20 Apr 2015

Ramphele failed in university transformation

Written by  Adekeye Adebajo

No. 331: Ramphele failed in university transformation / Adekeye Adebajo / Business Day
20 April 2015

Amid the ferment at the University of Cape Town (UCT) over issues of transformation, the role of black vice-chancellors in transforming post-apartheid universities deserves more attention. Dr Mamphela Ramphele, the first black and first female vice-chancellor of UCT, between 1996 and 2000, has put her thoughts in writing in her 2013 memoirs, A Passion for Freedom.

Dr Ramphele describes how she was head-hunted by the incumbent vice-chancellor, Stuart Saunders, in 1991, to become the first black and first female deputy vice-chancellor in UCT's 73-year history. She was reluctant to assume the post due to her "dislike for public office".

Tasked with attending marathon meetings with students, she noted students should comment only on academic issues and not on university decision-making.

Many black male students particularly opposed Dr Ramphele's candidacy as vice-chancellor because — according to her — she had been tough on sexual harassment, set boundaries on transformation and insisted on "excellence". As Dr Ramphele noted: "They felt I lacked empathy, that I was a sell-out." She dismissed these views as representing the "psychology of the oppressed", blaming them on the fear of the students that they would not be good enough.

Dr Ramphele, however, seemed to confirm this lack of empathy in her dealings with the university's poorly paid black cleaning staff (who she insisted were fairly paid). She regarded them as "disruptive" for demanding increased wages, noting that "UCT was not a factory", and accused them of treating UCT as "their private bank" by taking out university loans. She outsourced the cleaning services.

As deputy vice-chancellor, Dr Ramphele's reaction to students taking over the Bremner administrative building (as they did in the recent Rhodes Must Fall protests) was to urge management to go home and let campus security deal with the students. She condemned the "aggressive methods" of the students as "intolerable".

It is instructive that while serving as deputy vice-chancellor, Dr Ramphele sat on the boards of Anglo American and Old Mutual for six years, complaining that she eventually resigned after her criticisms of the migrant labour system and other suggestions were consistently ignored. As she observed; "That generation of white liberals would politely go through the motions of being attentive yet make no changes to how they ran their institutions." Dr Ramphele somehow missed the link between these institutions and the entrenched white privilege at UCT.

Though criticising UCT's approach as implying that "blacks were to be advanced by whites to where the latter already were", she contradicts this by constant talk of "excellence" and "raising standards" in the same way that both concepts are often used to equate competence with whiteness.

Her description of the attitude of black South Africans to academia is often patronising. She notes, for example, that criticism of her joining UCT faded as "more black South Africans realised the importance of academic work as real work".

Intriguingly, Dr Ramphele counts Harry Oppenheimer as one of her confidants while in office. He was chancellor of UCT from 1967 to 1999 and chairman of Anglo American for 25 years, and regarded Africa as having been "backward" until Europeans arrived to "civilise" it.

In setting out to transform UCT as vice-chancellor, Dr Ramphele was scathing about its council, which she regarded as "an old boys' network that had paid more attention to continuing traditions than to management and maintenance". Inexplicably, it was to members of this same network that Dr Ramphele turned in her bid to transform the university.

Even though she observed that "Black Consciousness prepared me for this position", it is unclear how she used this experience in her transformation efforts. She significantly failed to support Ugandan scholar Mahmood Mamdani's efforts to transform UCT's African history curriculum in 1996.

Dr Ramphele's main achievements at UCT appear to be her tough stance against sexual harassment, completing a new library and renovating old buildings. She herself noted: "I think that possibly the thing I am most proud of is changing the institutional culture of UCT."

Many would challenge this claim, with students continuing to complain about a Eurocentric culture and curriculum, and with only five black full professors out of more than 200 today. If Dr Ramphele really achieved her goals, why are so many UCT students protesting about a lack of transformation 15 years later? Were Dr Ramphele and her successor, Njabulo Ndebele, in office rather than in power?

Adebajo is executive director of the Centre for Conflict Resolution.

This article is part of a series of fortnightly columns written by Adekeye Adebajo for Business Day every other Monday.

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