Can South African Universities Meet Demands for Change?

Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, discusses how he plans to recruit more black academics without resorting to a freeze on the hiring of white academics.

September 10, 2015

More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, the pressure for South Africa’s universities to shed their old identities and to embrace transformation is greater than ever.

Despite huge expansion and diversification of undergraduate recruitment, black students remain in the minority at some institutions, while black academics are outnumbered two to one across the sector as a whole, with many reporting feeling alienated by inequality and discrimination.

This, unsurprisingly, has led to calls for radical action: for example, moratoriums on the hiring of white academics, or renaming all buildings commemorating apartheid-era figures after heroes of the fight against segregation.

There are few more vocal advocates of change than Adam Habib, vice chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand. Speaking to Times Higher Education in Johannesburg, he said that transformation was “imperiled” and that universities needed to “move quickly” to address the concerns of students and academics.

But Habib also said that the debate about the future of South African universities needed to be more “thoughtful” than it is at the moment, avoiding the “fracturing” of communities.

“The [South African] constitution’s objective is, can you build a cosmopolitan nation and at the same time address the historical disparities of the past,” said Habib. “It doesn’t say do one or the other; it says you do both.”

Perhaps Habib can afford to take a nuanced approach. His campus does not have buildings named after the likes of British colonialist Cecil Rhodes (although it does have one commemorating Afrikaner statesman Jan Smuts), and Witwatersrand has made significant progress in reshaping its student body. About three-quarters of its students are black, and a quarter are white, which roughly reflects the population of the Gauteng province in which it is located.

At other institutions, black students remain in the minority. Stellenbosch University, the subject of a recent film, Luister, alleging racism against black students, is one.

Such enduring disparity was “setting up your kids for a failure. That’s not what a cosmopolitan global university in the 21st century should look like,” Habib said.

Recruitment Pressures

When it comes to the makeup of its staff, however, Witwatersrand still has a long way to go. Just over 60 percent of its permanent academics are white.

Habib faces competing pressures. There is a “pervasive attitude” in historically white universities, he said, that recruitment should be “color-blind,” and that there should be no special treatment for black academics. But he argued that such an approach fails to recognize that the past “continues to live with us,” particularly when too few black students are taking master’s and Ph.D. qualifications. “There has to be some grappling with that past,” Habib said.

At the same time, he said that a moratorium on recruitment of white academics would “kill” some disciplines when there are simply not enough black Ph.D. graduates and that, if Witwatersrand wants to be a world-class university, it has to be cosmopolitan.

“You cannot build a 21st-century university by simply addressing demographics,” he said.

The approach at Witwatersrand has been twofold. The university has set up a 35 million rand ($2.6 million) fund to recruit about 30 black academics. Meanwhile, another 10 million rand ($730,000) will be spent on mentoring and supporting serving black academics, in the hope of advancing them toward the professoriate in coming years.

Research excellence should still be pursued while the professoriate is transformed, Habib said.

“If you want to be thoughtful about transformation, you need to understand what trade-offs we are prepared to make, for what reason and why,” Habib said. “We need an intelligent conversation, rather than a rhetorical conversation.”

Changing the university curriculum to reflect the changing undergraduate body is another priority, but global competitiveness and local responsiveness must be balanced, Habib said.

He also takes a middle way when it comes to institutional naming, which has been at the forefront of the transformation debate since the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the University of Cape Town.

He agreed that campuses should commemorate great black South Africans such as Nelson Mandela, a Witwatersrand alumnus. He highlighted, however, that naming buildings after people was, in itself, a quintessentially Western tradition, and that simply saying “we are now replacing your heroes with our heroes” was not “healing."

A truly “indigenous” approach, and a more conciliatory one, would be to name buildings after evocative descriptions (such as “the place where elephants come to drink”), Habib said.

These sorts of conversations are being had at universities throughout South Africa, and Habib said that he hopes Witwatersrand can take a lead.

“Here is what we are doing,” Habib said. “Try and match us.”

Back to Top