Co-create South Africa? Co-create access to universities!

House of the FutureMark Rutte and 200 Dutch business representatives from the Netherlands visited South Africa in mid-November 2015. The Netherlands Embassy in Pretoria and its innovative Ambassador, Marisa Gerards, had organised a House of the Future in Johannesburg and in Cape Town, with many events that attracted a lot of visitors and much attention in South Africa. Some of it reminded me of the Africa Works conferences that we co-organised with the NABC in 2012 and 2014. Ambassador Gerards had tried to go beyond the ‘promoting business’ formula and wanted to involve the knowledge sector as well. She succeeded in involving Delft University of Technology and VU University Amsterdam, who sent 15 students from the Netherlands to work with students from South Africa on ideas to solve problems in Johannesburg. The findings were presented to the deputy mayor of Johannesburg in the presence of the Dutch Prime Minister. Five teams presented pitches about coping with the challenges in agrifood, energy, logistics, water and health, and they did so creatively. The logistics team got the prize for the best performance with a suggestion to combine a cycling plan for the city with apps for cyclists.

The Rector of the VU University and I had been invited to enjoy this example of ‘CoCreateSA’. Thus, ‘knowledge’ was added to ‘business’ and that also meant that we could talk to university leaders currently coping with a lot of turmoil in South Africa’s universities. Together with Harry Wels (VU University and ASC Leiden) and the new Rector of the VU University, Vinod Subramanyam, I was privileged to have an informative meeting with the beleaguered Vice Chancellor of North-West University, Prof. Dan Kgwadi. North-West University includes Potschefstroom Campus, which seems to be the only remaining campus in South Africa where Afrikaans is still the language of instruction (the University of Stellenbosch changed to English last month). During a lunch at Union Buildings in Pretoria, hosted by President Zuma, I sat next to Prof. Cheryl de la Rey, Vice Chancellor of the University of Pretoria. Both meetings gave me an opportunity to better understand the anger of many South African students, and the explosive situation in South Africa’s universities, which is spreading to other parts of society in ways that may result in a new revolution. And a nasty one if some signs are to be taken seriously.

What's left of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in front of UCT: the pedestal. (Photo: Fenneken Veldkamp)

What was left of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes in front of UCT last April: the pedestal. (Photo: Fenneken Veldkamp)

Statues appear to have become the symbols of the student protest. At the University of Cape Town students successfully campaigned to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes, that was regarded as an insult by many South Africans. “Rhodes Must Fall!”. But later, turmoil centred around the higher student fees announced – and later withdrawn – by Zuma’s government: “Fees Must Fall”. It does not take much for anger on South Africa’s campuses to descend into violence, as happened at the University of the Western Cape.

Talking to the Vice Chancellors and others during my visit, it became clear how layered the anger is, and how problematic some of the claims for redress for ‘damage done’ during Colonialism, Apartheid, and ANC mismanagement are. I can see four layers of anger, which become manifest in different places. The first one is resistance to the ‘remains of Apartheid’: the white majority of students that is still common in some of the bulwarks of (former?) Afrikaner universities (of which the Potschefstroom campus is an example) and the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction. This is perceived as an exclusion of ‘black’ students in South Africa, and ‘black’ means everyone ‘non-white’, but often ‘white women’ also perceive themselves as under-privileged as well and in need of the same policies to fight the ‘discriminatory practices’ at (some) South African universities. When SANPAD was conceived as the Dutch support programme for research and capacity building in South Africa, its PhD programme (ca 1999-2012) was open to anyone who was not a white male PhD student.

The second layer of anger consists of the fact that many ‘black’ students still find their professors and other lecturers ‘very white’, and they feel that ‘black empowerment’ in South African universities is progressing too slowly. White professors complain that the quality of non-white newcomers is not as good as it should be from an academic perspective (their academic perspective). And within the new ‘black’ staff there are many from outside South Africa (Zimbabweans, Nigerians, Ghanaians, etc.), compounding a degree of xenophobia among South African (‘black’) staff and students, even within campuses. The fact that so many of the most successful newcomers are South Africans of ‘Indian’ origin is also seen as a problem by many. One often hears the complaint that Zulu, Xhosa, and other ‘black South Africans’ do not want jobs as teachers and professors in South Africa’s universities because they can earn much more in government and in ‘black empowerment’ businesses.

#FeesMustFall protest march to Parliament (photo:

#FeesMustFall protest march to Parliament (photo:

The third element of anger (and particularly in the humanities and social sciences) is that the curriculum used has been copied from US and UK textbooks and experiences, and so does not reflect or address ‘African realities’ and ‘African problems’. Indeed, many South African students do not learn much about the rest of Africa, and some not even about their own country. This has led to a movement called ‘Decolonizing the Curriculum’. And our colleagues in the Centre for African Studies of the University of Cape Town have a lot of very useful things to say on this! But in the context of the student protests this ‘decolonizing the curriculum’ mantra also means resistance against quantitative methods, against scientific rigour, against examination norms, all of which is fed by a reality of relatively bad secondary schools, particularly in relation to mathematics (South Africa scores extremely low in international comparisons). Students who fail tests sometimes blame their results on a conspiracy to teach them things that are irrelevant and that will lead them to fail. Now, some students are also demanding that the ANC speeds up the process of ‘decolonizing’ ‘white privileges’ in the economy, and that includes ‘getting back our land’ Zimbabwe-style (’White Farmers should Fall’; and indeed, many have been killed since 1994). There is an ugly element of reversed racism in some of this.

Finally, the fourth layer of anger goes deeper, and is something that always exists when a social emancipation movement enters universities: students who are the first generation to study, coming from backgrounds where no one did so before. Emancipatory students often come from poor backgrounds where studying requires a relatively high investment for (grand)parents in order for their children to enjoy better life chances, only to see later that many of ‘their’ graduates do not get proper jobs. Students from a poor, non-intellectual background are often treated badly by privileged intellectuals in key positions in the university system. Sometimes in very insulting, denigrating and even very visible and audible ways; but more often than not in much more subtle ways. They simply ‘don’t belong’ and are made to feel that. From what I hear, this is also the situation in traditionally English-speaking universities in South Africa, like UCT, Rhodes (when will the name go?), and Wits. The stiff upper lip imitations, the harsh and impersonal looks one gets if one is ‘different’, the indifference in work and person.

Student leaders are now campaigning for completely free, state-paid, education: the abolition of all fees, and much wider access to universities. However, most of South Africa’s students still come from an upper- and middle-class background, where paying fees is not a major problem. It is a major problem for (potential) students from poor backgrounds (black AND white). If the ‘student movement’ succeeds in abolishing fees it will mean that the state can’t spend money on the many things in South Africa that are even more urgent. It will mean the impoverishment of universities and it will mean that the students from rich backgrounds will go to private or foreign universities (and many do so already). Wouldn’t it be much better for students to campaign for equal access (and a more African curriculum) by increasing subsidy programmes for students from underprivileged backgrounds? And wouldn’t it be wise for Europe (including the Netherlands) to contribute to those efforts? CoCreateAccess! Not only in South Africa but in Africa as a whole!


2 thoughts on “Co-create South Africa? Co-create access to universities!

  1. Interesting perspectives and insights. Thank you for that! Yet, as someone working on a daily basis within the education space, especially with recent university graduates, I’ve not yet come across your points 2 and 3 as major issues (if at all). I haven’t heard prominent people like Jonathan Jansen speaking about it either. Point 3 is actually a political issue brought forward by the Economic Freedom Fighters, who joined in with some of the student protests. It’s not necessarily an issue brought forward by students themselves. Overall I would say with a proper Ducth saying: “de soep wordt niet zo heet gegeten als deze wordt opgediend!”

    Thank you also for the co-create solution. I don’t think that providing access for underprivileged is going to do much, based on my daily experiences. So please allow me to share my co-create proposed solution. I would rather say that SA should adopt free education, but…. Make the pass rates at higher education much higher than the shockingly low rate it is now. By doing so way less students qualify for universities, yet the ones that do will be able to do so at a (globally) competitive level. In due course learners will adopt to higher standards, at which time more qualified graduates come out of university and will benefit the economy. Which in return should allow the state to have more resources available for more students at universities.

    Bursary schemes won’t do the trick necessarily. About 50% of the first year students fail apparently, and in total only 20% of the students finish within the stipulated timelines. We should look at providing support structures for the ones in the system that will provide them with a solid base for future working life. We need to install social and soft skills which will allow them to have the same starting level as the “privileged” ones when leaving universities. We rather need to co-create support systems for students.

    My five cents.

  2. Beste Ton Dietz,

    graag deel ik onderstaande link (in het Nederlands) waarin ik mijn observaties deel wat betreft de studenten protesten in Zuid Afrika. Er is wat mij betreft dringend meer perspectief nodig vanuit de studenten ipv bestuurders.

    “Both meetings gave me an opportunity to better understand the anger of many South African students, and the explosive situation in South Africa’s universities, which is spreading to other parts of society in ways that may result in a new revolution. And a nasty one if some signs are to be taken seriously.”

    Deze blog gaat over de woede en zorgen van de twee VC’s die je hebt gesproken. In elke vorm van co-creatie is het om te beginnen van essentieel belang dat studenten serieus genomen worden en voor zichzelf spreken. En dat doen ze erg goed als je het mij vraagt.

    Hartelijke groet,

    Femke Brandt
    Post-doctoral fellow Cantre for African Studies, UCT.

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