VC’s Meeting with Indian and White Staff

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The VC opened the meeting with the following:

  • Apology for any offence caused by grouping the meeting according to race. It was a pragmatic decision that was not meant to impugn any definition of identity.
  • Background to convening of separate meetings
  • Confirmation that the idea is to bring everyone together following the separate meetings
  • Background to transformation issues at Wits and the higher education system in general
  • Background to the acceleration of the Wits response due to observations of rapid polarisation
  • Response to criticism that the conversation did not originate in institutional structures – if there is a crisis of legitimacy then that extends to institutional structures
  • Philosophical underpinnings of transformation debates happening at Wits
  • Summary of concerns on campus – from outright racism to lack of responsiveness to transformation (colour blindness)
  • Background to release of VC’s statement on transformation
  • Unpacking of points 1-8 in VC’s statement

Respondent 1:

I just want to acknowledge and welcome the initiative, and that the issue is being brought into the centre. It is important to start off by acknowledging that this is not just a Wits issues, it’s a South African issue. I have been away for a while and am taken aback by the passion that is expressed on talk radio. It is also a global issue. It is therefore important for us not to be responding defensively, what is called for from us as a university is more important. I would welcome all the initiatives in the VC’s statement on transformation, along with the necessary discretion and judiciousness to avoid the kinds of labels that have been attached to past initiatives. But we also need to address cultural and discursive issues. How do we change the kinds of conversations in the corridors? We hear deeply polarized voices articulating powerfully racialized perspectives on where we are in SA. These are taking us further and further away from a nuanced view on where we are and a transcendent view on the way forward. Suggest that we find a way of developing a programme of internal engagements at the University, and research, drawing on all our resources, so that we can begin to have a more nuanced conversation that is informed by research. Suggest resources to be made available for research. As we develop our own understandings and deepen our own discourses we need to make these available much more publicly within the SA context. I would ask that we turn this into something of an intellectual project for the University. We missed the opportunity a few years ago with regard to sexual harassment and gender violence.

Respondent 2:

What I hear from staff and what is written about in all the academic papers is non-traditional students, as though the University is in the right and our students are not the norm – we have the best students in Africa coming to us and in what way is the University changing to meet the students? We ignore – in our critique – some of the things that are happening. There are some projects and programmes and aspects of culture that do make people proud and that need to be affirmed otherwise they will possibly disappear. Postgrad programmes on indigenous knowledge: A lot of universities have them but at Wits they have been actively discouraged. We have some initiatives that have not been taken to scale. Team coaching on deep democracy, story-telling. We need to strengthen teaching because there are subtle elements in how lecturers engage with students – that is students’ direct experience; it relates to awareness; it could be strengthened and made more explicit.

Respondent 3:

I would also like to thank you for this initiative. Would it be possible to have a racial breakdown for postgrad students? I suspect the position in postgrad is not nearly as good. It would be useful to help our recruitment processes, particularly given the research agenda. Institutional culture: often in your writings you refer to a set of values which you take as shared, I suspect it would be quite important to get those down systematically, they would probably be shared and would bring a degree of commonality, although there might be different interpretations. Particularly the value of critique, how we engage in it, is often very different and can be interpreted very differently. Sometimes the way critique is offered makes it difficult to interpret in any way other than an attack. We need to understand how we critique others, how our critiques might be experienced. Otherwise we may become more polarized. There is a lot of work done in communities of practice that work with protocol, teaching people how to listen as much as to talk. Might be useful to find mechanisms to make the conversations productive. There are a range of other values that might be useful to set out and think how they may be interpreted differently across different constituencies.

Respondent 4:

I’m going to try and construct this space as a safe space in my mind even though it probably isn’t. The bold thing for Wits to do now is to take on a conversation about Whiteness. I want to take advantage of a moment of significant change, to suggest that Wits should convene a conversation on Whiteness that keeps White people in the conversation. There is a lack of understanding of what it might be like to be someone else, lack of solidarity, lack of compassion, lack of historical background, a sense that if this is where the conversation is going then I’ll just leave. If we can pull that off then it might be a good contribution to the national conversation. It is very difficult to stand in a forum and listen to Black students say that all Whites are racist. What Black people are saying to White people is why can’t you try to understand what it might be like. Let’s boldly take on a conversation about Whiteness.

Respondent 5:

It is a fantastic chance that we have. This whole approach to deal in SA with the aftermath of apartheid through non-racialism and colour blindness has always puzzled me. I am encouraged by this pragmatic approach. As much as we know that identities are constructed, we know that they may be very painful for us. I very much think that as much as talk about Wits as a community, we also need to acknowledge that we are not homogenous – different people with different experiences of the same space. We should way more start talking about the differences that we experience and what it means to be White in this context, very different to being White in Germany. But I find hardly anyone on this campus that I can talk to about this. White students in my class are completely at a loss – don’t want to be like their parents but have no one to talk to about it. When I started these conversations I was surprised by the outbreaks of pain. I also realized that I’m not experienced enough as a mediator to hold these conversations. Important to have conversations around the culture and power of Whiteness, especially on this campus which is White and male dominated. We should also look at the gender composition – assume we have far more male Black than female scholars. I think this is a fantastic opportunity and I really liked the public statement.

