The University of Cape Town has, for the past three years, been the birthplace of student movements that have reverberated first across Africa and then around the world.
The Rhodes Must Fall protests, which forced the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Cape Town’s campus in 2015, sparked worldwide debate about the status of university monuments that are perceived to be tainted by racism or colonialism. In turn, Cape Town students’ cause of “decolonising” university curricula has been adopted by students around the globe. And after the Rhodes Must Fall campaign came the Fees Must Fall movement, which triggered violent protests across South African campuses and led ultimately to the abolition of tuition fees for most undergraduates in the country.
Entering this debate is a new vice-chancellor at Cape Town who, for many observers, embodies the transformation that they hope to see across African higher education. Mamokgethi Phakeng, who will succeed Max Price next month, came from a poor background and, in 2002, became the first black South African woman to obtain a PhD in mathematics education. She is currently Cape Town’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation.
Professor Phakeng told Times Higher Education that her background would allow her to connect with the whole population of the university – “from the cleaners to the students to academics to management”.
But she is not expecting an easy ride. Even before she had applied for the top job, two colleagues sent emails to a list of respected academics calling for her qualifications to be investigated.
“I thought it was a message that I should not do this,” Professor Phakeng said. “I interpreted it as a way to tell me that I was not wanted at the university.”
However, other colleagues were insistent that she apply, arguing that she was the best person for the university. “They said, ‘You might not need this, but we do,’” Professor Phakeng said. “I realised it was something that I had to do for the university, the country and the continent.”
Although she welcomed South Africa’s free tuition policy, Professor Phakeng noted that its cost meant that universities would probably “see the pinch elsewhere”.
Nor can the abolition of fees be a panacea in a country that remains deeply unequal and scarred by the legacy of apartheid. Professor Phakeng said that it would be important to listen to students’ concerns.
“Universities are places of activism, and university leadership should never fool itself that they are going to be churches,” she said. But, although the “grievances of students are key to attend to, in doing that we should never compromise what students are here for” – a quality education.
Professor Phakeng said that violent protests that leave students with criminal records would do nothing to end divisions in South Africa.
“There will always be battles, because there is a war,” she said. “For me, the war is breaking the cycle of poverty…but if you focus only on the battle then you lose the war.”
She added: “There are powerful ways to make [university management] extremely uncomfortable without being violent or breaking the law.”
Students will need to be patient. Diversifying the curriculum and ending the dominance of a Eurocentric, predominantly white-focused academic canon will be a “long journey”, Professor Phakeng said.
With Cape Town sitting comfortably as Africa’s highest-ranked university, Professor Phakeng acknowledged that some academics questioned whether change was necessary. But she argued that it was vital to the institution’s future prosperity.
“Something has to change because of where we are at, what is happening in this country, and how it makes people feel. It is important to change at this time so we can continue doing what it is that we want to do: excellent research and teaching and learning.” She added: “I want all students to feel that UCT is a place for them.”
Professor Phakeng also wants academics to feel that Cape Town is a place for them. Morale among researchers is low, she said, especially since the National Research Foundation cut the value of its grants programme for South Africa’s top researchers by up to 90 per cent in 2017.
The focus on student protests had perhaps led academics to feel that they had been sidelined, Professor Phakeng said. But, she highlighted, “our reputation comes from them, we attract collaborators, funders, because of the quality of our academics”.
“I want us to go back to putting academics at the centre of what we do,” she said.
Yet that academic voice should not be dominated by men, said Professor Phakeng, who emphasised that she wanted Cape Town to “be a place for female and LGBTI researchers to come” and that she hoped “to change gender stereotypes of university leadership”.
“People should come to UCT to see how things are done,” she said. “Not just because of our history, but because of how we have embraced the challenges of the future.”