01 October 2021 | Story Xolisa Mnukwa

The silence of universities, collectively and individually, regarding the July events (the political turmoil that disrupted different regions in South Africa in July 2021) was noticeable, as well as inexplicable and distressing. 

This was according to Prof Saleem Badat, Research Professor in the College of Humanities at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and former vice-chancellor at Rhodes University, during a webinar hosted by the University of the Free State (UFS).  

The webinar: The impact of political influences on university governance structures, was held on 22 September 2021, with Prof Badat; Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the UFS; Prof Hermann Giliomee, internationally renowned historian; Prof Chitja Twala, Vice-Dean: Faculty of the Humanities at the UFS; and Prof Thulisi Madonsela, Law Trust Chair in Social Justice and a Law professor at Stellenbosch University, as panellists. 

SABC anchor and prominent South African journalist, Vuyo Mvoko, who facilitated the webinar, opened engagement among the esteemed panel by posing the question – how can university communities collectively solve the challenges facing South Africa today?

University governance structures must address and mediate political influences in principled, creative, and strategic ways

“I hope that there is honest and critical reflection on this by individual universities and Universities South Africa (USAf),” said Prof Badat on the silence of universities regarding the July events. He further argued that a ‘renewed focus’ on the responsibilities of universities in society is important. 

He explained this by unpacking the roles of universities in society and how they are shaped by the structural and conjunctural conditions within which they exist and operate. Prof Badat encouraged those roles – institutionally and through scholarship, learning, and community engagement – to intersect effectively with contemporary and long-term economic, social, and political challenges faced by universities at global level. 

You are a participant in South African society before you are a staff member or student

Prof Twala responded to the topic by saying: “In order to understand a university’s governance, student politics, and activism, it’s also important to historicise the impact and political influence that governmental structures in South Africa continue to have on higher education institutions.” 

He unpacked his argument by highlighting the importance of engaged scholarship within universities when the South African society is threatened by occurrences such as the riots that took place in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng in July as a result of political failures in government. 

“If there are social ills and problems at community level, you cannot divorce yourself from such, because they have an impact at your place of work or learning,” he explained. 

Prof Twala further highlighted the provision of higher education in SA as political, and that universities should move according to the ideological times and changes experienced across the country to understand what governance within higher education spaces should look like.

Prof Petersen reflected on the role of higher education institutions as catalysts for social change and the collective responsibility they have in solving the key challenges of poverty, inequality, unemployment, and violence in societies.
According to Prof Petersen, the crucial role that universities need to fulfil is often impacted by political influence exerted on university governing structures. “Therefore, student governing structures, in particular, are often vulnerable to political pressure that results in different tensions and challenges in the higher education system,” stated Prof Petersen. 

Complexities regarding language policy in university governance at a time of political transition
Prof Giliomee reflected on the complexities regarding language policy in university governance at a time of political transition, by unpacking the negotiations among higher education institutions regarding the implementation of a new language constitution in South Africa – and the absence of pertinent proposals from universities concerning their future role and functioning in society. 

Prof Giliomee argued that universities, separately or collectively, did not try to promote understanding of how the new South African state could meet the demands for higher education in a multilingual society. While enjoying the highest prestige, English was not in effect the optimal medium of instruction for the country.

The involvement of government in university governance is necessary and inevitable

Prof Madonsela, who is also the founder of the Thuma Foundation – an independent democracy leadership and literacy public benefit organisation – and a widely published author, discussed the role of the South African government in mandating leadership, governance, and protocol from a national level so that higher education institutions can follow suit. 

“Government is a custodian of the constitution,” Prof Madonsela stated before explaining the principles that should oversee government’s involvement in university leadership structures.  

She modelled the eight (8) standards of good governance as identified by the United Nations, being participation; rule of law; transparency; responsiveness; equality and inclusivity; consensus orientation; effectiveness and efficiency; and accountability, as a sounding board for the South African government itself, through to university management structures – prevailing through the basis of South Africa’s own constitution. 

Prof Madonsela further underlined the importance of ethics in the overall society that South Africa is building as a nation, by discussing the necessity of understanding democratic value, social justice, and fundamental human rights – not only within university governance and governmental structures, but also within the population.

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