OPINIONISTA

Omphemetse S Sibanda: What happens when rationality starts to decay: Not quite a rejoinder to Belinda Bozzoli

The article that appeared on Daily Maverick of 13 November 2018 titled What happens when the universities start to decay: The case of Unisa is a very interesting read. Before going deeper into the matter let me start with a disclaimer. I am not writing this on behalf of Unisa. I am writing in my personal capacity as a young academic with serious objections to some of the claims and assertions made by Professor Belinda Bozzoli in her article.

Professor Bozzoli observed, and correctly so, that Unisa “is a unique and marvellous creation, the biggest university in the country, training countless numbers of students over the years through correspondence (and more recently, digitally) in every kind of degree imaginable”.

It has provided poor students, rural students, working students, homebound students, older students and students attending some of our private colleges a way into the world of post-school education and has done so for decades.

It is truly a national treasure and news that it is experiencing serious tensions among its staff is most unwelcome to all who care about universities in South Africa.”

The article is penned by the Democratic Alliance shadow minister for higher education and training, Belinda Bozzoli, who is also an A-rated researcher, a professor of sociology and listed as a research associate at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research. Such a candid observation must be applauded from one of the country’s eminent educationists and social scientists.

It reminded us that Unisa is one of the institutions at the forefront of social justice and discharging one of the national imperatives of educating individuals who would not have achieved basic tertiary education had apartheid architects had their way. Who can forget the Nobel Peace Prize-winning statesman, the late former president Nelson Mandela, who graduated with his LLB at Unisa College of Law.

Likewise, not to forget a long list of illustrious alumni from the same university who occupy many of the central South African institutions such as the Constitutional Court.

Again, praise must be given where it is deserved. Thank you very much Professor Bozzoli for truthfully pointing out the positives about one of the country’s oldest institutions of higher learning.

But that is how far my applause goes. It ends here because the rest of the article is mainly a rant that must be shredded or relegated to the chronicles of the infamous misstatements in the history of a country that is still nursing the corrosive effects of the crime against humanity that apartheid is.

On second thoughts and after better reflection I feel like I will be committing the very same cardinal sin as Professor Bozzoli by assuming that right-thinking people will accept that all the things she has written, reported and/or spoken so eloquently are true beyond any credible repudiation.

Allow me to pose a question also. What happens when the rationality and reasoning of critics start to decay? I have sat down, pondered on what the answer could be. I even consulted the English Oxford Dictionary and it came to this: Propensity to fall into the trap of fallacious, self-interested, grandstanding and glory seeking racially motivated advocacy.

Do not get me wrong, I am not saying that alleged questionable incidents must be swept underneath a grass carpet because doing that will only be providing them with the nourishment needed to grow through the carpet. My plea is: When in doubt or not sure about the facts ask first instead of throwing truth and objectivity out of the window.

I do not mind when a person points to what is going wrong. But as a black person I become seized with trepidation when the motive seems to provide a cloak for an insidious perpetration of hatred, demonisation of blacks or black leaders in general, and promotion of anti-black excellence.

Blacks do matter. There is a growing movement stereotyping blacks negatively as a group, which is resonant of the manner in which they were treated during the apartheid era. Both explicit and implicit in these utterances is the heightening wave of ethnocentrism, and refusal to think positively about blacks.

The level of racial micro-aggressions and macro-aggressions against blacks is now becoming blatant, and unambiguously pronounced. By racial macroaggressions I include daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities whether intentional or unintentional and communicating aggressive, offensive, or negative racial insults towards blacks.

To support her eloquently written opinion, Professor Bozzoli relies on hearsay and/or third-party statements taken out of context. She is at the same time accusing the South African Human Rights Commission for compiling a report from anecdotal claims.

Many unsubstantiated and damning statements are made by Professor Bozzoli, and some must be debunked with immediate effect. For instance, Professor Bozzoli says the academic situation of the department or school concerned is ignored. And that “quotas reign supreme, irrespective of the academic needs of the department”.

What does she mean by academic needs being ignored? Is she saying that only “non-quota” staff members have the necessary academic qualities? Or is she claiming that there are no academic standards and academic leadership in the said departments, but being careful of not painting what she refers to as “non-quota” staff members with the same brush?

Unfortunately, I cannot answer these questions. Only Professor Bozzoli can balance us with credible answers. What I know is that not one iota of evidence is provided that the college uses quotas as a standard for academic appointments and/or promotion. It is even very insulting to refer to a regime of talent management and employment equity in an institution as a “quota” process.

More worrying is a suggestion that white applicants, referred to by Professor Bozzoli as “non-quota applicants”, have their right to seek and be considered for employment violated as a normal occurrence.

Interestingly, Professor Bozzoli draws anology from the Stalinist grain production quota system. As she wrote, farms had to produce a certain quota of grain “irrespective of the needs, situation or capacity of each”. This is a disturbing farming analogy, particularly in South Africa. Is this a statement that the colleges concerned are mass producing, promoting or appointing black academics or that they try too hard to produce, or appoint black excellence when there is no shred of capacity from blacks themselves?

Look no further than the Unisa College of Law Employment Equity Plan 2016-2020 as at 29 March 2017, for example, that reflected a college with many white staff members occupying most senior academic ranks of associate professor and full professor while blacks are concentrated in the junior ranks.

Allow me to quote verbatim an acknowledgement from this Employment Equity Plan that was revised in 2017 confirming that:

Although the appointments in the designated categories show a positive move upwards, these appointments relate to the lower post grade levels, specifically in the case of academic appointments.”

