School of Arts

Lecture explores Dialogues on Racism in SA’s Higher Education System

Public lecture participants (from left) Professor Tendayi Sithole, Professor Robin DG Kelley, Ms Ongezwa Mbhele and Professor Salim Washington.
Public lecture participants (from left) Professor Tendayi Sithole, Professor Robin DG Kelley, Ms Ongezwa Mbhele and Professor Salim Washington.

The College of Humanities recently hosted a virtual public lecture as part of a Transformation and Leadership Lecture Series exploring the topic: Over the Rainbow: Dialogues on Racism in South Africa’s Higher Education System during this Decolonial Moment.

The lecture featured Professor Tendayi Sithole of the University of South Africa (UNISA) and Professor Robin DG Kelley, who is the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in United States’ History at the University of California in the United States.

Responding to the lecture was UKZN Drama and Performance studies lecturer Ms Ongezwa Mbele, with the session chaired by jazz lecturer Professor Salim Washington.

Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Head of the College of Humanities Professor Nhlanhla Mkhize described the lecture series as an initiative of the College to discuss transformation issues. ‘These lectures provide a space for people to engage critically on important issues in higher education and in society.’

Sithole acknowledged that moves to decolonise the University called for serious attention to unresolved issues such as the ‘right to education’; cognitive justice; decolonised space; decolonised curriculum; epistemic racism/sexism; exploitation of black labour; Eurocentric/colonial/apartheid cultures of alienation and dehumanisation; and marginalisation of black scholars and scholarship, among other key areas that profoundly mark the University experience.

He argued ‘that South Africa did not truly have a rainbow nation – since 1994 it is just cosmetic change. There must be fundamental change.’

According to Sithole, decolonisation is not the end of the journey. We don’t intend to colonise whites but to de-establish the privilege that accrues to whiteness and build a better world.

In his address, Kelley noted that South Africa played a role in understanding the black condition globally with the #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall campaign becoming a register of national and international significance.

Kelley sees universities as the leading edge in a socially revolutionary fight. ‘Universities change in ways that we cannot expect them to change,’ he said. ‘While I share the transformative aims, I think that universities are not up to the task. Certainly, universities can and will become more diverse and marginally more welcoming for black students but as institutions they will never be engines of social transformation. Such a task is ultimately the work of political education and activism. By definition it takes place outside the university,’ said Kelley.

He said students were asking the university to implement curriculum changes – namely, the creation of cultural-competency courses, more diverse course reading lists, and classes dedicated to the study of race, gender, sexuality, and social justice. ‘They not only acknowledge the university’s magisterium in all things academic, but they also desperately wish to change the campus culture, to make this bounded world less hostile and less racist.’

‘But granting the university so much authority over our reading choices, and emphasizing a respect for difference over a critique of power, comes at a cost. Students not only come to see the curriculum as an oppressor that delimits their interrogation of the world, but they also come to see racism largely in personal terms,’ said Kelley. ‘Racism is rampant in universities in South Africa and globally. There is no rainbow nation. What is needed is deep decolonisation and complete restructuring of universities. What is our future going to be?’

Offering her response, Mbele said, ‘We need fundamental change but also the archiving and production of indigenous knowledge systems. We can confidently say there are no rainbows. And universities are seemingly not connecting with the lived experiences of their students. We are hoping for a better future but are we preparing for it?’

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