Academic xenophobia has no place in a globalised world

In vogue during the dark days of apartheid during the 1980s were terms like ‘international hotel’, or more idiotically, ‘international toilet’. ‘International’ in the apartheid lexicon meant multiracial, multiethnic and multinational. The ‘international’ category facilitated stays by black Bantustan and foreign African diplomats who were visiting ‘white’ South Africa.

After apartheid, ‘international’ took on new negative connotations when associated with makwerekere (foreigners), black African in-migrants whose presence in a liberated South Africa was often resented by the locals.

Historically, a recurring question was, what does ‘international’ mean for any South African city hosting one or more universities? For example, Durban patterns an Indian city in Africa, a Zulu city in India, and possibly a European city Africanised. It offers an astonishing mixture of languages, ethnicities and religions.

While at the University of KwaZulu-Natal where I worked as director of the Centre for Communication, Media and Society on the Durban Howard College Campus for 29 years (1985-2014) I actively assisted in the recruitment of international students and the pursuit of inter-institutional collaborations in the 1990s, facilitated by the UKZN International Office.

That office, well before the #Fallist movements of the 2015 era, was looking to enable ‘decolonisation’ and address parochialism by attracting fee-paying African students onto the university’s diversifying campuses.

The danger of parochialism

Glocalisation, until the international supply chain was disrupted by COVID-19 in 2020, was the new buzz word in the humanities and social sciences as digitisation had changed the world, interconnecting everyone, immediately, all the time. ‘Being local’ thus indicated a relationship with being global.

Research universities are now operating in an internationally competitive intercultural knowledge market. If our universities remain parochial, so will our students, as will our research topics and our educational priorities. National policy making will reflect this parochialism, as indicated by the panellists who contributed to an Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) Presidential Roundtable Discussion held at the end of 2022 called to engage on ‘The threat of academic xenophobia to the future of South African universities’.

If UKZN was indeed the ‘Premier University for African Scholarship’ as it claimed from 2004 when it formally merged with the University of Durban-Westville, then we must understand that Africa is not just Durban, the KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa or even Africa. Since the African diaspora is now everywhere spread across the Western world, that is the identity that we need to embrace, and that was the advice offered by the roundtable panellists.

Moreover, they argued, institutional and employment and recruitment policies must reflect an international remit. It is internationalisation at every level that vests excellence in the world’s top universities. This is because these institutions attract the best students and scholars from everywhere, as former University of the Free State vice-chancellor, Jonathan Jansen, and current ASSAf president observed while chairing the panel.

The first wave

In the academic arena, prejudice directed against ‘foreigners’ (ie, students and academic staff recruited predominantly from the former frontline states of Zimbabwe and Zambia), occurred from the mid-1990s when the first wave of excited, exciting and exhilarating international graduate scholars and newly appointed lecturers arrived expectantly on many South African campuses.

For some universities, this influx positively reshaped these institutions in terms of diversity, intellectually, conceptually and culturally, repositioning them as regional players. The in-migrants’ own earlier historical experiences of arrested liberation had matured them to benefit from and be benefited by the brave new world that South Africa had promised in the mid-1990s.

From pervasive intellectual, cultural and historical parochialism, reinforced by the cultural and academic boycotts during the apartheid era, South Africa instantly, with the release of Nelson Mandela and the unbanning in February 1990 of the liberation movements, became the focus of global attention.

Set up in 1992, UKZN’s International Office signed up within a short time well over 200 collaboration agreements. The university’s campuses were swamped with visiting delegations from all over the world and from the rest of Africa.

South African academics and students were invited to become mobile global academic citizens. They were recipients of international grants, engaging in collaborative projects and securing previously unimaginable teaching, sabbatical, research, study abroad exchanges and resourcing opportunities.

Then the Mandela effect began to wear off. Instead of capitalising on this once-off and extraordinary effect for the national benefit, it seems that little had changed by those who participated in the panel at the end of 2022, as was indicated by everyone who spoke on the ASSAf panel.

Nicole Fritz, director of the Helen Suzman Foundation named after an implacable anti-apartheid campaigner, drew attention to the impending Sub-Saharan intra-continental migration caused by climate change. This mass movement is anticipated to become an ‘existential issue’ in the near term in the face of official inertia across the region.

Staying the threatened termination of Zimbabwean exemption work permits was one of the Suzman Foundation’s projects. The Department of Home Affairs’ announcement in 2022 that the permits would be revoked was made without consultation with the affected constituencies, including schools, colleges and universities that employ Zimbabwean expatriates.

These kinds of ad hoc decisions indicate a lack of foresight by the much-criticised department with regard to migration planning, not to mention academic productivity (see Grant 2022). Fritz asked whether universities were educating their graduates to address these kinds of concerns.

