The myth of transformation

RW Johnson warns that the universities submit to the demands of the black nationalist lobby at their peril

The statue of Rhodes has been removed from UCT. In truth, no statue matters very much. All else apart, hardly a mile away from UCT sits the far larger and more imposing Rhodes Memorial set up by the Rhodes Trust and no one is making (or probably can make) any suggestion to get rid of that.

Moreover, various important roads in Cape Town bear Rhodes' name and he still looms over this entire city and probably always will. He was the founder of the city's most important hospital, of the national botanical gardens, of the President's official residence, and certainly the founder of the Rhodes Trust, of the Rhodes Scholarships, of UCT, of Rhodes University and of De Beers which continues to drive the economies of Namibia and Botswana. Building institutions is not easy; to launch so many was exceptional. No matter what anyone does with statues, there is no danger of his being forgotten.

The debate over Rhodes' statue has largely eclipsed the far more important subject of what it means for South Africa's universities and whether they will remain good enough to merit the award of Rhodes Scholarships. This is what I deal with below. One feature of this debate is how far it has been driven by Rhodes Scholars. Max Price, the Vice-Chancellor of UCT, is one (South Africa-at-large and Magdalen, 1980) as is Loyiso Nongxa (South Africa-at-large, and Balliol, 1978). The debate has brought forth striking contributions from John Kane-Berman (Transvaal and Pembroke, 1969) and Adekeye Adebajo (Nigeria and St Antony's, 1990) and Ndumiso Luthuli (KwaZulu-Natal and St Peter's, 2000), while I myself am Natal and Magdalen, 1964.

Dr Adebajo, indeed, rather exemplifies the situation. He makes it plain in all he writes how much he loathes Cecil Rhodes, yet his entire career, from receiving the Scholarship to teaching at Rhodes University to his present affiliation with UCT, has been lived entirely through institutions bequeathed by Rhodes. Whether he likes it or not, he too is one of Rhodes' children – as are, of course, the Mandela-Rhodes Scholars of recent time.


Ever since 1994 South Africa has had to live with the myth of transformation. This has to be understood in the Sorelian sense. Georges Sorel was fascinated by revolutionary syndicalism and asked himself how to explain that ordinary working class people could exhibit such courage, such patience, such enthusiasm, such solidarity, all in the midst of great privation. His answer was: because of the myth they bore.

That is, each of them had in mind that great cathartic day when a revolutionary general strike would bring capitalism crashing down and inaugurate the new society. In that society all the existing contradictions between labour and capital would be removed because the capitalists would be expropriated and thus no longer exist. Instead, the workers themselves would control their own world of work. This nirvana was, of course, merely a magical re-instatement of the dimly remembered days of the medieval craft guilds.

So the workers would conduct strike action now with the notion that it would gradually culminate in a revolutionary general strike by all workers which would bring about this magical transformation. In fact that day never came, never would come, but the point of the myth was the way that it enabled people to deal bravely and in a principled way with their very hard daily lives while always believing in a better tomorrow.

Moreover, the myth also provided the workers with what they believed to be the means (strike action) to move towards that better tomorrow. In the same way, Christian martyrs could face the advancing lions with courage because they were inspired by the myth of redemption – and believed (rather like Muslims) that the very act of bearing Christian witness as the lions attacked would bring you to the gates of heaven.

So, again, the myth provided both the vision and the means by which to achieve it. It mattered not whether that redemption was real or not – who knows what happens after you die? What mattered was the way that holding a certain set of ideas in one's head enabled one to transcend normal human limits and provided men with the possibility of purposive action to escape from their travail. To work as a Sorelian myth there needs to be, somewhere out there, a literally transcendental vision of the future, one which provides catharsis for all the frustrations one feels right now.

And, inevitably, such visions depended on a sort of magic moment of transition. At one moment the worker would be engaged in bitter struggle with the capitalist; the next, he would be through the sound barrier, as it were, into a benign future without capitalists. Or, at one moment the Christian would be torn apart by lions, the next he would be sitting at the side of the Almighty in complete harmony.

African nationalists have been inspired by just this sort of myth. Transformation is envisaged as a quasi-magical process in which an institution is turned into a liberated space. That is, it has to have Africans at the head of it and in the large majority within it. Thus the South African civil service is said to be “transformed” and this is chalked up as a great success for the progressive forces.

The fact that the civil service now hardly works at all – and the same is true for all other “transformed” institutions - is seen as an unfortunate coincidental factor. Transformation necessarily means giving a large number of desirable jobs to Africans and that is quite enough for it to remain a fine thing in the eyes of the wannabe black bourgeoisie.

Transformation has absolutely nothing to offer the black peasant or worker, or indeed the large majority of Africans which was doubtless the reason why, when the Helen Suzman Foundation polled Africans about affirmative action almost twenty years ago, it found that most blacks opposed it.

