It is exactly two decades since the enactment of the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 and certainly more than 22 years of constitutional democracy, but the vast majority of black academics still make up a small percentage of academic staff in higher education and academic research institutions.

The 2017 statistics show that 83 percent of university professors are white and only 17 percent are black, with the inclusion of coloureds. To make matters worse, black professors largely occupy the lower ranks of strategic academic posts in the higher education institutions.

In a quest to address this absurd phenomenon, the former Minister of Higher Education established a ministerial task team in 2017 to investigate the challenges which hamper the development and active involvement of black academics in a broader spectrum of academic sector in South Africa. To date, it is still not promising that the system will eventually be proportionally inclusive of black academics any when soon.

Disentangling the reality of racial polarisation in South African academia

There are extensive debates and a substantial existing body of literature which views the lack of general academic transformation as a major crisis in most African countries.

Challenges include racial inequality, the underrepresentation of black academics and their constant marginalisation in academic policy making processes. There is no doubt that the current academic hierarchy accrues more preference to white academics at the expense of black academics and this is usually done through gatekeeping.

In this context, the ‘gatekeeping’ includes the reluctance to tenure black academics and confining them to lecturing and administrative activities instead of fostering their research production.

These kinds of practices, which are a continuum of the past trends, are aimed at ensuring that inequalities remain a norm and that academic development and opportunities for black professors are massively curtailed.

Dealing with the exculpatory justification for side-lining black academics

The anti-black system will always be challenged and juxtaposed with a ‘tired’ and less-convincing forms of justifications for no genuine reasons other than to be used as a pretext to keep blacks at the peripheries. Now, even in the context and subject of this article, there are some exculpatory excuses that are always advanced to justify the exclusion of black academics from the entire research industry. The most renowned excuse is that there are just no competent and qualified black academics to be appointed to the top academic ranks in higher educational and research institutions. This is just a myth and misrepresentation of the truth because there are statistical records which evince that universities across South Africa have been conferring many black people with doctoral degrees (than whites) and these records are available in the higher education management information systems and have been there since 1994. Unawareness of this information just demonstrates the dark cloud of ignorance that the current ‘critical thinkers’ are covered with.

In addition, with large numbers of black doctoral degree graduates, it is noteworthy that there has been little or no attempt by the higher education sector to increase their recruitment base and align their appointment policies with the transformative call to acknowledge and observe the interests of the previously disadvantaged groups. It is even worse with the current higher education department leadership, which has no properly and co-ordinated plan as to how this challenge can be addressed. As a result, we see more black PhD graduates venturing in the disciplines that are too remote and vastly unrelated to their doctoral qualifications.

In contemplating the solutions to these challenges, this article recommends the following:

The adoption of a laissez-faire approach to appointment policy

The laissez-faire approach to academic appointments would require that academic discourse be left to unfold on its own time and fashion, without undue interference tempering with the process of reform. In this sense, there will be no issues of gatekeeping as the appointments of academic staff will be based solely on the merits and not ulterior motives, as appears to be the case in recent times.

Africanising the academic sector

One of the reasons that could potentially contribute towards black underrepresentation in the academic sector includes the colonised approach and set-up in academia. Africanising the academia, among others, would require that there be a consistent and equal access to academic resources and this would mean that the so-called ‘blind peer review’ process must indeed be ‘blind’ because as it stands, it appears to be able to feel blackness in the contributions, often followed by systematic rejection.

For example, it would often stretch out to months for a black academic’s contribution to be accepted for a publication by a journal and this delay is merely to frustrate a black academic to reach a point of giving up on the said publication. Another reason appears to be that the black academics are seen as failing to internalise and adapt easily to white mental habits and this expectation also helps this writer to understand why so few black academics are not publishing. The system works in such a way that the involvement of black academics in knowledge production should always be at minimal scale as possible, if not a rarity.

Lastly, black scholars continue to be scarce among the strategic sector structures in academia. Moreover, they are compelled by these unfortunate circumstances to exist within a larger pattern of systematic discrimination and exclusion. Alternatively put, the academic system reflects white supremacy which functions within and under the ‘balaclava’ system of institutional racism.