Contradictions unleashed

Jansen argues that one of the most serious threats facing higher education and the scientific enterprise in South Africa is the rising tide of academic xenophobia. It seems that the contradictions unleashed by internationalisation during the 1990s have intensified, given the examples offered by the panellists.

While 14 of the 15 universities surveyed by panellist Dr Precious Simba (Zimbabwe), a lecturer in the Department of Education Policy Studies at Stellenbosch University, proclaim themselves African training and research institutions, a “disconnect” often occurs within them in the form of xenophobia targeted at “foreign African nationals”.

Resentment by South African hosts usually emanates from a sense of insecurity and entitlement, triggered by competition for resources and opportunities. Nevertheless, Evance Kalula (Zambia), emeritus professor of law at the University of Cape Town, observed that, while he has “encountered hostility from colleagues and line managers”, his students “from across all races”, “have been very receptive [to foreigners]”.

The panel spoke candidly, largely from the heart, illustrated with examples of discrimination against foreigner professionals. They talked about themselves being in the “trenches” and, indeed, just six weeks after the roundtable, panellist Sakhela Buhlungu (vice-chancellor of the University of Fort Hare [UFH]) survived a second attempt on his life, though his bodyguard was killed. Reports of other senior UFH managers having been previously (and since) attacked and assassinated by those engaged in ‘mischief’ made the national press.

Previously, one of my former UKZN colleagues, Gregory Kamwendo, from Malawi, who moved to University of Zululand (UZ), was murdered for exposing degree fraud on that campus.

In South Africa, vice-chancellors, deans and legal officers often require 24-hour protection. This mafia type behaviour emanates from organised criminals internal to universities who are looting public resources and state-owned enterprises, and assassinating honest staff and whistleblowers who resist corruption.

Dysfunctional universities riddled with fraud and corruption were largely inherited from the now dis-established bantustans, though some such universities, as Jansen reminds us, have succeeded in reinventing and repositioning themselves in recent years. These and many more equally alarming instances are documented in Jansen’s book, Corrupted, (Wits University Press, 2023) that was launched within a few months of the panel discussion.

The international contribution

In justifying his appointment of a foreign African national as acting registrar at UFH in the face of such threats, Buhlungu observed that the institution “pulled through, not because of his ‘foreignness’, but for his integrity, firmness and his principled approach to administration”.

The issue of personal safety backgrounded each panellist’s concern. Notwithstanding such anxiety, Kalula revealed that he had personally benefited from being taught in his native Zambia by exiled lecturers from South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria. But he acknowledged that a university in which its nationals were in the minority “has a problem”.

However, “blaming foreign academics, and especially African ones, for the absence of local ones is wrong,” he cautioned. The fear of victimisation on the basis of their countries of origin has deterred many African intellectuals now teaching in the global diaspora from applying to South African universities.

The 1990s outmigration from universities of native South Africans into very well-paid government jobs, the civil service and business, resulted in a shortage of local academics in many rural institutions. The vacuum was filled by foreign expatriates, predominantly Zimbabweans and Nigerians. Indeed, the early loss included UFH’s first black post-apartheid vice-chancellor, Sibusiso Bengu, who was appointed as the national unity government’s first minister of education.

As Jansen points out, some South African universities “would quite literally fall apart were it not for other African academics willing to work in rural areas and uphold their academic programmes in everything from undergraduate teaching to postgraduate supervision and, of course, senior administration”.

The building of a strong local pool in a fair and non-prejudicial manner is not easy because this requires the remedying of the reluctance of South Africans to work at geographically remote campuses.

‘Foreigners’, a term used pejoratively in some selection committees on which I, myself, uncomfortably served during the transition, were sometimes accused during the first decade of liberation, of being opportunistic interlopers exploiting unfair advantage of gaps in the academic sector.

The result is that internal discrimination with the ending of apartheid was supplanted by antagonism against African foreigners who are often claimed to: a) usurp jobs; b) compete with South Africans for scarce resources; c) exhibit a culture of entitlement in that South Africa owes them for taking an anti-apartheid stance; and e) engage in criminality, though there is little evidence to support this allegation (Fritz). South Africans like to play at being the ‘victim’ – being at the mercy of the Other, being stereotyped and accused “of everything” (Buhlungu).

Underpinning these assumptions is that wealth is understood by the criminals and some political ideologues to be a technical redistributive process rather than also a productive process created by entrepreneurial activity, capacity-building and intellectual investment.

Initiative is what counts, not “entitlement”. And, as the Zondo Commission into state capture revealed, entitlement results in institutional failure. The “killing fields” to which Buhlungu referred in the Sunday Times newspaper occurred, ironically, because of UFH’s first clean audit in 30 years.

National identity creation

Backgrounding the panel’s deliberations was that South Africa has been engaged in nation-building at a time when some other nations and empires have been fragmenting. Identity creation requires the forging of a single South Africanism in the face of extensive domestic diversity. Othering the Other (other Africans) is one way of forging an “us”-“them” dichotomy towards a national identity.

