Facing the past with an eye to the future

28 May 2017 - 02:00 By Sipho Pityana
A University of Cape Town student is upset by campus security arresting a fellow demonstrator during a #FeesMustFall protest. The university has established a commission that is aimed at addressing the financial, political and other issues underlying the student anger.
A University of Cape Town student is upset by campus security arresting a fellow demonstrator during a #FeesMustFall protest. The university has established a commission that is aimed at addressing the financial, political and other issues underlying the student anger.

South Africa and the world could benefit from how the University of Cape Town is dealing with transformation issues following the Fallist protests, writes Sipho Pityana

The University of Cape Town is embarking on a historic journey. The landscape we will traverse is the heart and spirit of different members of the UCT community: students, staff, management, academics, and members of various protest groups on campus.

We seek to discover each other and overcome alienation as we build an inclusive institution. I believe this is a journey that all South Africans must take to help create a winning nation that will thrive in the fast-changing, exclusionary new world around us.

The journey I am describing is the process we are calling the Institutional Reconciliation and Transformation Commission.

Significantly, it has been initiated by key UCT stakeholders - particularly students, who have raised a range of issues that have formed part of their protest action. In their engagement with management, which in turn has been engaging with the wider university community, it became clear that there is a need to have a more detailed conversation about the issues and the background to the current situation at UCT.

This is a state of affairs that is shared by wider society across South Africa.

As a start, we need to address the fact that some have been angered by what they consider to be an alienating and exclusive culture. They also believe that as a result of their protest they were punished and further excluded in various ways. We need to deal with that.

The clemency conversation at UCT forms part of the process to create an environment in which we can get to the bottom of the issues, including circumstances leading to financial and/or academic exclusion.

UCT is not just a South African university; we are an international institution, with a significant proportion of students and academic staff from other parts of the African continent and the rest of the world.

As we engage in identity politics in a retrospective way, referring to the strong call for decolonisation, we also have to be mindful of the wider context of how the entire world is redefining itself today.

I'm referring to the fourth industrial revolution.

We must position ourselves, as South Africans and as an institution of higher learning, in such a way as to ensure that we participate in redefining that new world. We must not be left behind.

We must be at a decision-making table that defines what that world is. So the conversation about decolonisation must also be about enabling Africans to be part of redefining the new knowledge systems, the new world, as it is driven by the fourth industrial revolution.

I see UCT's reconciliation and transformation commission as a step towards healing divisions of the past. There's great potential to produce something that could be a benchmark for other institutions in South Africa and even in other countries.

My sense is that the wider university community is hungry for this conversation. So we have to do everything possible to ensure that it goes forward, demonstrating commitment and tolerance.

The UCT Council has affirmed its commitment, and members of convocation are participating. One hurdle is the lack of trust between critical stakeholders.

To get the buy-in of the UCT community, the first necessary ingredient is transparency. It's better that we have a conflict, rather than make false promises. Everybody has to see what is possible and what is not; have all the available information at hand.

Second, we need to encourage different views. If we are not tolerant, we won't take advantage of great ideas from unexpected quarters.

Third, we need to be honest with each other, be frank and practise integrity - not pander to populist notions.

Fourth, we need to take into account that UCT is not the only community contending with these issues. Students around the world, including the US and Europe, are bringing the high cost of tertiary education into discussion in public forums.

The commission's steering committee, which I chair, is live-streaming its meetings because we want everybody in the university community to participate. We will define the terms of reference, with input from members of the university community about what they want out of this process.

My sense is that without the protest that was sparked in 2015, we probably would not be having this conversation with the current sense of urgency. There is a danger, though, that we can get lost in detailed analysis and not act, because we are locked in protracted discussions about what needs to be done - paralysis by analysis, if you like.

So it is important to facilitate the process through terms of reference and the appointment of commissioners. The goal is to create a favourable environment for a conversation, because we won't be able to shift the direction of the institution unless we have an understanding of what we need to change.

So the commissioners must come into a space defined by the commission's terms of reference with clear parameters and desired outcomes.

Identifying commissioners is also critical. What kind of person are we seeking and how would they assist the process? It's hard work because we are dealing with a wide diversity of views and strong feelings.

In some cases people think there is a culture of impunity being encouraged, or that some parties are allowed to make unreasonable demands ad infinitum. There's impatience with the idea that there may be a different way of doing things.

But transformation is about finding each other.

As theoretical physicist Richard Feynman said: "I'd rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned."

I think the work of the commissioners will be to look not only at UCT but also at the national context: about the symbols everywhere in wider society that present the past in a domineering and dominating way.

Everybody now is talking about the notion of decolonisation of higher learning, of the curriculum, of offensive symbols. We need to have a contestation of those concepts.

We must clearly define what an inclusive environment is in the university; the issues of access to education, marginalisation of the poor; how we can help everyone feel that they are part of the institution.

In the end, although we are dealing with broad concepts, people must see that the environment is changing: that we can truly reflect the diversity of who we are as a country and as a university.

Pityana is chairman of the UCT Council