Creative Instability: The Case of the South African Higher Education System

By Ndebele, Njabulo S. | The Journal of Negro Education, Fall 1997 | Go to article overview

Creative Instability: The Case of the South African Higher Education System


Ndebele, Njabulo S., The Journal of Negro Education


South Africa's historically disadvantaged institutions of higher education (HDIs), which collectively admit the largest number of Black South Africans in higher education, were major sites of student anti-apartheid revolts. Their administrative and academic functions became unintended victims of this struggle. Sustained political activity by student-worker alliances on many campuses resulted in fragile and unstable administrative systems. As this lecture presentation excerpt posits, these unstable conditions are not likely to disappear soon. Thus, the major challenge facing South African HDIs in a new democracy is that of developing the capacity to effect major institutional reform while successfully managing instability.

Professor Charles Dlamini, Vice Chancellor of the University of Zululand, recently shared some literary memories at a gathering of vice chancellors of South African historically disadvantaged institutions (HDIs) of higher learning who were grappling with issues of strategic planning on their respective campuses. In his inimitable way, he reminded those of us in attendance of the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens's (1859/1952) novel, A Tale of Two Cities, which never loses its rhetorical appeal:

It was the best of times; it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair. We had everything before us, we had nothing before us. We were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way. . . (p. 21)

Having drawn by analogy a picture of a bygone era he suggests is closely characteristic of our own times, Professor Dlamini rounded out his analogy with a reference to a wellknown African American spiritual: "Nobody knows the troubles I've seen.... / Sometimes I'm up/Sometimes I'm down.. ." Thus he concluded his comments about the life of a vice chancellor in these best and worst of times in South Africa.

I have unwittingly introduced the concept of historically disadvantaged institutions. They are, however, the specific subject of this lecture, as I believe that the discussion of them-and the image we may have of them within the South African higher education system-must now no longer be defined by the limitations of their political history. In this we are called upon to make a special effort mind and imagination. I say this knowing fully that any discussion of the contemporary situation in South Africa should always be informed by a knowledge of our history.

These institutions are currently building bridges over rivers that are a continuously raging torrent of water. Often the rivers break free of their banks, threatening to wash away everything on shore. Moments of calm are few and far between, yet the bridges have to be built. All of us have to reach the other side. Yet, there are other institutions within the South African higher education environment that built their bridges long ago. Do they still remember what it was like to build those bridges, or have they forgotten some vital matters about which they may unwittingly choose to be silent?

The words of the poet T. S. Eliot are worth remembering in full in this regard. To quote Eliot:

"I do not know much about gods,

But I think that the river is a strong brown god

Sullen, untamed and intractable.

Patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier;

Then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges.

The problem once solved, the brown god is almost forgotten

By the dwellers of cities-ever, however, implacable,

Keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder

Of what men choose to forget. (p. 205)

Forgetfulness may be an unintended result of achievement. That happens when achievement signals the end of experience, when the collective identity of successful societies becomes locked into the sense of their own achievement and it becomes almost impossible for them to see new possibilities beyond. …

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