Strong leadership needed to confront academic xenophobia

The presence of xenophobic practices in South Africa’s higher learning institutions can be blamed on a lack of strong leadership in the universities, which has turned a blind eye on the vice by allowing expediency to prevail over merit.

While nearly all public universities in the country presented and loudly proclaimed themselves as African training and research institutions, both in focus and leaning, academic xenophobia remained a hard-to-ignore reality, directed at expatriate black lecturers and researchers.

The presence of ‘black on black’ xenophobia, however subtle, was, nevertheless, in the universities, largely because nearly all of them had some level of non-local African academic staff.

While there is a need to have higher numbers of native South Africans in the country’s academia, universities are the last places where the vice should be found, as the institutions were bastions of knowledge and intellectualism, a presidential round table on Science, Scholarship and Society hosted by the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) on 24 November heard.

The discussion followed a commentary by Professor Jonathan Jansen, the president of ASSAf, in its September newsletter in which he wrote that one of the most serious threats facing higher education and the scientific enterprise in South Africa was the rising tide of xenophobia within academia.

A ‘delicate’ relationship

Affirmative action, often taken to remedy the situation, however, needs to recognise that the pronounced presence of the foreign academicians had been occasioned by the need to fill a vacuum in universities’ faculties.

Addressing the challenge in a fair and non-prejudicial manner was not an easy task because it meant remedying the shortage, while building a strong pool of local academics and researchers, said Professor Sakhela Buhlungu, the vice-chancellor of the University of Fort Hare in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province.

“In order to deal with the problem, we first have to appreciate the delicate nature of the relationship between foreign nationals and locals who have been denied certain rights, including intellectual rights,” the vice-chancellor told the event titled the ‘Threat of Academic Xenophobia to the Future of South African Universities’.

While it was common for the average person to “stereotype everything and accuse them [strangers] of everything”, universities have not been spared. As a vice-chancellor, he had been lobbied by locals to ‘act’ on the unusually high number of foreign members of faculty at Fort Hare.

“When I joined the university in 2017 there were so many foreigners [working there] and I would be asked to block the foreigners but I refused, because I thought the problem was bigger …” he added.

“It never made sense for me to push them out. It never crossed my mind, though I was concerned about the low number of local academics.”

What bothered him more, he explained, was how to increase the number of young local scholars joining the faculty, especially young women lecturers.

He traced the perceived ‘problem’ of high numbers of foreign faculty to the widely held view that, at the end of apartheid in 1994, many black South Africans went for top civil service jobs, joined politics or became business leaders.

This, according to him, left the country with a low number of native South Africans who pursued postgraduate studies, which is what is required to be able to serve in universities as lecturers and researchers.

The result has been a shortage of local academics in many institutions, creating a vacuum that has been filled by foreign expatriates, predominantly Zimbabweans and Nigerians.

At the university, Buhlungu acknowledged, some departments were “100% run by foreigners”, while as many as 85% of doctorate graduates would be foreigners, a number the university had worked hard to lower, now standing at around 65% foreign graduates.

This, he noted, was a real problem, big enough to elicit a feeling of resentment among some locals, but he had refused to join the “bandwagon against foreigners”.

One solution to the crisis that can, at the same time, ensure that there was no shortage of academics was to expand the diversity of expatriate lecturers – to go beyond Zimbabwean and Nigerian nationals, the vice-chancellor suggested.

“We need to expand and diversify the range of non-locals to go beyond the two dominant countries and bring in scholars from across Africa, and to also bring in more Indians and whites to help end black to black xenophobia,” he added.

Can weak leadership contribute?

While xenophobia in a university is worrying and can squarely be blamed on weak leadership, resentment was a common trait in every society and emanated from a sense of insecurity, triggered by competition for resources and opportunities, argued Professor Evance Kalula, emeritus professor of law, University of Cape Town.

The difference, however, lay in the kind of actions leadership in institutions took, and the extent of them, to tame it.

“While I have encountered hostility from colleagues and line managers, I must say that black students, and from across all races, have been incredible. They have been very receptive [to foreigners],” the professor told the virtual audience.

Noting that he had personally benefited from being taught by exiled lecturers from South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria in his native Zambia, he acknowledged that a university in which its people (nationals) were in the minority in the academic staff faculty ‘has a problem’.

“However, simply resenting and blaming foreign academics, and especially African ones, for the absence of local ones is wrong,” he cautioned.

But for the fear of being victimised in South Africa on the basis of their countries of origin, many African intellectuals now teaching in the diaspora would be working in the country’s universities, Kalula believes.

Giving the example of Malaysia and Singapore, once one state in the 1960s, he said that the National University of Singapore thrived by accepting expatriate lecturers when the two nations separated in 1965, to become one of the highest-ranked institutions in Asia. On the other hand, the University of Malaya stagnated partly for rejecting non-local faculty.

“South Africa has the right to develop its own people, but prejudice against non-native blacks, and xenophobia, are real and wrong, [and] we in academia need to tackle it in the interests of South Africa,” the professor declared.

According to Dr Precious Simba, a lecturer in the department of education policy studies at Stellenbosch University, at least 14 universities in South Africa perceived themselves as African universities in their mottos and mission statements, raising questions on where the disconnect came about by being hostile to non-locals in their ranks.

“Universities should always see themselves as part of a large community of knowledge and should always hold themselves to the high standards that the society holds us to,” she cautioned.

It was becoming almost impossible, she said, for non-South Africans to join the academia in the country at the moment due to ongoing “ring-fencing of academic space”.

“From my experience I can, however, say that students are open, want to learn and do not care about your origin. Our colleagues, though, are not as accommodating, and there are some who are pushing for a policy change so that universities do not employ foreign academics,” she said.