Yet, as Simba cautioned about ringfencing nationality in the global academic marketplace, universities “should always see themselves as part of a larger community of knowledge and should always hold themselves to the high standards that the society holds us to”.

The claim to African identity in 14 local universities’ mission statements, she concluded, raises questions on the nature of the disconnect between institutional PR, an “imagined” identity and actual “performance”. It was becoming almost impossible, said Simba, for non-South Africans to join South African academia due to ongoing “ring-fencing of academic space”.

“What is happening … is a hierarchisation of the ‘better Black’,” she said, and even within that inclusion, “there is a Black person that the labour policies preferred and, by doing so, we start seeing the pushing out and exclusion of foreign nationals”.

South Africans are, thus, still ill-prepared for globalisation, competitive job markets and professional mobility required by transnational academia. Buhlungu observed that we “need to expand and diversify the range of non-locals to go beyond the two dominant countries (Zimbabwe and Nigeria) and bring in scholars from across Africa, and to also bring in more Indians and whites to help end black to black xenophobia”. The global opportunities now available to the educated professional classes, including South Africans, need to be better understood.

Internationalisation policies are key to growth, as Kalula pointed out by offering the examples of Malaysia and Singapore. On dividing into two separate states in 1965, the National University of Singapore thrived by recruiting expatriate lecturers, becoming one of the highest-ranked institutions in Asia.

In contrast, the University of Malaya stagnated by rejecting non-local faculty and becoming inward-looking. In Africa, many once top universities became shadows of their former selves once they severed links with parent institutions located in the colonial metropoles.

“No university in the world has ever become a global centre of academic and research excellence through nativist thinking in its academic appointments policy,” said Jansen. But if nativism is pursued, “we might as well be a church, mosque or synagogue based on faith or allegiance”.

Concluded Simba: “Our [South African] colleagues should create space for African foreign nationals, to allow for different experiences, different ideas, different accents, different skin tones, different kinds of black, different kinds of academics …”

To achieve this, suggested Kalula, African foreign nationals should be encouraged “to apply their trade in the interests of South Africa”.

“You South Africans are very angry people. You are angry against each other. You are angry against foreigners and even one politician in his lucid moment characterised this xenophobia as self-hate. This history is self-destructive, a lost dream, so foreign academics must come here to help in the South African mission, rather than ‘taking over’, or thinking of themselves as substitutes,” he said.

Affirmative possibilities

One potential benefit of travelling academics pollinating our shores is recovery of the 1990s “going global” dream and it is useful to identify some affirmative possibilities of internationalisation towards this goal.

In discussions about attraction factors with my own international African students over the past 30 years, they explained that South Africa is a Europe next door for Southern African Development Community countries, in that its universities offer affordable access to quality academic programmes, technology, resources and libraries.

From the host institution’s perspective, the benefits that international students and academics bring to South African institutions include:

• Wider understandings of their respective conditions for South Africans who tend to be ignorant of Africa.

• Graduates return to their home countries and often establish similar programmes in their universities. They then draw on South Africans as external examiners, collaborate with them on pan-African research projects, and send their own students to do graduate work at the South African institution that hosted them.

• Joint degrees emerge, with funding from the North, managed from the South.

• International students bring a political stability to class discussions, and a maturity of purpose to their studies.

• International students show high initiative, take responsibility for their own learning, time and finances; and are self-motivated. They become our teachers and add significant value to the classroom.

• International collaboration is best driven by academics themselves. International offices are the facilitators and ambassadors, cooperating academics are the drivers, the international lecturers are the advisers, and the benefit is institutional.

• International offices are not administrative ventures gobbling up scarce resources. They are income-generators, the global recruitment arms and facilitators between collaborating universities.

An international university needs more than international hotels and toilets. It needs international students and staff, international visitors and international research collaborations.

Maina Waruru’s (2022) take-away from the roundtable concluded that, “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.”

Leadership is key, but it has to get buy-in from all sections of the academy.

Fortunately, observed Simba, “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.”

We are living in a global world with global job markets and we South Africans can also become global citizens pursuing global career opportunities. We don’t have to be angry; we certainly should not be killing each other over finite resources, and we should be growing our wealth rather than squandering it through corruption.

Why is this difficult to understand? Positive intercultural values, indeed, are what we should be teaching in the academy, in schools and in kindergartens.

This is an edited version of an essay originally published in the South African Journal of Science (2023; 119[7/8]) under the title: ‘Academic xenophobia in South Africa – issues, challenges and solutions: Reflections on an ASSAf Roundtable’. The video of the meeting is available here and here.

Keyan G Tomaselli is a distinguished professor in the dean’s office, faculty of humanities, University of Johannesburg, and professor emeritus and fellow in the School of Applied Human Sciences, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.