Will sleeping watchdogs wake to the battle-cry?

April 12, 2001

South Africa's universities must rethink traditional roles as the country marches to freedom, says David Jobbins.

Among its many roles in a rapidly changing world, the university acts as a check on authority, a watchdog ready to bark at excesses, errors and miscalculation by governments. All too often, public policies are unleashed without an appreciation of their implications. Quick fixes for social and economic problems are rarely that. Governments then find themselves trying to pick up the pieces after a well-meant but inappropriate intervention.

In the developing world, universities' watchdog role is essential as nations struggle to compete in a global economy with the technological cards heavily stacked against them. When South Africa was restored to democracy in 1994, its universities, effectively isolated for four decades, were well-placed pinnacles from which to advise, monitor and eventually to warn the new government as it pressed ahead with transformation.

Since then, the process has been dogged by a weak currency and a lack of confidence from the multinationals. Tax revenues have evaporated in continued unemployment, and the patience of those who saw Nelson Mandela's release as the first step to relative prosperity is being tried. Land reform, the tinderbox in Zimbabwe, has become enmeshed in its bureaucracy and - despite a massive building programme - the shanties still scar the hillsides around the cities and the schools are in crisis. University communities, mostly stemming from the white liberal tradition that refused to come to terms with apartheid while enjoying many of its benefits, have striven to maintain their role as institutions of advanced learning and pure research. But they have done so against a background of shifting national priorities and the legacy of apartheid.

Something more is needed - an engagement with the social and economic scars that threaten to stop the march to freedom.

President Thabo Mbeki has strong views on research committed only to ensuring its own protection and pursuit. He has articulated the need for those who enjoy such academic freedom to engage with the economic, social and cultural disparities that derive from the apartheid legacy of discrimination. "I believe, however, that intellectual and academic freedom can only find its full expression if it places itself within the larger context of the pursuit of the greatest good for the greatest number of people."

So the universities, big spenders of government money, were being watched. But who is watching the watchers?

After the African National Congress secured its two-thirds majority in the 1999 elections, the marginalised opposition parties' ability to monitor the executive through parliament was curtailed. South African news media are similarly unable to act as a check on the government.

In this vacuum, the universities should play a pivotal role in identifying flaws in public policy, even when those policies have achieved almost totemistic significance in the transformation process, such as the late Joe Slovo's land reforms.

But can they safely criticise policy implementation without appearing to compromise their commitment to the overall process? Can they take the risk when they are dependent on the state for much of their funding? While individual academics can and do speak out, universities are not yet perceived as having accepted that they have a role beyond teaching and research.

That perception is flawed - there are many cases in which universities have given space and resources for academics to add an advocacy function to their role. At Rhodes University, a unit monitors reports of corruption in the public services, while other academics are guiding empowering community projects from oral history through to sustainable fisheries and traditional crafts.

Such interventions are necessarily at micro level. A popular perception is of (largely) white academics remaining aloof from the people they aim to help while exploiting the community for their own ends. Wrongly perceived, but an indication of the magnitude of the task of convincing South Africa's hard-pressed peoples that universities can practically improve their lot. With the research tradition lodged in the historically advantaged universities, there is a shortage of black researchers. As Stone Sizane, education minister in the Eastern Cape, said: "There is a need for the black perspective to go into our research culture, so that the hegemony held by western standards and systems of belief can be challenged on academic grounds rather than on emotion."

There is a responsibility on the universities to encourage engagement by their academics in immediate problems, even if this means a temporary dilution of their teaching and pure research functions.

David Jobbins is foreign editor of The THES . He was awarded a CASE media fellowship to examine the process of transition to democracy in South Africa.

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