Respondent 6:

The majority of people in the hall are academics because the the majority of Whites are academics. In the support services we don’t have the same shortage of Black staff. There have been concerted efforts by all of us to increase the number of Black staff but there is a bucket with a hole and a pipeline that leads to UJ. Many don’t stay long. Many hall wardens have moved on. Why? I don’t know to what extent every person at Wits feels equally valued. It also applies to White staff. If this institution is going to make Whites feel unwanted then it is going to create resistance towards welcoming new Black staff. So it is a matter of finding a practical solution to making White and Black staff feel equally valued and welcome. We should have become accustomed now to dealing with people from all different backgrounds. Should be able to include and make them feel welcome. I have felt aggrieved because I have been prejudiced. I was told that I was not being considered for a job because I was White. That is not the way you make people feel valued.

Respondent 7:

Do we have cultural deficiencies in the way we conduct meetings? Does it carry cultural and power bias? How do we find a true South African identity in the way we conduct our business on a daily basis?

Respondent 8:

Some people didn’t come today in protest against attending a meeting constructed for Indian and White staff. Empty hall is an indictment on the people who are not here. I take it that the people who are here are those who have an interest in transformation issues. I take it that your meeting with Black and Coloured staff was much better attended and that you heard direct experiences of racism. We need to have frank discussions on what it is that we do as White people to make the space uncomfortable and inhospitable. Need to own what can be discussed and what cannot be discussed. I think the R45 million is an important step, small but necessary. Naming is a start but we need something much more critical. We don’t need to breathe a sigh of relief that we don’t have a statue – let’s put one up. Let’s do something creative to own what we mean by transformation. Something bold and decisive.

Respondent 9:

I’ve been at Wits for a year and for the most part I’m very happy to be here. Special place in country. Nevertheless I support absolutely the VC’s project to further transform because we want to be part of a community that reflects our country. For a lot of people Wits represents a space of tremendous social mobility – University is a stepping stone to a middle class life. For a lot of our students, the University is that kind of stepping stone. University needs to be a place that supports and nurtures students into moving into a different part of society. Requires the University to commit money. I can’t fill PhD positions because the students are sitting with huge debt. You can’t get subsidized food other than fried chicken from the Matrix. Don’t know how we can expect them to engage academically when they can’t buy lunch. The only way we can deal with this is if the University puts money down.

Respondent 10:

I think all these issues are resolvable ultimately but the aggressive polarization is not. In society in general, the fascist voice is rising. It is screaming from every platform. I think that the VC’s communique was excellent but a stronger value stance needs to be taken. We need to start a conversation around fascism and name it. We have the same conditions of inequality that Germany faced after the Great Depression. If fascism takes root the way it is threatening to, then we will be having an entirely different conversation in a few years’ time.

Respondent 11:

For many within the corridors, it is interpersonal acts of racism that give legitimacy to the institutional stuff that goes on. There was a reason for having this conversation separately. There is a need for this group of people to be uncomfortable with the conclusions that came out of the conversation with Coloured and African staff. We need to be confronted with some of the things that people say. Some of the conclusions that people came to need to be circulated. They may be vitriolic and polarizing but they need to be heard. Also, a provocation: what are the kinds of constraints that people in this room need to agree to if this University is going to go forward. Part of the job is convincing the people in this room about the value of transformation.

Respondent 12:

We need to change our governance structures, change the way that power gets distributed. One example is the Senate. Comprised of full professors. We know that these are racialized. In Canada, senates are representative bodies. Change our structures to be more representative.

Respondent 13:

These conversations should be made public. It’s very good to have conversations but the people who will come are those who are willing. You’re probably speaking to the converted. A practical problem that I see here is that I am often derided in my School because I believe in transformation, your publication record is not helped by transformation, there are no promotion criteria for the kind of students that we are graduating. We need some kind of evaluation for how good you are at creating a transformative environment. Should be in promotion criteria. I worked elsewhere in Africa and learned to pronounce the names of colleagues and students. Here, people are afraid of calling out names in class because they cannot pronounce them. There should be mandatory courses for transformation and language. There will be a revolution, but we have a drastic problem and we need drastic measures.

Respondent 14:

You said we must unite but not polarize. Does one not have to polarize first in order to then re-unite in a more unified way? To talk about transformation in a way that assumes it can be done in a way that is not painful is not realistic – giving up privilege is painful.

Respondent 15:

I would like to propose that the whole Wits campus be a monument. Does it reflect the beauty of the Highveld? You can’t see one sugar bush. Reclaim some of the memory that has been lost.

Respondent 16:

The Grounds Department has had a policy of replacing with indigenous for over 20 years.

VC:

If you polarize, you will start losing staff and if you lose staff, you will destroy this place. One of the reasons we took such a hit in the Medical School is because we lost staff. Half of UCT was trained at Wits. When our research reputation and rankings go down, students start voting with their feet. And then the very notion of who we are meant to be as a research intensive university is in danger. When I was at UJ, I said look for candidates at Wits because they don’t take retention seriously there. The one thing I said when I came here was that we are in the business of keeping people. But what we can’t do is allow them to have the leverage to say no to transformation. So the question is, how do we do both these things simultaneously? What we cannot do is say we want to transform this University, enrol large amounts of working class people, and give them a shoddy education. The idea of enrolment must remain hand in hand with quality.

Respondent 17:

What you are suggesting is wise and gracious and timeless. I would add interpretive charity. I think it is dangerous to assume that because White people aren’t here, they don’t care about transformation.

Close of meeting.

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