For the less privileged, after all, “transformed” institutions just mean worse services for them. For South Africa is still bounded by many of the same limits that it seems to have faced since time immemorial – plus a few new ones. An African population largely without freehold rights and thus with little scope for enterprise. Appallingly bad rural and township schools run by under-educated and truant schoolteachers, blocking off the normal channel of upward mobility.

40% unemployment, worse still amongst the young, remorselessly reproducing poverty and inequality. A corrupt new elite which is skill-less and incompetent, merely an extra charge on the state, and which merely adds to old inequalities. A “transformed” and thus wholly ineffective bureaucracy at every level of the state and in the state-owned enterprises – which means worse services of every kind, power cuts, higher electricity prices, dysfunctional hospitals, railways that don't work and so on.

Probably the most important disadvantage of all is that among the country's African population only 25% of its children grow up in homes with two parents. The old argument was that apartheid had destroyed African family structure but the proportion of single parent families has risen remorselessly since the end of apartheid, suggesting that other forces may be at work.

These constraints were very large under apartheid but have actually increased under ANC rule so that, despite all the fanfare and rhetoric, there has been little realistic chance of altering the conditions of life of the large African majority since 1994. Those trapped in these ancient inequalities tend to view their situation with a degree of fatalism: 'twas ever thus. The only group that is allowed to dream is the African middle class and the elite.

In effect, all the main ANC policies – particularly affirmative action and Black Economic Empowerment - are about them. However, in order to further their dreams, this group has to progress through a series of formerly “white” institutions – model C schools, technikons, universities, white-owned companies, the civil service and other state bureaucracies. This causes them, they say, considerable discomfort. For a start, none of these institutions were made for them. They are all run in terms of a Western rationality which has nothing to do with African tradition so, it is said, they don't “feel” right. These institutions also privilege patterns of behaviour and achievement which are far more common in white or Asian society than among Africans.

And finally, of course, it is within these institutions that the wannabe African elite meets white, Coloured and Asian competition, often culturally and perhaps also materially better equipped than they are.

The result is that many in this more privileged group of Africans claim to experience some discomfort as they progress through these once-white institutions. They seem fundamentally unhappy with any social microcosm in which black people like themselves exist in a subordinate or dependent position vis-a-vis whites, so a situation in which most senior academics are white, handing out usually rather mediocre or poor marks to black students, is in itself unacceptable to many.

The meaning of liberation, they feel, was that such situations shouldn't exist any more. There was even dissent when these universities gave honorary degrees to Mandela, for that meant Mandela being capped by a white university boss (though this never disturbed Mandela.) Then there are the names of the buildings, their air of a confident history long pre-dating black majority rule, and even the architecture – unashamedly Gothic, Romanesque or Herbert Baker colonial.

Some African students appear to feel that such surroundings mean that they are being dwarfed by white grandeur. Perhaps worst of all is a situation in which they are being straightforwardly compared – and not often to their advantage – with white, Asian or Coloured students. These collective discomforts, they say, cause them “pain and hurt” - though not enough, of course, to prevent them from applying in large numbers to attend such institutions.

Accordingly they – and the black staff who often share many of their feelings and who urge them on, hoping thereby to benefit from promotion – demand more or less instant university “transformation”. At UCT, for example, the black-led Student Representative Council gave the authorities a deadline of just a few days in which to arrive at a situation in which at least 50% of the teaching faculty would be black.

As may be seen, this is much the same sort of magical thinking that Sorel witnessed in the revolutionary syndicalists he studied. The students, like the workers, have a vision of a beneficent and alternative future in which all the frustrations and contradictions of the present every day reality have been removed – or, more accurately, stood on their head. And they believe they have the means – mass action, protests, strikes, ultimata – with which to force this magical transition.

Faced with the pressure of these demands the response of South Africa's university authorities has been to temporise and to promise that they will indeed work to bring about this transformation. In the short-term this means appointing black faculty whenever possible. And often when it's really not. The result has been affirmative action appointments in South Africa's leading (English-speaking) universities since the 1980s, that is well before the end of apartheid and well before the ANC government began demanding this affirmative action.

Naturally, this has exercised a downward pressure on the merit level at which such appointments are made – or at which students are admitted. This can hardly be otherwise for there is simply a tremendous scarcity of suitably qualified black faculty, particularly since those who are qualified can easily obtain jobs at far higher salaries in both the private and public sector. In order to compete at all universities fast-track their black faculty so that they generally obtain senior academic posts long before their academic achievements suggest they are really ready for them.

