Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Divided Society: Lack of Black Professors a Detriment to South African Higher Education

By: Jim Ryan

Produced & Edited By: Zainab Kandeh

          Lesego Serolong grew up poor, in the shadow of South African Apartheid. She spent her youth in a reserve dedicated for unskilled black people, where her parents were government servants. Her father died when she was 11 and her mother followed suit not long thereafter. 

         Now the recipient of a master’s degree, Serolong cites a good education as giving her the opportunity to emerge from the township in which she lived and ultimately help those she left behind.

         “I realized that it would be really hard for me to change the system from inside,” she said.

          In order to do so, she set off for the United States, where she attended school. Her first stop: Wilberforce University in Ohio, a historically black college. The landscape there is similar to what she would have experienced had she attended a South African university, as more than 70 percent of South African university students are black, according to The Guardian.
Students attend a lecture at the University of Cape Town. 
© Courtesy: University of Cape Town

Lack of Diversity Amongst South African Professors 

        Only 14 percent of university professors in South Africa are black, however, meaning that there is a cultural disconnect between the professor and pupil.

         "The South African education system is really bad...it's really behind," Serolong said.

          The topic is a divisive one among South African educators, many of whom agree that something must be done to improve the lack of diversity among the professorial ranks. Many would like to see a rise in the number of black educators, mirroring the surge of black officials that have begun working for the South African government since the fall of Apartheid. 

          South Africa’s current parliament is composed of predominantly black men, and each of the country’s four democratic presidents have been black. Still, only a small percentage of the more than 200 full professors at the University of Cape Town, one of the country’s largest universities, are black. Finding an educator of color there, says Xolela Mangcu, an associate professor of sociology, is like finding a needle in a haystack.

         Mangcu is one of few educators who are outspoken about this issue. He has been quoted extensively in the media about the lack of black professors in South Africa, while many of his peers defer comment.
         He said that the small number of black professors speaks to the South African government’s failure to modernize its education system. The root of the problem is two-pronged, he said. The first is that the conservative government mistakes political power for democracy. The second is that white professors have dominated universities for so long that they view black professors as a threat to their authority. 
          This, he said, is to the detriment of South African students who attend institutions of higher education within their home country.

         “South African universities are poorer for not having black academics,” he said.

           The lack of diversity within the University of Cape Town, he said, is also reflected in the quality of its course offerings.

          “How can any university teach history, politics, anthropology, arts without a single black professor, and without a single black woman professor — which is the case right now at the University of Cape Town,” he said.

           Zethu Matebeni, a University of Cape Town senior researcher, said that there is an “unspoken notion” that white people are those who should be conducting research and teaching students at universities such as hers.

         “Current research at UCT tells us that students are alienated because of the institution and also because they do not see any professor who represents them and their background,” she said.

Students attend a graduation ceremony at the 
University of Free State in South Africa
©  Courtesy: University of Washington

          She said that an increase in the number of black professors at the University of Cape Town would make black students feel less alienated and would generate a more diverse range of research. 
Reinvesting in Education for All Students

          Gabriël Botma, who teaches journalism at nearby Stellenbosch University, said that the legacy of Apartheid is still apparent in South African society. The majorities of black South Africans, he said, continue to struggle to compete against the white privilege that is entrenched in South African culture and generally have fewer financial and symbolic resources than their white peers. 

         Botma, who is a white man, thinks that the South African government must reinvest in education.

         “(That) would add value in terms of more diversity of views, experiences, cultures, languages, approaches — and thus the broadening of the mind of students, as well as bringing people from diverse backgrounds closer together and creating relationships,” he said. “It would also provide role models for the youth and challenge entrenched stereotypes in a divided society.”
Building a Stronger South Africa

         Sue Wildish, managing director of South African nonprofit The Lunchbox Fund, agrees that the way to build a stronger South Africa is to invest in today’s youth — the next generation of university students. 

         “A child that finished school (and) possibly goes onto tertiary education can take a whole family out of poverty in the course of a single generation,” she said.

         Serolong is looking to do just that, but on a larger scale. After returning to South Africa with her master’s degree from the United States, she chose to work for two years in a rural school rather than hit the job market. 

       “I always felt like with all the opportunities I was getting, I left a community behind,” she said.

       In addition to her job as a managing director of Soul of Africa — a shoe company whose profits aid African orphans — she also works with Raise The Children, a nonprofit that places orphaned children in private schools.

         She said that it’s her goal to get students thinking toward the future — whether that means becoming a tradesperson, shopkeeper or university professor. 
         “It’s been great for them to start thinking about other careers,” she said of her South African students. “We have two this year that are interested in being teachers. We are slowly getting there.”

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