A further statement from the plan is that “the male-female ratio per race indicates a disparity between white females and white males. The reason for this stems from appointment practices which preferred white females as a previously disadvantaged category (at the cost of black females…). Every attempt will be made to address the low number of appointments in the coloured category overall.”

Surely it does not make sense to cry discriminatory treatment of white colleagues when, for example, the representation of female academics by race and rank in 2017 reflected “huge discrepancy between the numbers of black females (11) on the senior lecturer level compared to white females (28)”.

If I remember well, at the time two African females (one South African and the other a foreign national) occupied the rank of full professor compared to 20 white female professors and 13 associate professors. At the time 22 white male academics occupied the rank of full professor compared to five black full professors made up of two Africans who were in management, one Indian who was in management and two foreign nationals.

The plan went on to express a concern that “there is a huge and glaring discrepancy between the number of black full and associate professors combined (11 in total), compared to the same for white full and associate professors (59 in total)” in a college of more than 250 staff members pointing to the slow rate of appointments and promotion from the designated categories.

By its own admission the employment equity plan in question expressly stated serious implication of the academic profile in the College of Law at Unisa at the time, with “black female academics…under-represented on all academic post grade levels, most notably on senior lecturer level and higher; coloured academics are severely under-represented on all academic post grade levels; black academics (male and female) are seriously under-represented on post grade levels five (professor) and six (associate professor)”.

I think I have made my point on this issue unless anyone wants me to provide more information that actually debunks claims or conclusions made by Professor Bozzoli, which I can make with irrefutable substantiation. The historical picture does not lie. You just need to visit this link: published in April 1994, depicting the staff of the Unisa Law Faculty as it was then called. It will tell you a sad story of an undiversified academy.

What riles me more in this article is the covert, overt and shameful celebration of a counter-deficit model of recruitment, employment, and promotion of blacks. Counter-deficit model” of recruitment and promotion presumes limited capacity of black academics and black managers, in particular, to meet the so-called high standards, and favouring the incubation of blacks and females.

This model, which in my view is advocated in the article by Professor Bozzoli, reinforces the stigmatisation that many under-represented staff members feel at different South African universities. Think of an interview question prefaced with a statement by the interviewer asking if the interviewee does not think that it is too soon to be head of department or to be a professor.

It is sad that Professor Bozzoli seems to perpetuate the famous insult that South African blacks, who meet the stated job requirements and have the requisite credentials, must in addition first prove that they are qualified and deserve to be considered for the job.

That they need to prove that they are excellent when excellence is not required from the other races. I hope that I did get Professor Bozzoli wrong with her reference to “excellent incumbents”. If indeed she is referring to the displacement of individuals from positions they are holding because they are “non-quota” it will only be fair that she becomes specific of the portfolio concerned or who the excellent incumbent is that she is referring to.

On the issue of the appointment of the acting executive dean and the interim management of the college after the departure of the former executive dean and her deputy dean, allow me to say that the less said the better. Although I must say that I am disappointed that the article failed to acknowledge the excellent work done by the current management of the college of law in securing full accreditation of the LLB.

The Rainbow Nation ideology or the idea of integration advocacy is based on the idea that everybody is equal regardless of their cultural or ethnic background. Unfortunately, the article is about the promotion of disintegration policy rendering social cohesion a pipe-dream.

Let me be quick to proclaim that I am not saying that the notion of the Rainbow Nation is reason enough to neutralise claims of racism and race-making. In my view the article dehumanises blacks under the guise of arguing for equality and humane treatment of white colleagues.

It is also barren of a decent discourse about race and race relations, something it was in my view intending to achieve. If I were the group of South Africans which the article is purporting to stand up for I would be very concerned at its lack of factual substantiation or failure to address truthfully the lack of progress in South African universities to address both macro-aggressions and micro-aggressions.

What the article achieved, in my view, was to propagate for racial profiling of black academics as generally below-average performers. Likewise, it celebrated the unpalatable generalised suggestion that blacks in the college or colleges identified are problematic and deviant. We must all be concerned – black and white South Africans, and non-citizen resident of this country — about this kind of pronouncement or so-called public engagement by people who have the power to either positively influence diversity and co-existence or to take us back to a period when you had to be white to be considered human and deserving of any privilege.

South Africa is already witnessing an eruption of racially motivated aggression and disquieting signs of hatred that are becoming commonplace.

While promoting tolerance and respect for everyone is of utmost importance, combating defamation and the derogation of others because they are black should be given similar attention.

In conclusion, my initial reaction was to keep mum and consider the Bozzoli article as another senseless rant promoting race-consumption practices.

However, turning a blind eye to it would be like affirming what she said, based only on hearsay, as correct.

Do I have any solution after such a long monologue, lest I will be committing the same sin as Professor Bozzoli of criticising for the sake of criticism without providing any answer? I think I do.

South African institutions of higher learning must show seriousness in addressing past injustices and promoting equity and diversity in their ranks through transformation processes. Start by explicitly writing diversity into mission and policy statements, which are viewed as longstanding declarations of an institution’s directive and vision, helps to convey that diversity is a high priority at your institution.

Such a statement can serve as a strong foundation for other diversity efforts as it conveys a willingness to invest energy, resources, and time to strategic planning efforts surrounding diversity. Furthermore, develop and implement a model to improve efforts to hire, retain, and promote under-represented staff.

Also, start growing the next generation of senior academics. This is the indictment of established academics and researchers such as Professor Bozzoli, who must have a passion for skills development and transfer, and who could lead this project or assist in the mentoring of young academics instead on treating them as persona non grata. DM

HEADLINE FEATURES

YOUR NEXT ARTICLE