Wits University Management Statement On Transformation: A Contribution to the Debate

“Improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.”
- Preamble to the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996.

  • This Statement originating as it does from the Vice Chancellor and Principal of Wits University is a very important effort at crystallising the key issues in the Transformation Debate that has gripped South African universities. It is a fact that the “debate” may lose sight of some key elements to the extent that it raises much emotion, is conducted in an atmosphere of distrust with the resultant danger of non-communication, or the protagonists talking past each other.
  • The Statement is located within the context of Wits, and in the higher education environment of South Africa, but it is not unmindful of the universal character of higher education, especially research. With a view to contributing to the “debate” I set out some thoughts on the theoretical issues, as well as the strategic issues this matter raises for the university.
  • As a starting point, the Dictionary meaning of the word “transformation” is far-reaching. It suggests such change in form, appearance or nature that, in my interpretation, that the substance would not longer be recognizable from its original. If that is so, what is it about the university that must change so fundamentally that the past would not be recognizable in the new form or nature.  For a moment one has in mind a caterpillar that can transform into a beautiful butterfly.
  • It is my submission that organisations, institutions and society do not transform in that manner. This is what John Rex calls the biological model of change, that is as influenced by the changing environment, actors and players, histories and the emerging interpretations of that history, class and power relations and the balance of forces that contribute to the naming of things. Ultimately we need to understand how those competing forces shape the final product. In other words, change just does not happen organically just because the system is responsive to its environment as a mechanism for its sustainability. It happens also because new knowledge, understandings have become more prominent and its business can best be achieved by adopting new models of business (Peter Worsley: 1979; 598).
  • It may seem trite, but it is necessary to point out that the South Africa of today is a vast, even if patchy, improvement on the situation under apartheid. One must recognize that the Constitution that governs the totality of life in South Africa provides space and freedom to think and to act in pursuit of the goals of development and societal advancement. This context also shapes our understanding of the university today. However, there is debate at the moment whether after 21 years of democratic and constitutional rule, and after 21 years of rule under the same majority party, the country has not become restive, uncertain about the future, suspicious of each others intentions, divided and fractious. Stellenbosch theologian has attributed this phenomenon to post-modernism having taken grip of the thinking and action in society at large.  In an essay on Theology at the University, she observes that postmodern thinking, for example, … leads to a breakdown of the hegemony of truth claims. Instead of celebrating the richness of plurality and complementarity, of sharing one another’s identities and stories of joy and pain (which I believe is what postmodern thinking is about), the postmodern attitude for many becomes synonymous with a certain disintegration, with a loss of orientation and cohesion, the loss of a collective moral identity, memory and destination, and consequently, the loss of a corresponding (corporate) ethos of dignity and respect for life, of responsibility and involvement, with a general attitude of “who cares?”. For many this means a loss of trust in all forms of leadership …  Due to such detached and disinterested attitudes, extreme postmodernist thinking necessarily fails to cultivate a sustainable agenda for transformation… It is not very hard to recognize this condition in the hallowed portals of the academe in our day. A great deal of course, has been caused by a prevailing sense of disillusionment about the status quo.
  • One has observed that to a large extent much of this “debate” is conducted in an atmosphere of intense anger and seeming irrationality. Now that freedom of expression has become the norm and the expression of ideas encouraged it is difficult for many in university management to know how to handle some of this.  However perplexing Chinua Achebe gives us the answer: “Strong language is in the very nature of the dialogue between dispossession and its rebuttal. The two sides never see the world in the same light” (2000; 77). Granted, this was said in the context of the interactions between the colonials and the native Igbo people in Nigeria. But to some today the same accusations may well be made against us – that we live in different worlds and our frames of reference are irreconcilable. The changing face of the university leadership, and the advocacy for a representative professoriate are predicated on a need to bridge that gap.
  • Out of this I come out with two variations of thought. One, is that there needs to be understood the essential purpose of the ‘thing’ if it is to be preserved from its being in the original form to its changed nature or substance. Two, there ought to be an agreed statement on the essential purpose.  In other words, what is essential in the sense of being worth preserving, and what is not. These questions may not be easy to resolve unless it is accepted that there is a wealth of meaning and history to the idea of the university, without which it ceases to lay claim to the name, university. In other words, these matters may no longer be taken for granted. They must be interrogated.
  • Equally important is that we recognize the framework around which the university, purpose and function are set in public policy in South Africa. The university must advance the ideals of the Constitution, 1996, the Higher Education Act, 1997 and various subsidiary  laws of our country.
  • In addition, the university seeks to respond to human and societal challenges in the advancement of knowledge. According to that it sets its vision and mission, and sets strategic priorities with those on mind. Accordingly, the aspirations of the university to proudly take its place among the galaxy of higher education institutions at home and abroad, is a legitimate objective.
  • This, then, means that we should not assume that the university is established only to advance or protect any sectarian or narrow interests, whether they are religious, or cultural, or linguistic, or political. Rather the university provides a forum where all ideas are challenged and tested against other competing ideas. Invariably, solutions to some of humanity’s most intractable problems are not necessarily available for the picking, but that the process can be long, frustrating and what may be solutions today, might turn out to be nothing like that looked at from other points of view. The university must seek to penetrate all barriers in pursuit of knowledge and interrogate all claims to knowledge, as Isaiah berlin puts it, in another context, “assumptions must be questioned, presuppositions must be challenged – sufficiently, at any rate, to keep society moving” (Magee: 1978; 17). In truth, in the academic enterprise there are no finite answers or solutions. Wits must never be reduced to a race-bound or a parochial institution concerned only with the preoccupations of the present or of a dominant group of the moment. It must dare to become an internationally-conscious university, and yet conscious of its responsibilities to its environment in South Africa and Africa.
  • One is not surprised that the Vice Chancellor has observed that in large measure many of the challenges experienced by some groups in the institution were not aware or and have not utilized the available resources to ensure redress. At one level this could be through sheer ignorance, but it could be more pertinently be that the systems for addressing the concerns, disappointments and frustrations and pain that staff and students might experienced, are not amenable to usability, or the officials who execute the tasks might not be interested in making sure that problems are resolved at the point where they occur, and escalated to the next level until resolved. Internal redress often suffers from bureaucratic asphyxiation.
  • One assumes that none of this is contentious in itself. It allows for an epistemological check against some agreed principles.

