but as investment in humans

Respondent 20: Mentorship should be formalized and new appointees shouldn’t simply be assigned to a senior member, I would like you to meet with White staff as a group because otherwise Black staff are a mass, your idea about three people chairing certain processes is absolutely crucial, there has been discourse around not wanting juniorisation: White students are employed with masters and mentored to get PhDs and the same doesn’t happen for Black students, PMAs are exploited – R2 500 per quarter and they are tutoring first year students, don’t perform well academically because they are tutoring

Respondent 21: There is a transformation committee in the faculty but we should reconstitute the S&P committee with a transformation representative on that committee. The DVCs should rotate among the Faculties so that we have a consistent application of policy. There is a danger that if they are in one place, they get comfortable.

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