Emma Pottinger

UHURU NOW: what is to be done at our universities is a series of conversations by academics, thought-leaders and debaters, which seeks to archive contemporary dialogue on transformation and decolonisation at higher education institutions. The series aims to shift the discourse, introduce fresh ways of thinking and provide meaningful debate on issues around transformation in order to drive social change.

I imagine that, at the dawn of democracy, those who conjured up the ‘rainbow nation’ dream also envisioned transformed tertiary institutions. I am sure that as they huddled around round tables strategising about what this ‘transformation’ would entail, and how best to introduce specks of colour into previously white South African tertiary institutions, while declaring that all that was needed was an injection of black students. The ‘previously disadvantaged’ would then stand united in the pursuit of academic excellence.

The strategists who pioneered this delusion of academic solidarity possibly drew inspiration from the now iconic image of the late former president Nelson Mandela and the last apartheid ruler, F.W. de Klerk. Black and white inextricably bound as equals. How wrong they were.

I will draw from my own experiences as both a student at an institution that eagerly embraced transformation and as a former full-time member of staff. As a previously disadvantaged student, gaining entry to a tertiary institution was the chance of a lifetime. My options were limited and I was grateful for the opportunity to study, to improve myself and improve my chances of employment. However, once I entered into the university system, I realised that I was at a huge disadvantage compared to my affluent peers.

They talk about the ‘bare necessities’, which, for a middle class student, are affordable but require serious sacrifices from students from a working class background faced with a number of every day dilemmas:
If you need a room to stay in for the semester because you can’t afford transport from the township to campus on a daily basis, it will cost rent you cannot afford. If you’re fortunate to get the cash together for accommodation, there is still the nagging issue of food to contend with. Oh, and don’t forget the ridiculously overpriced prescribed text books that you simply cannot do without. That too will set you back several hundred rands, Every now and then you may need to print a page or two of extra notes sent by well-intentioned lecturers; that too will see you spending money meant for bread and milk.

If by some stroke of luck you manage to secure the pittance that is offered by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) -which you will pay back with interest that will make you tearful- good for you. You may just get that degree on time. If not, and if your relatives fail to scrounge their wages for the week or month towards your tertiary expenses, only a miracle can help you get that degree in the recommended time. After a tough time as a student, I was lucky enough to be absorbed into the academic system as an employee, however not even this journey is free from the blight of inequality.

Once employed, I realised that the trouble with transformation’, is that it places black students and academics in a precarious position. You may foolishly think it is a position of privilege. You have been elevated to ‘an equal’ with the people who once groomed you into a professional. However, you soon realise that in the eyes of your former mentors, the keys that granted you entry into academia are not your post-graduate degree or the skill-set you fought tooth and nail to acquire. Instead, they see you as someone who slid into the system because of the colour of your skin. You are an impostor, an enemy, a threat that needs to be eradicated. And so begins the ostracism inspired by the resentment that you are not there on merit, but by a transformation pass. It only gets worse with time.

The trouble with transformation is that in theory it was probably conceived as a flawless transition from exclusion and oppression to opportunity and representation. However, it does not consider that as a country we have yet to fully recover from our past.

The wounds of apartheid have not healed, and denied education on account of unpaid fees or being subjected to psychological torture as an employee of colour, serves as a cruel reminder of the past.

There is trouble with transformation. However, there is hope that the pain will eventually heal when the voices of students and academics are heard and action is taken to address past injustices. It is not enough to admit black students and hire black academics. That is the first step. The second step is to create an environment where we feel safe, welcome and essential to the running of tertiary institutions in a democratic South Africa.

UHURU Now logo courtesy of ARTicles by Sarah Rose de Villiers.