This is not a happy result for anyone. Above all, it spreads the message that Africanisation means backwardness, a result which confirms white racists in their prejudices and, more important, further lowers black self-esteem. The fact that black faculty have often been promoted beyond their merit is easily visible to their peers and their students and the word goes out that they are not really up to scratch. Moreover, as in any other career, a young academic needs to work away at the coalface, learning from experience, learning from their mentors and gradually accumulating a research and publication profile.

If this career path is artificially cut short the result is that promising black faculty are rapidly made professors, deans or even vice chancellors and thus loaded with administrative duties long before they have earned their spurs with research or, indeed, learned how to administer. There are a few of quite outstanding merit – for example, Loyiso Nongxa, Vice Chancellor of Wits 2003-2013 – who serve with distinction all the same, though even Dr Nongxa's career as a mathematician inevitably suffered as a result from his accumulation of administrative duties at a too-early age.

However, neither the government nor many black students nor black faculty members think this is anything like enough. They want “transformation now” - the magical moment. The response to this of the university authorities is to agree that faster transformation has to be achieved and to set up special committees and commissions to see what can be done to speed it up.

In other words, they accept that they are culpable and that things can and should be changed. Thus Adam Habib, the Vice Chancellor of Wits, argues that “The failure of transformation at our universities is a collective failure of all of us”. He says it is intolerable that “even in the more liberal and historically English-speaking universities..the curriculum is not sufficiently reflective of our history”.

Moreover “The low numbers of African staff and professors has in part got to do with unimaginative recruitment and our failure to transcend the racialised networks we have inherited. And the fact that so many black students feel marginalised speaks to our failure in transforming the institutional cultures of our institutions.” What is needed, therefore, Habib argues is “a deep, deliberative conversation”.

Thus, with only slight individual variations, the response of the universities. However, to the black students – or to black faculty hungry for promotion - these are just words. They have heard phrases like “deep, deliberative conversation” before, as also promises to (magically) “transform the institutional culture”. They rightly see this as mainly a temporizing smokescreen. At UCT Barney Pityana, the President of the university's Convocation (of alumni) uses another well-worn tactic by arguing that students protests and agitation are good because universities are all about asking questions and the holding of different points of view. Against all the evidence, he argues that the recent disorderliness, throwing of faeces, sit-ins and disruption of university meetings have actually “enhanced the reputation and image of the university”.

He strongly supports the call of the Vice Chancellor, Dr Max Price, for faster transformation. But he goes on to demand “the acceleration of the recruitment, nurturing and advancement of black and women academic staff” and “a new breed of academic staff”. He too then goes on to call for “decolonising curriculum reform” and the adoption of “an environment of intolerance to all forms of racism and alienating discourse in teaching and research”.

This last item contains a large but customary element of pretence that the discomfort of black students is caused by racism and intolerance among white academics and students. In practice UCT, like all the other liberal universities, has had extremely strict codes of ethics for over thirty years in terms of which racism is a punishable and sack-able offence.  Finding an “alienating discourse” in teaching, let alone research, is another almost invisibly difficult project.

That is to say, the university authorities are trying their hardest to appease and to pretend. This is only a delaying tactic but it has served them well so far. The problem is that because they are not willing to stand up and tell the truth they are hoist on their own past promises and pretences.

If they were somehow to summon up the courage to tell the truth, what would they say? The first and most important point is that one simply cannot conjure an African intelligentsia out of thin air. If one looks at the example of the Afrikaans-speaking universities one sees that it took them fully fifty years to produce an Afrikaans intelligentsia able to compete on equal terms with its English-speaking peers. Judged on the usual basis of scholarly publications, even by the late 1980s Stellenbosch (the leading Afrikaans university) was only vying for third place with the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal) behind UCT and Wits. But at least by then one could discern highly reputable Afrikaner physicists, historians, biochemists, geologists, economists, mathematicians, novelists, theologians, poets, classical musicians as well as plentiful doctors, dentists, lawyers and journalists: that is to say, the complete panoply of a mature intelligentsia.

It was no mean achievement to grow such an intelligentsia in only two or three generations, even allowing for the enormous social effort, Calvinist determination and state patronage which went into it. That is to say, this is simply the minimum time which this form of social evolution takes.

So anyone who wants to see university “transformation” has to take that timetable into account. Of course one will be able to appoint outstanding black academics like Dr Nongxa right away while maintaining – or raising – standards. But one cannot hope to find a large majority of intellectuals like him for a long time. The lamentable state of most black schools – which are nothing like as good as the Afrikaans schools of old, run on strict Calvinist lines  - suggests that it might well take longer than that for a mature black intelligentsia to evolve, particularly when one allows for the pre-literate state of African society only a century ago. Africans are simply starting from a much lower base line than Afrikaners did.[1] Moreover, the Afrikaners who ran South Africa more or less continuously from 1910 to 1994 made enormous investments into higher education, whereas the ANC government has cut state funding for universities by at least 60% since 1994.

The cumulative effect of these factors is to make “university transformation” a completely unrealise-able ideal unless one is willing to take several more generations about it. To force through the Africanisation of posts in the short term can only result in a catastrophic lowering of standards. This is not just a matter of argument: we have a concrete example. At the University of KwaZulu-Natal this was exactly what Dr. William Makgoba proceeded to do when he became Vice Chancellor in 2002. Within the space of a decade the faculty of was heavily Africanised as was the administration. The results have been utterly calamitous.[2]

Standards have fallen sharply, the university has been deserted by its traditional constituency, large numbers of semi-literate students have been admitted and many good Asian, Coloured and white academics have fled the university. Moreover, there have been continuous accusations – supported by outside independent bodies – that academic freedom has been trampled on. The university's remaining academics do not trust the security of either their e-mail or their phone calls.

The university's administration has lost its entire institutional memory and become chaotic and by the time Dr Makgoba left his post in 2014 the university was on life support and nearly R2 billion in debt. Yet the Zuma government, which is little interested in universities, has decorated Dr Makgoba as “a pioneer in higher education transformation”.

What this reveals is a dangerous state of denialism. The government simply does not wish to know about the hideous damage done at UKZN. To accept that rapid Africanization has ruined a university would be to affront African nationalist amour-propre and such is the fragility of that amour-propre that the government is literally willing to see the destruction of its third best university rather than accept such an uncomfortable truth.

Moreover, no university leader has had the courage to tell the truth about the inevitable time-lag required for a mature African intelligentsia to appear because it is regarded as simply politically impossible to say that to an ANC government. Yet the example of UKZN is well-known to all and there is doubtless not a single Vice Chancellor who is unaware that speedy “transformation” would ruin their universities in similar fashion, would put their best students, faculty and donors to flight and do almost unfathomable damage to the country as a whole

This denialism persists only through lack of political courage – and it leads to continuous pretending. When Professor Habib suggests that somehow a new black intelligentsia might be discovered by more imaginative recruitment he is simply talking nonsense – and, of course, he knows that that is so. But he wishes to maintain the pretence. Similarly, at UCT the Vice Chancellor, Dr Max Price, has made all manner of promises about how transformation will be speeded up, although he knows perfectly well that this could only be done at the cost of a calamitous fall in standards. So what to do?

Neither Messrs Habib nor Price really wants to go down in history as the man who destroyed the university entrusted to their care, but neither wants to tell the awkward though necessary truth of the situation. The answer is thus “just keep talking and temporizing” (Habib's “deep, deliberative conversation”), although this has the dire effect of legitimizing the demands for transformation. In the long run this is bound to be disastrous.

The notion that curriculum reform can be further decolonised is another deliberate pretence. The obvious examples are history and literature. It is now well over thirty years since university history departments made African history their basic fare and since university literature departments abandoned Jane Austen for African writers. To an almost embarrassing degree other social science and arts syllabi concentrate on South African matter alone: such parochialism does nobody any good. And nobody has come up with any suggestions as to how to Africanize maths, physics, engineering or biochemistry. Most African languages don't even have the vocabulary to describe these subjects.

Again, the example of the Afrikaans universities is relevant. Even after several generations of rapid intellectual progress, all advanced work in the sciences at those universities is conducted with English-language books and texts. It may well be that these disciplines contain “alienating discourse” but all one can say is that, if so, they alienate black and white students quite equally.

Finally, of course, there is the pretence that the failure to appoint or promote under-qualified members of faculty is due to white racism. On the contrary, as we have seen, South Africa's predominantly white universities have been making exactly those kinds of appointments and promotions for thirty years now, showing a strong racial preference for blacks. There are yet further pretences that even to use the language of “merit” or “standards” is intrinsically racist, a strange assertion when one considers that such concepts are normal throughout the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, so bullied and lacking in courage are the Vice Chancellors of the old white universities that although they are fond of exalting the “excellence” of their institutions, they carefully avoid all mention of standards or merit.

These then are the pretences necessary to sustain the myth of transformation. They are a dangerous game because South Africa depends on its universities to produce a steady flow of well-educated engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers and all the other necessary professions and skills essential to a modern society. If sustaining the myth means ruining the universities the result would be nothing less than that South Africa would cease to be a modern society. Thus the stakes could hardly be higher and this is surely reason enough to face the truth.

RW Johnson


[1] See R.W. Johnson, “Liberal institutions under pressure: the universities” in R.W. Johnson and David Welsh (eds) Ironic Victory. Liberalism in Post-Liberation South Africa (1998)

[2] See N. Chetty and C. Merrett, The Struggle for the Soul of a South African University (2014) and R.W. Johnson, The African University ? The Critical Case of South Africa and the Tragedy at UKZN (2012)