The Soudien Report: Deny racism at your peril

High on the agenda of last week's Stakeholder Summit on Higher Education Transformation was the Soudien Report, a damning government-commissioned probe that brought to light discrimination - especially racism and sexism - still endemic at South African universities.

The shocking findings of the investigation led by University of Cape Town Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Crain Soudien, based largely on questionnaires and visits to the country's 23 public universities, were what pushed Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande to hold the summit.

"The Soudien Report shows racism and discrimination is still an issue," said Nzimande during his speech to stakeholders on Thursday at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. "It provides a stark and credible picture of the situation at our universities."

The Soudien committee inquiry was launched in March 2008 after a video showing a racist incident at the University of the Free State became public. White Afrikaner students were filmed humiliating five black cleaning staff at the residence.

It the probe exposed "pervasive" discrimination at universities nationwide, and the failure of institutions to adequately deal with these challenges. The report contained a range of key recommendations that each university is expected to adopt to varying degrees.

Soudien presented his thoughts on the investigation to the summit on Thursday.

He said that while legislation and regulation in the higher education system was sound, significant problems remained. The response to the new legislative platform had largely been one of compliance - the antithesis of what a university stands for.

"The real difficulty we have in this country is imagining ourselves outside of our history," said Soudien. "What is now called for, especially for us in universities, is imagining new ways of being South Africans. We must think beyond the limits of our current framework."

Soudien said there was an urgent structural issue at play. Universities were not geared toward including African students, and when they were admitted, the system conspired against them. This accounted for the sobering statistic that only 5% of Africans aged 18 to 24 would graduate, compared to a more than 60% graduation rate among their white peers.

Soudien said that although change had taken place at the institutional level, the report uncovered a huge number of complaints, especially from black students and staff. The main issue cited was direct and indirect racism.

Black students expressed disappointment at the lack of respect directed at them and their inability to flourish, while a sense of ambivalence and confusion was rife among black members of staff.

"Institutions need to think deeply about how we conduct ourselves inside and outside of the classroom," said Soudien. "How do we escape the encoding of the past?"

The report has drawn criticism. Detractors accuse it of being methodologically flawed and of not being entirely representative.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union, NEHAWU, said the report failed to confront the struggles plaguing support staff at tertiary institutions, such as cleaning, kitchen and grounds staff. The report has also been slated for not taking financial constraints into consideration. The opposition Democratic Alliance accused it of providing impractical recommendations by not grasping the funding crunch dogging universities.

But the response from the sector has, on the whole, been positive. Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the leadership body representing vice-chancellors, compiled a paper detailing 13 universities' responses to the report, to be published this year.

"[HESA] took the view that the report should be welcomed," said Professor Barney Pityana, chair of the association's transformation strategy group and vice-chancellor of the University of South Africa, who presented the findings of the preliminary paper at the summit. "It provides a platform for debate on the issue of transformation."

Pityana said there were multiple responses to the report within institutions and in the sector as a whole, making a single institutional or sector response impossible.

All universities acknowledged their role in promoting human rights and advancing the economic status of all South Africans, but emphasised that these responsibilities should be the subject of ongoing debate and discussion rather than something that could be achieved by uniform measures adopted by decree across the sector.

Pityana said the key to transformation was for the higher education system to reposition itself by asking three fundamental questions: What is the purpose of a higher education institution? What kind of system supports this purpose? What attributes does a university espouse?

South Africa's Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, when opening the summit, said issues of transformation must be overcome. "If we fail to address these challenges, our freedom will have limited meaning for many people, especially the poorest of the poor," he said.

Soudien had a more ominous message. "On campus we remain subjects of race and racism," Soudien said. "We deny it at our peril."