Bitter race rows follow 20-year democracy celebrations

In the wake of 20 years of democracy celebrations, two occurrences in universities starkly reminded South Africans of how far the country has yet to go to overcome apartheid. The death of popular Stellenbosch Vice-chancellor Russel Botman sparked accusations that he had been ‘killed’ by Afrikaner conservatives, while Cape Town was fiercely attacked by black intellectuals after unveiling a new student admissions policy.

South Africa’s academic community was stunned at the news that Botman had died in his sleep at home on 27 June, at the age of 61. Tributes poured in from around the country and the world for the first black vice-chancellor of Stellenbosch University.

Botman was an internationally respected theologian who advised the World Alliance of Reformed Churches in Geneva, and on 8 July the University of Aberdeen in Scotland bestowed an honorary doctorate on him posthumously.

Back home, shock was quickly replaced by outrage as it came out through the media that Botman had been placed under enormous destructive pressures by powerful white Afrikaner alumni and council members opposed to his transformation vision.

Stellenbosch is an historically white, Afrikaans language university that was seen as the intellectual centre of apartheid. Efforts to transform the university by Botman and his predecessor Professor Chris Brink met with fierce resistance from conservatives.

It is believed that Brink and his family came under threat before leaving for the UK where he took up the post of vice-chancellor of Newcastle University.

On 2 July Marianne Thamm, in the online Daily Maverick, told a hair-raising tale of Botman’s week before his death.

It included stories in Afrikaans language newspapers suggesting that senior people at the university had lodged a formal complaint against Botman, that he was facing a council motion of no confidence and possible dismissal, and about unhappiness with a Centre for Inclusivity he set up to offer guidance on creating an inclusive atmosphere on campus.

Jonathan Jansen

If there is anybody who could fully understand what it is like to be a black leader of an historically white university, it is Professor Jonathan Jansen, vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State. Like Botman, Jansen is of mixed race – known as ‘coloured’ in South Africa – and heads a conservative Afrikaans institution.

In his widely read column in The Times newspaper on 11 July, Jansen wrote about the high personal costs of transformation.

“Speak to any ‘transformation officer’ at a former white university, or a private sector firm for that matter, and you will often find a battered and disillusioned spirit. It is an impossible task,” Jansen said.

“You work hard to change the numbers with respect to the dominance of white students on campus or white men in senior management, but change is painfully slow. You are hounded by some factions for changing too fast, and blamed by other factions for not changing at all.”

The question widely asked after Botman’s death was who had killed him, implying that there were different ways of killing a person. “One is through relentless pressure on a tender soul. Too harsh?” asked Jansen, continuing later:

“Those who do not read the Afrikaans papers would be blissfully unaware of the role of gossip, rumour, insult, intimidation, side-lining and sheer slander this gentle theologian had to bear for the past few years.

“The more he pushed for transformation, the more he was mercilessly vilified by right-wing alumni, aided and abetted by the Afrikaans press, in blogger postings, in alumni associations, and in formal gatherings of the institution.”

Botman’s ‘crime’, Jansen wrote, had been pushing for more black students to be accepted, including through introducing a more flexible language policy, wanting the names changed of buildings named after white supremacists, and creating the Centre for Inclusiveness to “challenge the deeply racist, sexist and homophobic foundations” of the university.

Some historically white Afrikaans universities used language to avoid transforming, Jansen said: “Somebody must tell these campus leaders that in the wake of our horrific racist past, white-dominant campuses in this country are morally unacceptable, demographically unjust and educationally dangerous.

“Afrikaans as a language is vital to our multilingual democracy, and must expand, but as the handmaiden of social justice, not racial exclusion.”

University of Cape Town

Meanwhile, the University of Cape Town has come under fire for its new student admissions policy, which was finally approved last month after years of contestation.

The ‘hybrid’ policy deploys three mechanisms for selecting students – one part of the class will be chosen just on marks; a second portion will be selected on performance and ability while taking account of school and home background; and a third group of students will be chosen based on race and academic performance in order to achieve demographic targets.

Vice-chancellor Max Price said the policy took a step away from affirmative action based purely on race, 20 years into democracy and in line with constitutional goals of non-racism, and would still enable the university to increase the number of both black and disadvantaged students.

Two decades into democracy, a swelling black middle-class and growing numbers of black students graduating from excellent schools meant that many black students should be selected purely on performance while many others were still profoundly disadvantaged and needed selection based on potential.

But some black intellectuals vehemently disagreed, including Xolela Mangcu, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town and an Oppenheimer Fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African-American Research at Harvard University.

He wrote in the national Sunday Times newspaper, in an article behind a paywall, that “whiteness continues to be ingrained as a standard of academic potential in South African universities” and that Cape Town’s new admission policy should be seen in the context of a history of English speaking universities unable to deal with race.

“On the face of it, you would think that this move away from ‘race’ is a step in the right direction – until you come face to face with the numbers. They are a shocking representation of racial inequality.”

Mangcu went on to reveal that last year the number of black South African academic staff at Cape Town was 48 out of 1,405 – or 3% – and that the number had grown by only two black people since 2009.

“And listen to this: there is not a single black South African woman who is a full professor at UCT. Not one, in 2013! That statistic is unacceptable in an inclusive democratic society.” Of 174 South Africans who are full professors at the university, 148 – 85% – are white.

In terms of student admissions, Mangcu wrote that black students comprised about 22% of all students at the University of Cape Town but 80% of the population. In this he was wrong. By 2012, 58% of students were black, including 33% black African, 17% of mixed race and 8% ethnic Indian. The proportion of white students declined from 53% in 2000 to 43% in 2012.

But the public damage had been done – and the outrageous staff figures were correct.

Max Price responded to the article last Monday, among other things making a distinction between staff and student demographic profiles, especially regarding student admissions.

“There is no disagreement between us on the lamentable lack of demographic transformation amongst senior academic staff,” wrote Price, adding that the university’s employment statistics had been publicised and agonised over in the search for solutions.

While Mangcu implied that the reason for low numbers of black professors was racism, this was not the case – there was a wider problem. It generally took more than 20 years after a PhD to become a professor. The pool of black academics available for a professorship in 2014 was a proportion of the pool of black PhD graduates in 1994.

“Given our history, this was a very small pool. Few in that small pool chose academic careers over offers from the new government, civil service and corporates, all desperate to recruit highly skilled black professionals. So this is not a UCT problem – it is a national university sector problem."

Regarding total numbers of African professors, only eight of 23 public universities had more than Cape Town, with size also being a factor for much bigger universities.

Cape Town had an African woman professor in 2012, Price said, but with only 28 African women professors in the whole country, spread across 22 universities, “it isn’t surprising that 17 have either none or one,” wrote Price.

“We remain frustrated at the slow progress but foresee a future with a majority of academic staff being black – as is already the case with non-academic staff (72% black)."