NO MORE IVORY TOWERS

OPINION PIECE BY : PROFESSOR X MTOSE, VICE-CHANCELLOR & PRINCIPAL

It’s time to re imagine South Africa’s universities as true African universities LAST week Universities South Africa USAf , a membership organisation representing South Africa’s universities, held its annual conference.

The conference addressed itself to the theme “Re inventing South Africa’s Universities for the Future”. The conversation is in keeping with the organisation’s mandate of facilitating dialogue among universities, government, business, and Parliament on issues affecting universities. It could be argued that this is an inspired topic in light of the myriad challenges facing the higher education sector. The sector has been buffeted by storms of violent discontent; from Fees Must Fall campaigns dealing with student funding to calls for decolonisation, whose focus centres on curriculae and transformation issues. Imagining the future is a tempting proposition, as it allows one to abstract oneself from the challenge. It could be argued, however, that this is but a form of academic wishful thinking at best, and intellectual escapism at worst.

The university sector is littered with such futuristic escapades. Unfortunately, these have for the most part amounted to nothing. The past weighs heavily on the present, and if not dealt with timeously, the current challenges will also weigh heavily on the future. It could also be argued that the theme has been ingeniously chosen to avoid dealing with the present that still carries the vestiges of apartheid’s political imagination. It can be seen as a form of silent resistance to issues raised around transformation. It would not be difficult for black scholars, especially those steeped in the transformation struggles, to expose this attempt as an intellectual facade. They can argue that they’re being called to re invent something they were not part of inventing. It’s not hard to demonstrate that the substance and orientation of research, curricula, life, and culture of universities today still bear the hallmarks of colonial and apartheid constructs.

These constructs are the reasons why the institutions have been engulfed in flames. Regarding this, Ugandan academic Mahmood Mandani is blunt: “Both the white and black institutions were products of apartheid, though in different ways… It was the white intelligentsia that took the lead in creating apartheid enforced identities in the knowledge they produced. “Believing this was an act of intellectual creativity unrelated to the culture of privilege in which they were steeped, they ended defending an ingrained prejudice with a studied conviction. The irony is that the white intelligentsia came to be greater, more willing, prisoners of apartheid thought than their black counterpart.” Clearly, Universities South Africa could have chosen a less cowardly approach that confronts the current realities in the sector. It could draw lessons from the discourse of liberation theology, which did not postpone anything to the hereafter. It starts with a brutal honest assessment of the current state of higher education This approach starts with a courageous and brutally honest assessment of the current state of higher education. It won’t shy away from exposing the systemic privileges and disadvantages of the system. This will include identification of the existing limits that prevent our universities being what they can be. Second, there’ll be a need to interrogate and identify the public and communities that the university sector should serve. Such identification should move towards constructing and developing a system through which the university sector could positively engage with its public. This should be followed by the development of an enabling frame work through which the university as a knowledge producing institution can grow trust and ownership among its publics. It’s expected that such an engagement could usher in new conversation forms and forums between the university sector and its various publics of industry, government at all levels, the non- governmental sector,.communities in which the universities are located, students and their families To engage meaningfully with its publics, the African centred university will have to develop matching discursive formations. Put simply, these institutions will cease being ivory towers. For this to happen, they will need to develop a scientific language that matches and connect their discourse with those of their publics inside and outside the university. This is about re-imagining South African universities as African universities, not as mere universities with some indeterminate future. The rest will follow from this. This includes the universities’ populations, the dynamics, content and nature of research. The sector would be in a far better place in developing universities that first and foremost serve the communities in which they are located.