Saleem Badat writes a response to an article in our October edition titled “A Need for Racial Reform in Academia in South Africa”.

Advancing equity, creating meaningful development opportunities, and cultivating high quality academics have been key issues post-1994 with respect to the academic workforce at universities.

Racism and patriarchy profoundly shaped the social composition of academic staff. In 1994, academics at South African universities were overwhelmingly white (83%) and male (68%). The sheer inequality of representation is highlighted by the fact that, although black South Africans constituted 89% of the population, they comprised 17% of academics. The under-representation of black Africans was especially severe: making up almost 80% of the population, they constituted 10% of the academic workforce.

Since 1994, the academic workforce has become more equitable, though in 2014 the full-time permanent academic staff of 18 250 academics remained disproportionately white (50%) and male (54%) according to a 2016 report by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). Black professors made up 27.9% of a total of 4 073 associate and senior professors, and 24.8% of a total of 2 175 senior professors (Van Wyk, 2014). In 2012, women constituted 29.6% of associate and senior professors, and 24.6 of senior professors (ibid.).

The distribution of academics across universities has continued to follow the historical contours of ‘race’; in 2014, the proportions of black academic staff at universities ranged from 22% (Universities of Free State and Stellenbosch) to 94% (University of Venda). At the historically white universities, according to DHET white academic staff made up between 61% and 78% of the workforce; put differently, black South African academics continue to be strongly under-represented at the historically white universities, especially at the senior levels, making up between 5% and 23% of senior professors. The representation of women at universities varied between 34% and 50%.

Post-1994, South African universities have had to confront three challenges. The first challenge has been to reproduce and retain the next generations of academics. The large increase in student enrolments over the past twenty years and the establishment of new universities “has not been accompanied by an equivalent expansion in the number of academics,” according to a 2013 DHET report.

The second challenge has been to transform the historical social composition of the academic workforce through equity and redress measures for black and female South Africans. These two challenges are contemporaneous, as reproducing the next generation of academics without attention to equity and redress would reproduce the previous inequalities.

The third challenge has been that a necessary condition of transforming South Africa’s universities and enhancing their academic capabilities is that the next generations of academics possess the intellectual and academic capabilities related to teaching and learning, research, and community engagement.

Failures in these regards would compromise equity and redress and the deracialisation and degendering of the academic workforce, and have negative implications for much needed epistemological, curriculum, and institutional cultural transformations. There would also be major consequences for the quality of academic provision, the production of high-quality graduates and knowledge, the transformation of South African universities, and their ability to contribute to development and democracy.

The decision of the DHET to fund a next generation programme motivated by Higher Education South Africa (now Universities South Africa) is welcome, and a good example of an imaginative initiative predicated on the simultaneous pursuit of equity and development/quality. It will, however, require considerably more resources and need to be supplemented by institution-level initiatives.

Creative and bold programmes to facilitate the development of black academics at the senior levels at historically white universities are long overdue. It requires tackling conventional wisdoms that have become self-fulfilling prophecies: there are no black academics available, there are not enough black applicants, those blacks who apply are not ‘suitably’ qualified, and qualified black South Africans prefer the larger remuneration offered by the private and public sectors.

There tend to be similar wisdoms about the supposed dearth of ‘suitable’ black postgraduate students.

Yet, the recruitment of new black academics and their retention cannot be divorced in some cases from the problems of institutional racism and ‘whiteness’, and the question of institutional culture: the experience of historically white universities as discomforting and disempowering cultural environments that exact a considerable personal, psychological, and academic toll; the general assumption that black appointments, no matter how outstanding their academic records, are ‘affirmative action’ candidates, and being deemed not ‘suitable’ enough despite meeting the necessary criteria. Suitability is conflated with notions of the ‘best,’ defined in decontextualized ways, and is often a quest for those whose biographies are similar academically and culturally to be the dominant academic social group.