By Keorapetse Ramagaga
Even after 21 years of democracy, South African academic institutions are still lacking the representation of black academics. Based on research conducted by the Rhodes University Humanities Faculty in 2014, “only 4% of the 4000 professors in higher education are black, and of those only 0.85% are women.” The lack of black academic representation in higher education highlights how social inequalities of the past are constantly feeding into systems of the contemporary South Africa. Even after the transition to a democratic system, South Africa is still fighting a battle of racial and gender inequality.
Inequalities of the past continue to shape the systems which are meant to foster a more democratic society. In 1994, the incoming government committed itself to transforming higher education into a more racially inclusive system. Although they have succeeded in integrating students of different races in institutions which were predominantly white prior to 1994, having more white male professors in South African institutions still presents itself as a racial issue which government needs to address.
It is essential to recognise that transformation is a persistent issue which has not only sparked interest from structures such as the Rhodes University Protection Movement and the Black Student Movement at the university but it has also created ongoing conversations in other universities nationwide.
“There is no way that we can speak about transformation within higher education when we haven’t spoken about transformation within the working place,” said Sipho Dlamini, a Psychology post graduate student at Rhodes University talking about how higher education is central to transformation. He maintains the idea that the inequalities of the past have made it much more difficult for South Africa to transform the higher education sector.
“Black females have a higher graduation rate than black males”, asserts Dlamini. He further unpacks the matter by stating that “a black person has a historical debt.” This then talks to factors that are affecting the representation of black academics in higher education. Members of the higher education sector not only work hard to improve the education system of the nation but they are also making efforts to transforming their lecture rooms to create an environment inclusive of everyone. It is, however, saddening to know that their earnings don’t reflect the effort they put into the country’s education system. The remuneration problem acts as a contributing factor to the lack of black academia in institutions, according to Dlamini. This is due to the fact that black individuals are constantly battling to uplift their families and improve their standards of living, making it more important for them to get better paying jobs.
Forums such as Curriculum Conversations which are held every two weeks at Rhodes aim to address the issue of transformation in higher education. The forum creates a platform for both students and lecturers to try and formulate strategies which could be used to transform the sector. Natalie Donaldson, a Psychology lecturer at Rhodes University, talks about how she has begun to transform her lectures by engaging with her students and allowing them to challenge the information which they receive in lectures. This doesn’t directly address the issue of the lack of black academia but it highlights the various methods which can be undertaken by institutions to supplement transformation conversations.
Kedumetse Mampane, a Rhodes University Bachelor of Science graduate, backs Dlamini up by stating that education is central to transformation. She couples that with the need to increase awareness about the lack of black academia in South Africa. Lorraine Mphekoane, a second year Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering student at Wits University, adds to Kedumetse’s claims by stating that “there is this knowledge in black communities that teaching is not the best career path.” This shows how black societies in particular do not encourage careers related to academia. This can to a certain extent be used to justify why many black females graduate from university but don’t pursue careers in academia.
The current statistics are a reflection of the inequalities that still exist in South Africa. From these statistics it is evident that the systems which were put into place prior to 1994 continue to hinder the progress of transformation in the country. Transformation is an ongoing process which requires contribution from all members of society.