Access and Success:

  • The Vice Chancellor has demonstrated the various ways in which access at the university has generally improved, and where units within the university need to check against a slide to virtual dominance by one group or another. He has pointed out access numbers have improved a great deal. However, the university does continue to experience matters that concern needy students in relation to accommodation, meals and transport. There are some measures that have been put in place, but it is worth noting that this is not a matter that the university can shoulder on its own.
  • It remains a commitment of the university to create an academic environment that is conducive to personal and intellectual growth of the students leading to their success in their studies. The university is already engaged in extensive mechanisms to create systems for teaching and learning, as well as research for post-graduate students.
  • It is not clear in this Statement, however, what strategies, if any, have been adopted by the university in order to change the climate of learning and teaching such that it could be more affirming of cultural diversity and take account of the differing pathways to learning various groups, African – rural or urban or non-South African, women etc. It is now accepted that pedagogical tools must respond to the learning environment of the recipients.  The recent report by the CHE Task Team on developing an extended curriculum was confronted by the woeful and retrogressive methods of teaching and learning in our universities. Wits is not immune to this. It may be useful to have some sense of how Wits is reorganizing its Teaching and Learning Framework to take account of this.

Towards Building a Professional Academic Cohort:

  • On this the Vice Chancellor has firmly nailed his colours to the mast. The proposals set out here should make a difference. They deserve support. I particularly appreciate the monitoring mechanisms set in place. This should produce the desired results.
  • As I understand it this proposal also affects the ways in which the university will build on recruiting staff and students who will advance towards academic and scholarly careers. What may be missing, is that the university (each School or Faculty) should establish a project to support younger lecturers and postgraduate students from the designated groups, and monitor their progress as is suggested. My only addition is to say that part of this responsibility lies upon professors to recognize that the reproduction and renewal of academics and scholars is a function that begins with observation, discernment and encouragement at the earliest possible stages of an undergraduate student. It means taking an interest in gifted and conscientious students and earmark them for advanced studies. This could easily be attached to any performance assessment of any professor, in the same way as one does with their teaching, academic output and academic citizenship.

Curriculum Reform:

  • One has to dispel the notion that the reform of the curriculum is an easy picking. Nothing could be further from the truth, and indeed, in my view it should not be so. Curriculum development is a laborious process that must be time-consuming. It also means that any curriculum proposals must be benchmarked against best-practice, and must be tested at various levels and must satisfy standards approved by NEQC. Curriculum development therefore must be designed in a manner that gives effect to the Mission of the university, in terms of standards also set by the professional bodies in some instances. It does not mean it cannot be done but that it is necessary to say that curriculum must be handled with care.
  • The critical step, though, in any curriculum development is the Senate and the professoriate. Students are always a key constituency, but in reality students come and go with the changing fashions, and curriculum must be always fresh and renewed. It is for that reason that great care must be taken in the constitution of Senate. Surely, it can no longer be the sole preserve of the full professoriate. The reform envisaged here is unlikely to be possible in the face of an unreformed Senate. The academic governance of the institution is a responsibility of the wider academic community.
  • It is necessary to sound a word of caution about being essentialist in a matter like Curriculum. The point of curriculum reform is to make sure that curriculum speaks to the experience of the people, staff and students, likely to be attracted to the university, and the communities where they come from or where they are likely to serve. It also means that all knowledge is of relevance, and what is sought is to establish a fulcrum from where all ‘other’ knowledge is to be leveraged. For many that fulcrum is African culture and systems of knowledge, or the African experience, whatever meaning one attaches to that. For example, Kwame Anthony Appiah, in his book In My Father’s House: On the Philosophy of Culture (the subtitle may not be very accurate) interrogates what he considers may a static view of Africa and culture. Whereas in reality Africa of today has emerged from years of living with, contesting, suffering and triumphing from a host of influences and undergoing changes in the process such that the Africa today may be unrecognizable from the Africa of 100 years ago, even though it may continue to go by the name Africa. Catherine Odora Hopers and Howard Richards in their book, Rethinking Thinking refer to this urge to provide intellectual spaces for forms of knowledge that have been marginalized, and which must be brought back to the centre of the knowledge enterprise if the ingredients for the knowledge factory are to be fully available. For them this is “the subaltern and heterogeneous forms of knowledge” They go on to say that “by their stirring presence, they become revolutionary heuristics in a post-colonial transformation agenda” (2012:9).
  • One surely must never suggest that the best proponents of this radical science are black or women, or Africans vs others. It is worth noting that the founder of what turned out to be a radical school of theology in South Africa was a white scholar from Rhodes University in 1968. Some of the most creative feminist thinkers have been known to be non-women. Rather than seeking exclusivity therefore the university must seek to become more representative. One accepts that this “representativeness” is vital in drawing from diverse experiences and forms of knowledge and understanding. It is also important for students to identify with and to model themselves with those who in some way share their life experiences and world-view.

Institutional Culture

  • This is a matter for the entire university community. It speaks to the needy for both honesty and insight into what the university actually represents rather what we believe it to be or wish that it were. To do so meaningfully one has to understand history and context, as well as the fact that institutions function in a mode of both continuity and discontinuity with and from the past. In other words, every institution has a story to tell, and that story becomes the substance of what identity and self-understanding has been accumulated over time. The tools of understanding and dissecting that accumulation of cultures and histories must be at hand. Besides, institutions are never just about the past, they also have a present and a future. Both that present and future sit, however, uncomfortably on the shoulders of that past, to make or remake, or to adjust or to change. Each generation does that for itself and out of its own understanding at the time. Future generations will do likewise. The truth though is that we can never change history; we can interpret it. We can, I suppose, leave it to Marx and Engels, to determine whose duty it is to change it rather than to analyse it.
  • One supposes that the principles outlined above also manifest an institutional culture that could grow and nurture the kind of institutions that is consistent both with the Constitutional values of this country, as well as the Mission and Values that the institution has set for itself. The truth remains that people create the culture of an institution. It is hardly the walls and buildings, artifacts. All these reflect, if you like, the mind, culture and orientation of those who live in the place. The place is the people.
  • I am with the VC in saying that surely it is important that principles be agreed in matters like naming and shaping of public and learning spaces. The problem with reliance on naming after heroes is precisely that today’s heroes may be tomorrow’s villains. South Africa could be more creative about naming, not just naming after struggle heroes, but also after the accomplished alumni, academic, scholarly achievements as well as in sport, the arts, or literature, historical events, natural phenomena – the creative possibilities are endless.
  • What I would counsel is that in whatever we decide every effort be made to be as inclusive as possible in the application of the set criteria.
  • One assumes that the university is continuously exercised about promoting and encouraging common social interaction, social spaces and activity among staff and students of all races, genders and colours, in residences, in the lecture room and in the sports field.
  • It might be advisable and creative of a survey is conducted among staff and students about how best the Wits experience can be captured and represented in art, public spaces, gardens and horticulture, theatre and drama.


  • These are merely rambling thoughts in support of the VC’s Statement. What I thought I was doing was adding flesh to some of the tricky questions that one ought not to take for granted.
  • The major responsibility, of course, is how Council can support the process, ensure that it is adequately staffed and funded, as well as to ensure that the strategic perspectives remain in view and are monitored This suggests to me that this should be a standing item on Council Agenda for three years. Following which there ought to be a thorough review of the programme and impact.

By Professor Barney Pityana, human rights activist and former Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UNISA

In response to: Opening the conversation: Accelerating transformation for an inclusive and competitive Wits

Tagged on: