Protests highlight need for teaching and learning re-think

The #FeesMustFall and other student protests had posed serious questions about the nature of access and the decolonisation of teaching and learning in the country’s higher education institutions, according to University of KwaZulu-Natal, or UKZN, Acting Dean of the School of Education and Associate Professor Thabo Msibi.

Addressing the UKZN 10th annual Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Conference held in Durban, South Africa from 20-22 September, Msibi said if South Africa and its people genuinely recognised the need for a transformed higher education system in which everyone is treated fairly and ethically, support for the #FeesMustFall campaign and free higher education should follow as a matter of course.

He argued there was an ethical and moral obligation, not merely a political one, to the call for free higher education.

Msibi said the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements had posed serious questions about the nature of access and the decolonisation of teaching and learning.

“At the heart of the tensions are questions on teacher identity and positionality, as well as responsive knowledge and pedagogies that speak to South Africa’s historical and political contexts,” he said.

Ostriches and finger-pointers

Msibi said the response for many academics had been to either adopt an ‘ostrich’ approach by pretending the problems did not exist and maintaining the status quo in teaching, or to engage in ‘finger pointing’ and criticising of students without responding substantively to the questions being raised.

Not only had both of these approaches failed, presenting higher education institutions as perpetually resistant to transformation, but Msibi argued they had also halted innovation within teaching and learning.

He said everyone within higher education structures should consider their transformation and decolonisation paths in order to institute change.

The #RhodesMustFall campaign, while a call for decolonisation, was not a demand by black students for the complete eradication of whiteness within universities. More accurately, it was a call to hear other voices in the argument and in the curriculum.

Student ‘Tsotsis’

Msibi criticised the mentality behind descriptions of the current wave of protesters across South Africa’s higher education campuses as ‘student tsotsis’. The word tsotsi is a South African word meaning young, black urban criminal and historically evolved from young black gangsters belonging to a group prominent in the 1940s and 1950s who adopted a flashy dress sense and a special language.

Msibi referred to similar student uprisings in the past that had brought about change in South Africa. One example was the political uprisings among white students in the late 1980s and early 1990s during which they protested against apartheid and separatism, he said.

He argued while it was only a minority of students burning and looting university property, the entire student body was branded tsotsis, a move that closed doors to conversations, open dialogue, and the sharing of experiences.

Msibi said academics failed to engage with their students as people with their own histories and stories, which meant a failure to understand personal contexts characterised by socio-economic hardships, physical and sexual abuse, loss of parents and premature independence.

He said transformation was not only about written texts, but about the daily experiences of students and how the past was embedded in the present, and thus affected the future.

Students’ stories

“These cases are not unique. There are too many students suffering these issues, yet we just want to deliver our courses and erase their stories. In that context, the no-fees debate is central to transformation,” he said.

According to Msibi, the 2008 Ministerial Committee on Transformation, Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions, which followed a racist incident at the University of the Free State, established definitively that none of the country’s universities were transforming sufficiently which meant that non-white students continued to feel marginalised in post-apartheid institutions.

Msibi said the #RhodesMustFall campaign was a trigger that had forced more serious thought about what white supremacy means within higher education. That discussion was intrinsically linked to decolonisation and what was being taught across various curricula, he said.

Reconsidering relevance

He called on teachers to consider whether their material was outdated or irrelevant to the student bodies that now sat before them.

“Do those curricula include black authors or even local authors? Are we only using Northern Hemisphere theories or are Southern Hemisphere voices also being heard in our institutions?” he asked.

Furthermore, such introspection should include how language use within institutions may have the effect of marginalising students, he said.

Msibi said those opposing transformation used racist language to argue their case. The first such argument was that vice-chancellors of the past were “better” than current vice-chancellors. The second was the view that transformation necessarily meant the collapse of South Africa’s higher education institutions. A third argument was that it takes 20 years for an academic to make professorship and that the country does not have sufficient black academics to fulfil these roles. He said the latter argument embodied the view that the only way to validate standards was via whiteness.

“That is problematic,” he said.