Reflections on our universities - Blade Nzimande

The SACP GS says it is time the language issue was dealt with once and for all

The ‘back' and the ‘front' doors of higher education: Some personal reflections

Over the last 30 years, I have visited almost all of South Africa's universities, and many of their satellite campuses - many of them more than once. Apart from the three university campuses where I taught, and three at which I studied, from the early 1980s my visits to South African universities have mostly been through the ‘back' door, as it were - most often as a delegate to what is probably now scores of conferences of the NECC, trade unions, ANC and SACP congresses. In other instances I have visited these institutions as an invited speaker by university workers and students through their organisations.

I call these ‘backdoor' visits because they would normally be over weekends, with the first entry point being the registration centres point for conferences or congresses, usually in a sports complex or multipurpose hall and then proceed to residences where delegates are housed. Often one never even sees the front of the institution nor gets any insights into its institutional life. I have had more experience of the university precinct as a site for intense political struggles and debates, lobbying for various political and policy positions, and campuses as places for taking important political decisions that have had far-reaching implications for the political direction of our country.

On the 3rd of September 2009 I paid an official visit to the University of the Free State. As I entered the university, through the ‘front' door this time, I could not help but recall that it was at the same university, where the ANC held its first national conference after the 1994 democratic breakthrough, gathering for the first time as a ruling party. And that it was at the same university that Cde Nelson Mandela was re-elected for the second time as President of the ANC, with Cde Jacob Zuma elected National Chairperson of the ANC. Incidentally, it was at the same conference where I was elected onto the National Executive Committee of the ANC for the first time.

Being at the ANC conference and officially visiting the institutions were two very contrasting experiences of the same space. During the ‘back' door many important decisions were taken that came to shape the character and direction of the ANC as a ruling party and indeed changed the course of our country. Yet debates taking place in conference commissions held at the various university lecture halls were not being adequately captured and reflected once these spaces return to their normal role as university lecture halls. The ‘back' and the ‘front' door is actually the same space!

During this ‘front' door visit to the University of the Free State, three things made a lasting impression on me. The first one was a black student leader's description of the university as "one campus, two races". Through this he took us through the language policy and practices of the institution, as he experienced them. Afrikaans and English lectures are offered at different times within the same university. When it is time for Afrikaans lectures the university lecture halls and their precincts are predominantly white, and then a radical change when it is time for English lectures; the same spaces becomes overwhelmingly black. This alone captures the extent of the complexity of the challenge for transformation at this institution.

I was humbled by the meeting I had with the four black women and one male black worker who were racially abused in that ugly incident at the university's Reitz hostel - a classic expression of the depth of the class, race and gender contradictions in our society. Much as the ‘scars' of that incident could be read from their tone, they refused to treat themselves as victims, and instead described their experience as a microcosm of the state of the campus as a whole. They asked for simple yet very telling things. They asked for the colour of their work overalls to be changed as they found them ‘oppressive', a daily reminder of the Reitz episode. And they asked to be redeployed out of cleaning residences to other parts of the university, as they are still taunted by some of the white students.

Our delegation was also struck by the political depth and maturity of student leadership in that campus. It also, for the first time, has a black SRC president. Our reflection was that it is perhaps these difficult circumstances that bring out the best from our youth. But at the same time I could not help but be saddened by the fact that much as we had thought that the struggles, sacrifices and victories of the 1976 generation had relieved today's university students from the burdens of race and racial discrimination, this unfortunately is still not yet the case. Ironically but not unexpectedly this burden was carried by both black and white students.

Black students felt like second class citizens at the university and it was clear from the interactions with some of the white student leaders that they also carried the burden of the fear of racial integration of the hostels and the progressive transformation of the university. Indeed this is no surprise to the SACP as we had always consistently argued that the total liberation of black people is a necessary condition for liberating whites from fear of democratic transformation of our society.

These matters, as captured by the Soudien report that probed racism and other forms of discrimination at universities, are a reflection of the broader challenges and the urgency to accelerate the transformation of South Africa's higher education landscape.

One of the double burdens that continue to face African students in most of former Afrikaans universities is that of language. Not only do they sometimes get excluded because of their lack of knowledge of Afrikaans, but they also feel like 'language refugees' within some of these institutions. It is a double burden for African students because they are still taught in a second, often third or fourth language, English. It is time now that this issue of language policy in higher education is dealt with once and for all. The SACP, especially our YCL, has an important role to play in tackling this matter as one of the barriers to both access and success in our higher education institutions. It is a struggle that cannot be postponed any further.

The disjuncture and lack of effective conversations between the 'back' and the 'front' doors of our higher education institutions is one other instance that underlines the necessity for curriculum transformation in our higher education institutions. The racist incidents in some of our universities are also a reflection of the variance between the often progressive aspirations of the 'back' door and the resistance of the mainstream 'front' door. It is a conflict and tension between, on the one hand, the aspirations of non-racialism, non-sexism and objectives of a classless society of the ‘back' door, and, on the other hand, the ‘one campus, two races' of the ‘front' door.

A key challenge which the SACP, YCL and the broader progressive movement need to tackle is the need for strong student and worker organisation on our campuses, including the building of vibrant institutional forums representing all stakeholders in our higher education institutions. Such institutional forums are important in strengthening intra-campus dialogue on transformation and a critical platform to end the disjuncture between the ‘back' and the ‘front' doors in our institutions:

An ode:

The back doors are loud
The front doors are shut
Yet the front doors are also loud - racism, patriarchy and class elitism
Backdoors not yet loud enough to break into the front doors
As the backdoors open
The front doors close shut
As the front doors open
The backdoors are half open
Both doors walk into each other


This article by SACP general secretary, Blade Nzimande, first appeared in the Party's journal, Umsebenzi Online, September 16 2009

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