Report on university racial tension sparks furious debate

A report from the South African Human Rights Commission investigation into allegations of racial tension, unfair discrimination and harassment at South Africa’s mega open distance education institution, the University of South Africa (Unisa), has produced heated debate in the media. On the one side are concerns that equity policies overlook merit; on the other, concerns about the “delegitimisation of black pain” in pursuit of a “dubious” sense of social cohesion.

In an online article on 13 November, Member of Parliament and [opposition] Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister for Higher Education and Training Professor Belinda Bozzoli claimed that the report, focused mainly on the College of Law, suggests that Unisa was implementing “rigid” race and gender quotas with a “Stalinist zeal”.

“There is, it seems, no room for humanity here. The personal situations of individuals are of no concern to the guardians of the quota, the human resources department and the employment equity office,” she writes.

From the report, Bozzoli extracts testimony from one “coloured” female employee who was allegedly told she could not “get a different job within Unisa because we have enough ‘coloured’ women, indeed we have ‘too many’; and a white female employee with 10 years’ service who also was told she “could not get a better job within the institution because she was white”.

‘Toxic’ environment

Describing what she said seems to be a “toxic” environment, Bozzoli highlights reports from black staff of “harassment and bullying, exclusion from improvement programmes, complaints that mentorship is patronising, and a generalised feeling that those appointed at the lower ranks (mainly black) were the victims of discrimination, were stifled and were treated differently from those at more senior levels (mainly white)”.

“From white staff there are reports that they are openly insulted, ignored and bullied, made to do work that black colleagues failed to do, accused of racism if they comment on black colleagues’ competency, unable to obtain promotion or other jobs in the institution and that they carry the research workload of the university.”

Bozzoli went further to say that the report suggests that the “rigid quota-based system is itself badly implemented, and the surrounding institutional mechanisms designed to make it happen are poorly designed and managed”.

‘Baseless’ accusations

In a strongly worded rejoinder published five days later, Kgagudi Morota, writing on behalf of the Unisa Black Forum, which made representations to the committee which sat in late 2017 and early 2018, accused Bozzoli of being arrogant in her attempt to paint “a picture of a reckless process whose aim is to empower blacks at the expense of whites without any basis whatsoever”.

He accused Bozzoli of being among those seeking to “whitewash centuries-old damage to the black majority by a white settler minority” with the result being “a wholesale delegitimisation of black pain in pursuit of the dubious objective of social cohesion in the absence of justice”.

Morota said the Unisa Black Forum had a “legitimate agenda to transform what may be described as one of the few remaining bastions of white supremacist ideas and privilege”. While he described the report as “highly flawed”, and said his forum categorically rejects the spirit and letter of the report, this was on a basis “far removed” from that of Bozzoli.

SAHRC report

In its submission to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), the Unisa Black Forum described Unisa as an “anti-black” institution and claimed that black academics and-or staff members were suffering at the hands of their white counterparts and under systemic or institutional racism.

The report lists a total of 30 complaints from staff ranging from emotional abuse, fear and victimisation to racist statements, hate speech on social media, abusive language, sexist comments, sexual harassment, racial innuendoes and slurs, and sub-human treatment in the presence of management.

Among a list of staff grievances about dispute resolution procedures is listed the following: “White and black perpetrators and victims get treated differently in terms of sanctions and access to services.”

'Alarmist’ intervention

Weighing in on the debate a few days later, Unisa Vice-Chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya, who had lodged a complaint with the SAHRC on 11 December 2017 regarding allegations of racial tension and harassment in the College of Law, described Bozzoli’s intervention as “alarmist and disturbing”, intended to “cause friction, resentment and polarisation among Unisa staff members” and undermine efforts to build harmony within the university community.

He said the “insinuation” by Bozzoli that the appointment of blacks equates to a threat on quality and declining of standards is “a serious affront and insult to the black staff of our university, who are qualified, experienced, seasoned and dedicated professionals. It is in fact, an insult to the black race in general.”

Defending his institution, he said the university programme to ensure that the workforce is representative and reflects the country’s demographics is not “Unisa’s own creation” but a statutory requirement.

He said Bozzoli, a former deputy-vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, should know better than to paint a picture of a reckless process whose aim is to empower blacks at the expense of whites without any basis whatsoever. “Such advocacy is the stuff on which agent provocateurs thrive – something we hope she is not.”

He said his institution’s employment equity plans and targets were a legal requirement and that internal processes to fill vacancies were “transparent and representative”, involving organised labour.

He said there was “ongoing engagement” on the report and implementation of its recommendations by the SAHRC, the university and staff. Furthermore, Unisa was currently on a “drive to transform itself” to fit the mantle of “the African university shaping futures in the service of humanity”.

In his own take on the matter, Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda, a professor of law at the University of Limpopo and former employee of Unisa for 16 years, said Bozzoli’s article tended to propagate a “racial profiling of black academics as generally below-average performers”.

“Likewise, it celebrated the unpalatable generalised suggestion that blacks in the college or colleges identified are problematic and deviant. We must all be concerned … about this kind of pronouncement,” he said.

Sibanda said Unisa and other institutions of higher learning could address the situation by explicitly writing diversity into mission and policy statements to convey the sense that diversity is a high priority, and simultaneously focus on growing the next generation of senior academics.


Among the recommendations coming out of the SAHRC report, many of which were based on recommendations made in the National Hearing Report into Transformation at Public Universities in South Africa in 2016, are the following:
  • • Accountability of management in implementation of the transformation agenda should be strengthened.

  • • Establishment of a diversity and transformation fund and the allocation of resources to redress the inequitable race and gender imbalance.

  • • The Employment Equity Office should be located in the office of the vice-chancellor who has prime responsibility for ensuring the implementation of the policy and the equity plans.

  • • Development or strengthening of a policy on racism and racial harassment.

  • • Review of current governance models to ensure they do not hinder transformation.

  • • The development of effective complaints handling procedures.

  • • Development or strengthening of policies for management and resolution of protest action.

  • • The promotion of social cohesion initiatives by the Change Management Unit.

  • • The establishment of a Centre for Human Rights at Unisa to provide institutional support from a human rights perspective within university structures and assist, by means of appropriate research initiatives, in the cultivation of a human rights-oriented institutional culture.