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Conference grapples with transformation in higher education
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing | Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking
Published: 26/11/2022

​​​Transformation in higher education is not only a national agenda but an imperative towards the realisation of a non-racial society. South Africa, like other countries across the globe is faced with a magnitude of realities, questions and challenges that play out on various social, economic and political levels. Central to these challenges is the issue of race and racism. Race continues to be at the forefront in understanding societal inequalities since it does not operate in isolation but relies on the politics of intersectionality to reveal how power operates.

Stellenbosch University (SU) recently co-hosted the Race and Transformation in Higher Education Conference in partnership with Nelson Mandela University and the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. The conference, which was attended by academics, researchers, university staff, community leaders, postgraduate students and stakeholders, took place from 15-17 November 2022 at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies. The conference focused on the vexing question of race and transformation in South African higher education, amidst SU's complex and varied experiences of grappling with the imperative to transform the University in conformity with human rights, equity and redress concerns. This focus was considered in the light of higher education transformation in regional, national and global contexts.

The conference was hosted at a time when SU is digesting the findings and recommendations of the Khampepe Report with regards to racism, discrimination, language and culture – a self-imposed soul-searching exercise which Prof Wim de Villers, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of SU described as “a tipping point" for the University. And as such it allowed for deep institutional reflection on SU's history, its transformation journey and its relationship with its public within a framework of transformation in and through the university.

Another university event paved the way for the conference, the SU Transformation Indaba, which​ is an annual reflective gathering for the University community to discuss and evaluate transformation at SU. This year's theme was  “Restitution Beyond Rhetoric"  and reflections focused on the SU Restitution Statement, it's fundamental meaning and what responsibility it places on not only the institution but every individual who is part of the SU community.

Also in October, SU hosted an inter-university workshop on the scholarship of transformation. This was in collaboration with the Transformation Managers Forum, a community of practice for transformation practitioners in higher education that operates under the auspices of Universities South Africa (USAf). This workshop was attended by academics and transformation office managers from most of the 26 public universities in South Africa who take responsibility for institutional transformation and change at the various institutions.  The conference deliberated on generating constitutionally informed concepts, norms, ideas, policies and practices to galvanise and deepen transformational outcomes on university campuses. The lack of social cohesion in higher education was interrogated by conference attendees.

The keynote address for the Race and Transformation conference was delivered by Prof Rajani Naidoo, the Vice-President: Community and Inclusion at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. Her address focused on how race and racism have been informing universities' overall functioning and transformation-related practices. She accentuated the impact of race on the policies, discourses, approaches, governance and transformation practices at universities. In particular, she discussed how universities are addressing race and racism as one of the cornerstones of their transformational quest. She provided hints for immediate actions that can be taken to cultivate open dialogue and dislodge existing patterns towards achieving meaningful and sustainable transformation. She cited examples and case studies from the University of Bath's transformation journey and the relationship between the university and surrounding town.

Guest speakers at the conference included Dr George Mvalo, the chairperson of USAf's Transformation Managers Forum, who presented on the complex challenges of transformation across South Africa's higher education landscape, and Prof Melissa Steyn, Director at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, who presented on the role of race and racism in shaping universities' internal institutional culture(s). She highlighted the origins of racist thinking as part of the emergence of colonialism and discussed how relational dynamics at universities continue to be constrained by racism in universities' daily functioning.

A panel discussion on the Khampepe Report was led by Prof Sandy Liebenberg, the HF Oppenheimer Chair in Human Rights Law at SU, Prof André Keet, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Engagement and Transformation at Nelson Mandela University, and Prof Jürgen Enders, the Co-director at the International Centre for Higher Education Management at the University of Bath. The panel shared different perspectives on the report and discussed key considerations that were outlined.

SU speakers included Dr Zethu Mkhize (Director of the Transformation Office), Prof Nico Koopman (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel ), Prof Aslam Fataar (Professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies and a Research and Development Professor attached to the Transformation Office), Prof Nokwando Makunga (Faculty of Science ), Prof Jonathan Jansen (Distinguished Professor, Faculty of Education), Prof Dennis Francis (Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences), Mr Yeki Mosomothane (Multicultural educator and coordinator, Centre for Student Communities ), Ms Renee Hector-Kannemeyer (Division of Social Impact), and Dr Leslie van Rooi (Senior Director: Social Impact and Transformation).

The conference also included site visits to local communities where members of these communities and SU partners could engage with conference delegates and share their lived experiences. During these engagements, the University was challenged to expand its footprint and impact in local communities. The following site visits took place:

  • Educating for sustainability transitions: An experiential journey in a local Stellenbosch context:  Attendees visited the Sustainability Institute at Lynedoch. The session focused on how a curriculum can be structured to develop competence in sustainability transitions. 
  • Slavery, identity, and segregation: Pniël and the emancipation from slavery:  The visit to this historic community allowed for conversations and reflections on slavery, the emancipation from slavery and current day struggles as experienced by the local community. The tour took place in and around the Pniël Congregational Church and Pniël Museum.
  • The University and development in the context of Cloetesville:  The suburb of Cloetesville was historically created for the coloured community in terms of the Group Areas Act (1950). This act was a central part of the apartheid policy, which aimed to eliminate mixed neighbourhoods in favour of racially segregated areas. Discussions during the site visit focused on reconstruction and development, nation-building and healing. ​
  • Segregation, community and development: The story of one of South Africa's oldest townships: Kayamandi is one of the oldest townships in South Africa and has a rich cultural history. It is also home to numerous historic sites. Conference delegates visited a former SU hostel, a space that housed migrant workers linked to the University, the Kayamandi Legacy Centre and the Amazink theatre and restaurant.

  • Die Vlakte and restitution: This session took place at the old Lückhoff High School in Banghoekweg, Stellenbosch (Die Vlakte). This school was the first Afrikaans high school for coloured children in the Boland. As a result of the Group Areas Act, the area was declared white, and in 1969 learners and teachers moved to the new Lückhoff School in Idas Valley. The school building later became the property of SU. Conference delegates had the opportunity to engage with the history and current realities of Lückhoff and the community of Die Vlakte.

The conference also included a panel discussion on transformational praxis, culture and lived experiences in SU residences and a discussion on visual redress. Themes from the conference included the history of race in higher education, the power and limitations of language in facilitating inclusion, the value of progressive entities and institutions in higher education, the role of research in tackling racism, and the findings of the Khampepe Report.

If SU is to truly become a national asset that enhances the possibilities of society at large, then our spaces and environments of research and teaching and learning must entrench transformation and inclusivity as an urgent imperative. In this regard SU has all the possibilities. And the Khampepe Report can indeed become the building blocks of framework for deep change.

Read more about reflections on the conference: