UCT Academics Lock Horns

The Transformation Debate

Two senior University of Cape Town academics have locked horns about a range of matters related to higher education transformation challenges, stirring interesting exchanges. The viewpoints of professors Xolela Mangcu and David Benatar were aired on the pages of The Cape Times in recent weeks. Today, the Publisher of The Journalist, Zubeida Jaffer, wades into the debate, directing a letter to Professor Benatar.

Professor Benatar

I see that you and Dr Mangcu have locked horns in The Cape Times. What an interesting time of intellectual ferment in our country. I don’t always agree with Dr Mangcu especially when he posits that UCT should have Black Studies. Black Studies in America where African-Americans constitute a minority, is appropriate. Here I agree with you. Instead, it would be more appropriate to have White Studies or European studies.

Be that as it may, we are a country that needs all our skilled people to pull us through at this point. I respect those who were my teachers in the seventies at UCT. They helped broaden my mind. But my mind was further broadened off campus when I read texts that were banned or not easily accessible to us as students. In 1980, I was charged with possession of three banned books, one of it being Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. I was a young journalist then and had to hide my books. Let’s not forget we were living then in a country under white mis-rule.

All our academics must grapple with the injustice that has been perpetrated on most of us for a long time. Unlike in Britain where students attend universities steeped in British history and philosophy that are absorbed through their skins quite naturally, our students have to struggle to connect university teaching to their lived reality and the knowledge base of their families. Students at the University of the Free State where I am based often find themselves drawn into this different world and then do not know how to fit into their families back home. Instead of academia taking them from where they are and broadening their horizons so they can take their communities with them, they are taught to stand separately from their communities and gaze down their noses at them. University is about critical thinking so students must subject all their experiences to intense criticism and hopefully gain insights that will result in progress for themselves and their country. I have no argument against this.

False Assumption

I am not sure if I can describe myself as an academic even though I am based at a university and impart knowledge about my professional life as a journalist. It has been an eye-opening experience for me. I made the false assumption that 20 years into democracy, that journalism schools or departments will be teaching about the pioneers of the profession and provide insights that were largely excluded previously. I took it for granted that all undergraduates would be familiar with Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa that celebrates its 100th year next year. It is a South African classic and I would have imagined compulsory reading for all journalists.

For more than 300 years, many of our families have been constrained and learned deep within their bones that they are less. For two-thirds of my life I had to fight just for the right to be South African as had millions of others.

As academics we have to grapple with this historical fact that most of us have not seen ourselves in our academic institutions or in our history books. We have not seen ourselves affirmed through the study of some of our greatest intellectuals, artists, musicians and scientists. We have not been exposed to the intellectual treasure of our continent. I have just returned from a conference in Egypt that gathered together academics and writers from 22 African countries in the midst of that country’s dramatic political developments. The Cairo International Conference on interaction of African Cultures – Identity in African Arts and Literature was the second round. The first was held five years ago and now organisers plan to host it every two years. With the support of the Supreme Council of Culture, Egyptian intellectual, Dr Helmi Sharawy was the driver of this initiative. He harks back to the heady days of early independence under Gamel Abdel Nasser.

For three days, I shared a space with these brilliant minds that our students are cut off from. Comfortable in an African context, jewels of poetry, song, philosophy and history were lightly dropped amongst us. I heard the Sudanese sociologist, Dr Haider Ibrahim Ali on the problem of identity constructs, the Nigerian academic, Dr Adermi Raji-Oyelade’s re-examination of the idea of the African Renaissance and Tanzania’s illustrious Professor Mwalemu F Senkoro examining contemporary youth culture. The names of giant intellectuals rang in the corridors – Sheikh Anta Diop, Ali Mazrui, Archi Mafeje, Samir Amin, Issa Shivji, Mahmood Mamdani and the great Kenyan Wangari Maathai.

The African Genuis

All that was said confirmed Dr Mangcu’s argument that some of the European, if not most, has its basis in this African context. If we read Basil Davidson’s The African Genius, it is all well documented. I would respectfully argue that this should be a primary text in UCT’s Philosophy Department. Scientist and political activist, Dr Mosibudi Mangena, our former minister of Science and Technology, has this year released his latest book, Triumphs and Heartaches. He makes a considerable effort to piece together his understanding of African history and scientific achievement. There is nothing to be proved. There is a need for UCT to broaden its understandings. Are students aware that there are medical professionals in this country studying African approaches to dealing with anxiety disorders and finding advanced understandings that will contribute eventually to existing models? Do they know about the famous beadwork artist Nesta Nala in KwazuluNatal whose work is presently helping academics develop a different way of teaching mathematics?

It is sad that our universities lag behind in knowledge accumulation when they should be leading all of us from the front. UCT definitely is advanced when it comes to European and American knowledge but what about African knowledge? What about Indian, Chinese, Russian, Cuban, Brazilian knowledge?

Our journalism students do not read the work of Gabriel Garcia Marques, one of the most active journalists and authors in South America who died last year. His speeches published this year are a remarkable collection of journalistic insights that have much meaning for the South African context.

The Journalist

At the UFS, a few of us got together last year and launched a website called The Journalist to share information that is commonly known by a few of us in the profession but definitely not taught at universities. We will build The Journalist as a knowledge bank to give history and context to many of our issues in the quest to build the self-confidence and esteem of our students and trust that with time it will soak through the skins of our students at all journalism schools.

You see, Dr Benatar, our journalism university education continues to be presented in a European context. It is Thomas Pringle, a young British man who visited our shores for six years who is presented as the lodestar not Sol Plaatje.

This is a realisation that came to me quite late in life because I too knew most about Thomas Pringle. I respect the work he did in the small Cape colonial set up to convince his peers that the authorities should not interfere with the rights of a journalist to tell the truth. I will not wipe this interesting contribution to Cape colonial history out of the history books. But please let’s place it in its context. How offended would the British be if they were to discover that their children were taught that Sol Plaatje (who spent some time in Britain) was the beacon of journalism for all British students?

Surely this would be untenable.

What an inspiration it would be if you and Dr Mangcu combine your strengths and lead us on a magical journey to bring our scientific, philosophical and artistic heritage to our halls of learning where they belong.

Zubeida Jaffer
The Journalist