'Anchored in Place' – Rethinking the university and development

Notions of ‘place’ in South Africa are inherently problematic and inextricably bound to the past. The idea and reality of the spaces in which its black, coloured and white populations live are, to a great extent, the socio-economic and cultural products of successive political programmes: the inhumane systems of population control along racialist lines implemented by the country’s past colonial and apartheid regimes, and the subsequent flawed efforts to remedy historical injustices enacted by the democratic government led by the African National Congress (ANC).

Accordingly, it is perhaps unsurprising that an activist academic engagement drives this eclectic, inter-disciplinary collection of 12 essays – Anchored in Place: Rethinking the university and development in South Africa – analysing the particular challenges that the country’s universities have faced as place-based institutions in helping to make and remake their local and regional neighbourhoods both before, but mainly after, the democratic election of 1994.

Two of the volume’s three co-editors – Nico Cloete and Leslie Bank – have played leading roles in progressive government, civil society and university-sponsored efforts to restructure the country’s higher education system and promote urban engagement for tertiary institutions in the Eastern Cape – both of which are key topics for the book.

It is therefore to the volume’s great credit that, while campaigning for a greater developmental role for universities in South Africa, whether as part of a differentiated higher education system or as catalysts for local, mainly urban growth, and despite high hopes of the benefits that may accrue as a result, it adopts a broadly agnostic view of the likelihood of effective university place-making and the impacts that such may bring.

Engaged scholarship

The measured approach is evident in the chapter written by fellow co-editor François van Schalkwyk with George de Lange on the kinds of market-, corporate- and community-based logics that inform a significant sample of “engaged” projects at the former Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) in the city of Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.

Under the 10-year reign of vice-chancellor Derrick Swartz from 2008, the university instituted engaged scholarship as a key performance area with a centralised system rewarding and measuring the activity among academic staff.

Although NMMU gained a national reputation for its developmental role as a result, Van Schalkwyk and De Lange describe its engagement with external communities as “place-sensitive” rather than “place-specific”.

In addition, while recognising the university’s increasingly applied, transdisciplinary and demand-driven approach to knowledge production, the authors give warning of an ad hoc, reactionary, opportunistic form of engagement for commercial benefit on the part of individual academics as an increasing proportion of the institution’s funding has been derived from third-stream income.

The theme of implementing an ethical innovation system that addresses the needs of the local community as much as the self-interest of academics also informs the chapter by Sara Grobbelaar on the University of Fort Hare’s efforts since 2015 to address the grievances of local villagers and chiefs who had been exposed to the scientific gaze of researchers from the institution for many years without receiving any notable long-term benefits as a result.

Contradictory functions of universities

More broadly, the volume interrogates Fort Hare’s capacity to resolve the often contradictory functions ascribed to universities by Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells, which included training and knowledge production as well as the selection of elites and the legitimation of ideologies within their host societies.

In a chapter which marries academic clarity and activist passion, Cloete and Ian Bunting place this analysis within the context of the university’s contradictory historical role in fostering the ideological contestation of dominant colonial and apartheid values while also producing an elite class of black functionaries to help implement the government systems that enacted these values.

As a lodestar of African liberation politics, the University of Fort Hare subsequently became a nostalgic favourite under the new ANC government, with many of its new and former graduates employed in the civil service which expanded rapidly after 1994. However, Cloete and Bunting argue, as the university’s unifying anti-apartheid ideology fragmented, it became prey to the conflicting values of competing aspirant elites.

At the same time, the university has sought to forge a new path, improving its standards of knowledge production and seeking, rhetorically at least, to expand its place-based links with its two campuses: the main historical one in the rural town of Alice; and a smaller but rapidly expanding base in the city of East London which it was gifted in 2002 when the national higher education system was restructured.

However, citing the severe financial constraints facing the institution, Cloete and Bunting note the failure of the institution’s efforts to embed its physical and knowledge-production presence in the socio-economic and cultural fabric of East London.

Disclocation of Fort Hare

The theme of Fort Hare’s dislocation is echoed in a chapter by Jay Thakrar which describes the “(in)significance” of the town of Alice to the university, arguing that this has historical precedent in the deliberate efforts of apartheid planners to turn the institution away from its neighbourhood in order to produce docile students willing to administer the local Bantustan.

Both Cloete and Bunting, and Bank compare Fort Hare’s place-based historical trajectory with that of the premier university of white Afrikanerdom at Stellenbosch, which served as the ideological and human-resources fountainhead of apartheid for more than 50 years. The university and its peer institution in the nation’s capital – the University of Pretoria – were also mandated to oversee agricultural development, evoking comparisons with the founding mandate of the US Land Grant universities established in the middle of the 19th century.

Stellenbosch University’s well-funded academic success and post-1994 place-based engagement which has dismantled the fences around the campus, blurring the distinction between town and gown while seeking to promote more inclusive development in its neighbourhood, are contrasted sharply with the challenges faced by Fort Hare in East London.

Many of the more than 15,000 students in East London’s inner city who are attending Fort Hare, as well as Walter Sisulu University and the University of South Africa (UNISA), live in deplorable conditions and lack many of the basic transport and communications services and retail, cultural and leisure facilities which are integral to the reproduction of student life.

