Models and mentors

February 24, 1995

Makaziwe Mandela and Malegapuru Makgoba on campus buzz-words. Two buzz-words are causing a stir in academic circles in the new South Africa. They are "affirmative action" and "transformation".

The reason for much of the anxiety is that the academic world and thinking of South Africa - and even Africa at large - has for so long been dominated by white men.

A glance at South Af-rica's tertiary institutions shows that half of all university students and seven out of ten lecturers are white. The under-representation of blacks in academic positions in universities is extremely serious, especially in a new democratic and non-racial South Africa in which blacks are by far the majority.

Appropriate transformation structures and affirmative-action policies are the only way this skewed legacy will be corrected. The transformation process deals with the structures, mechanisms and processes of governance of tertiary institutions. It is a process and not a single event.

Affirmative-action policies will provide the major mechanism for change. After all the struggle for basic democratic rights was driven solely by equity. The notion that white, male academics are an "endangered species" is false propaganda used to perpetuate the present system.

Creating an environment that will embrace diversity is a key challenge. A diverse environment will be expressed not only by making the student body, academic staff and administrators representative, but also through a cultural revolution in which the dominant eurocentrism is replaced.

University culture neither reflects the country's rich and diverse heritage nor teaches most graduates to work and compete effectively in a diverse world.

But the lack of black and women academics to spread around the system and spearhead change is a stumbling block. The University of the Wi****ersrand, for example, is a leading and progressive institution, but out of a total of 1,196 academic staff, 723 are men, 473 are women and about 84 are black.

In the whole country whites comprise 90.25 per cent of academic staff and blacks 5.88 per cent, while coloureds and Indians make up 1.22 per cent and 2.68 per cent respectively. The "historically black universities" are characterised by severe shortages, poorly qualified staff and lack of resources.

Under apartheid, black schools received less funding than white schools and black children an inferior education. Black univer-sities received proportionally lower allotments of government resources than white institutions.

Some universities have begun to take steps to reflect racial and gender diversity. This is a frustratingly slow and difficult process, resulting in only a small proportion of permanent appointments. The fragile handful of black and women academics creates its own array of tensions and inequities, and reinforces their marginal-isation.

Once black and women academic staff have been employed, what roles can they perform in a changing tertiary education? We believe academics can and do play major roles in students' academic outcomes and career aspirations.

They can and do provide role models and mentors for black and women students who are disadvantaged by past educational deficits and are offered little help or hope of success in a "sink or swim" environment which is often insensitive, racist and elitist. Black and women academics are an important source of positive reinforcement for black students in any tertiary institution. They also provide tangible examples of their capabilities to white male students, many of whom have not encountered a black person or woman of authority.

Black and women academics bring perspectives based on their experiences and backgrounds. Their presence discredits the idea that scholarship and academic excellence are the sole province of white male academics.

Exposure to academics whose diversity reflects South African society frees students to grapple with different ideals and prepares them for life in the real world not only their society but also the international community.

Throughout the developing world, values in society are determined mostly by men but enforced on a day-to-day basis by women. In South Africa, the values of society are not only dominated by men but are also foreign to most Africans. Through the years of colonisation and apartheid, the education system tried hard to enforce European values. Thus most of our institutions teach syllabuses designed for Europe and the west because that is where standards are determined, and it is those standards against which we judge ourselves.

The critical role of blacks and women is to change this value system into a more balanced one.

Most Africans in this part of the world have European names because they are easier for whites to deal with. It has never dawned on whites to adopt African names to make it easier for them. Most Africans can speak and write a white or European language but the converse is not true. Most African students are taught to adopt European values but not the other way round.

These are simple issues that need to change. The few black and white women academics in positions of influence need to articulate these issues clearly and confidently, especially now that they are supported by a constitution and government of national unity.

Decolonisation in most African countries has mostly been followed by economic collapse, and the collapse of tertiary education. Africanisation of institutions is a laudable course of action, but it must always be borne in mind that today's world is interlinked and interdependent.

Any policy followed strictly to the letter will produce a skewed society. Apartheid is a classic example. What is needed is balance. The extremes of resistance to change versus the Africanisation of institutions is balanced by progressive and positive policies of affirmative action and transformation that retains the integrity of the old while advancing the new. This cannot be unilaterally advanced by the present incumbents. Consultation and openness is needed to achieve broad approval. Both the old guard and the new order are looking for signs of positive leadership from black and women academics appointed to top jobs. The pressure from all sides is enormous. But only by increasing the number of blacks and women in senior positions will the future be best served.

Makaziwe Mandela is affirmative action/equal opportunities adviser and Malegapuru Makgoba is deputy vice chancellor at the University of the Wi****ersrand.

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