Academic journal article Educational Research for Social Change

Looking Backwards: How to Be a South African University

Academic journal article Educational Research for Social Change

Looking Backwards: How to Be a South African University

Article excerpt

Introduction

Recent protests at South African universities around the question of "race" and identity, particularly as they relate to the question of transformation at the Universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch, and Rhodes, have brought into sharp focus the debate about the future of the university. What is the new South African university to be? How does the South African university work with its legacy-to continue where it is already engaged in socially transformative work, to begin new initiatives to transform itself in places where it is struggling, and to develop an agenda that shows clearly how it understands itself in relation to the social context in which it finds itself?

In this paper, I argue that the contemporary South African university cannot be understood and engaged with outside of an appreciation of its constitutive beginnings. Race is central to these beginnings. But how race takes form, is worked with and deployed in the university is, to be historically accurate, not a deliberate teleological project. It is not the case that every domain of knowledge in the university is inscribed and motivated by the racial conceits of "whiteness." Necessary, therefore, as it is to acknowledge the deep racial influences that permeate the beginning of the South African higher education system and the persistent injustices these produce, the approach I take in this work is to see the early moments of the university in South Africa as structured in perverse ambivalence. Perversity follows almost every inflection of the making of the university system. The hallmark of this perversity emanates from the dominance of the racialised (white) elites who oversee the establishment of the university in South Africa. They come to see the university as a vehicle for the reproduction of their social and racial superiority. In making this the point of departure, my article begins with the proposition that race is never neutral. As a concept, it is inherently incapable of yielding anything but harm. In splitting humans into types it insistently, and arbitrarily so, distributes worth in always discriminatory ways. It is, however, always ambivalent. This ambivalence flows directly from the fact of its speciousness. Its speciousness makes it such that it is always in search of explanations. There is, about it, nothing that is either self-evident or selfexplanatory. It cannot explain itself. It always has to be theoretically accounted for, from its initial ideological animations, which claim for whites superiority of both mind and body, through to its deployment in the changing socioeconomic contexts in which it is present, to its invocation and enunciation as a category of analysis. In none of this is it able to explain itself. It always requires, to justify itself, one explanation or another. As such, I seek not to use it symptomatically in this contribution. I argue, instead, that it is a site of work. This article focuses on the beginning moments of the university in South Africa's engagement with the idea of race, and the ways in which this engagement shapes the core agenda of the university, particularly its research agenda.

The historian Saul Dubow (2006), who has written extensively on the racial character of the scientific project in South Africa, made the important point that regionalism, by which I assume he means place and context, is a "rather neglected aspect of the politics of unification" in the making of the Union of South Africa (Dubow, 2006, p. 7). He also said that "the hairline cracks that it left.. . can be readily detected in the complex internal histories of institutions such as museums, botanical gardens, and especially universities where conflict between 'broad South Africanism' and Afrikaner nationalism became acute" (p.7). I build on that approach in this paper to include into the idea of hairline cracks, the conflicts over race and class too, and argue that these constitute the new South African university in a state of internal ambivalence. …

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