The volume describes their uprising in 2015, when they brought the centre of the city to a standstill, setting fires and erecting barricades in the streets, as a form of ‘fast’ violence responding to the 'slow’ violence of urban neglect in the degraded heart of deindustrialising East London.

University-city knowledge precincts

Deploying international theories of the role of universities as anchor institutions and catalysts of innovation districts, Bank and Francis Sibanda describe an initiative, promoted by Fort Hare at the time of its centenary in 2016, to forge a university-city knowledge precinct in the centre of town.

Bringing together the municipality, the private sector and the local hospitals and universities, the plan sought to leverage the provision of adequate accommodation, amenities and services to the students as part of a larger scheme that could foster inner-city regeneration and provide an academic heart to East London in the absence of a single higher education institution dedicated to its development.

Although the plan had little initial impact, it sparked significant debate on the issue of place-making in South Africa and has subsequently led to a further proposal for the establishment of a university-city precinct now led by the local development agency.

Meanwhile, the University of Pretoria has embarked on a programme, which includes some similar elements, to improve the precinct around its campus in Hatfield, as is described by Denver Hendricks and Jaime Flaherty.

Importantly, such schemes have also focused attention on key factors that have impeded efforts to promote university place-making in the country.

Triple-helix cooperation

David Perry and Natalia Villamizar-Duarte describe the importance of progressive social contracts to ensure the democratisation of benefits that ensue from triple-helix cooperation with the private sector in university-city place-making. However, the threat of gentrification is perhaps one of the lesser impediments faced by those seeking to promote place-based cooperation between municipalities and universities – much greater is the contestation for position and wealth in a society in which the idea that there is not enough to go around has taken root.

As Bank and Mark Paterson argue, the high cost of fees and inadequate accommodation are seen by university students as potentially preventing them from acquiring the qualifications that enable their entry into the national bourgeoisie. Parochial rather than broader concerns for neighbourhood or national development tend to motivate their protests.

Meanwhile, underfunded universities struggling to manage in the face of massification may be unlikely to prioritise third-mission engagement, leaving the onus on local municipalities, which are anyway better placed to address the issue within their core mandate.

In this context, it is noteworthy that Alan Mabin adopts a deeply sceptical view of the conditions under which university place-making can thrive. He argues in his chapter on the relationship between the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and its host city of Johannesburg that “deep pockets” and human agency, rather than larger structural or historical forces, led to the establishment of two of the most successful examples of triple-helix place-making in South Africa: the Hillbrow Health Precinct and the Tshimologong Digital Innovation Hub.

Indeed, Mabin emphasises that the general improvement of the Braamfontein area in which the Wits campus and Tshimologong hub are located predates any attempt on the part of the university to engage with its neighbourhood.

In some ways, Mabin’s analysis may be seen as symptomatic of the zero-sum conundrum facing efforts to promote development, which has been acknowledged by national policy-makers: growth without transformation of the racial and class profile of those who profit most only reinforces the inequitable patterns of income and wealth inherited from the past, while transformation without economic growth is narrow and unsustainable.

Emphasis on the aspirational

In response, political capital is accrued by promising universal equity – a better life for all – rather than by managing the socio-economic and spatial realities of how that may be achieved. This emphasis on the aspirational has given rise to some striking dramatic ironies in the political theatre of place-making.

In the college town of Alice, the adoption of a development agenda emphasising the importance of the university’s role has been accompanied by new signage welcoming visitors to the town that has removed all reference to it as “the home of … Fort Hare”.

Meanwhile, despite its proclaimed commitment to the development of its surrounding municipality, NMMU has removed the “Metropolitan” from its name – freeing, according to one student leader, the cohort to imagine the university as “a place that guarantees any individual the future they have potential for”.

More broadly, there is a lack of coordinated national policy with appropriate implementation mechanisms linking knowledge innovation and development, as Samuel Fongwa notes in this volume.

Developmental role

However, as both Cloete and Bank suggest, all of this merely serves to underline the continuing crucial importance of forging genuinely urban universities in South Africa and the broad developmental as well as neighbourhood-specific roles that such institutions may play.

Interdisciplinary knowledge-production by the country’s universities has increasingly come to focus on the challenges of urbanisation, while recognition of the academic, socio-economic and cultural benefits of precincts that blur the spatial and functional boundaries between campus and city has mounted.

Accordingly, this volume represents a call on South African universities to continue their engagement with external actors and to redouble their efforts to resolve the spatial, socio-economic and cultural disjunctures produced by the past – efforts which may prove crucial to the success or otherwise of local, regional and national development efforts.

Anchored in Place: Rethinking the university and development in South Africa, edited by Leslie Bank, Nico Cloete, François van Schalkwyk, is published by African Minds Publishers and is available from African Books Collective.

Mark Paterson is a senior journalist and communications consultant with a wide range of non-governmental, government and academic organisations. He is the co-author with Leslie Bank of a chapter entitled "The politics and pathology of place: Student protests, collective consumption and the right to the city in East London" in Anchored in Place.