The Baxter Theatre is all genteel lighting and arty facebrick. The stage overflows with eminent academics. Not the kind of place where you expect accounts of death threats and terrorism.

But the debate around transformation in higher education gets low down and dirty.

Rector and Vice Chancellor at the University of the Free State, Professor Jonathan Jansen, gets death threats almost every week. He says he is vilified constantly by a small section of the Afrikaans media. Jansen woke up one morning to find two dozen ‘for sale’ signs outside his house. He believes it was placed by people from his university upset with his transformation agenda. Recently he was warned about a terrorist tactic… people were talking about poisoning him.

A great deal of public debate has centred around transformation at South Africa’s tertiary institutions. At the University of Cape Town (UCT) the focus has been on the proposed admissions policy, employment equity and succession planning – issues that speak directly to the higher education transformation agenda.

In the YouTube video above, The Journalist has captured the highlights from a recent panel discussion led by senior representatives from leading academic institutions. The discussion was hosted by UCT at the Baxter Theatre and the Moderator was Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, Dean of UCT’s Faculty of Humanities. The panelists were Professor Jansen; Dr Max Price, Vice Chancellor of UCT and Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice Principal Research and Innovation, University of South Africa (UNISA).

Professor Sakhela said the event was triggered by the internationally renowned academic, author and analyst Dr Xolela Mangcu’s public criticism of UCT.

Not A Single Black Female Prof

“He had one very sharp statistic… That UCT does not have a single, black female full professor. But the problem with this debate is that most of it is being conducted in the pages of national newspapers. Debates of that kind are never sustained… you lose some of the strengths in the discussion,” said Professor Sakhela.

Speaker’s Highlights

Transformation is not a straight line. It is difficult, it is messy, it is costly and it is sometimes life threatening. Just two days ago my colleagues came to warn me of a discussion about ‘Hoe kan ons die Rektor vergiftig’ (How can we poison the Rector).

The longer universities take to deeply transform themselves the more vulnerable we become to state interference in this important project.
– Professor Jonathan Jansen, UFS

The debate as it has been in the newspapers has been about numbers… I’m not sure if numbers tell us everything and I think if we gonna talk about numbers then we should also critique what numbers are we looking at. That’s not to say numbers are not important.

Experiences of the oppressed were different. Experiences of a black South Africa woman or man, Indian or coloured or white women are different. I want a system which says the government is serious about transformation and they’re doing something about it. And so they’re going to reward universities that are doing it not in terms of how many people they are promoting but how the universities improve on the number of black South African academics producing output.
– Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, UNISA

We’ve renamed lots of buildings because we realise that the architecture of the place and the history says to people from different cultures and different language groups that maybe they don’t belong here… In the last three or four years we have made significant effort to shape the symbolism of the University
– Dr Max Price, UCT

The Journalist YouTube video Death Threats & Transformation produced by Ryan Lee Seddon.