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18 October 2019 | Story Thabo Kessah | Photo Tshepo Moeketsi
Prof Pearl Sithole
Prof Pearl Sithole says higher education needs to create space for Africa to be contributors and innovators of knowledge.

“Excellence is my main priority. For me, excellence means mastery of cross-communicable science and liberation of intellectual creativity that is free of mere complacency and acknowledging the right to analyse from where we stand. I am unapologetic about indigenous knowledge being the basis for scientific advancement.” This is how the newly appointed Vice-Principal: Academic and Research, Prof Pearl Sithole, sums up her vision and plan for academia and research on the Qwaqwa Campus. 

She believes that the human mind is geared towards ‘seeking and constantly explaining itself in the service of innovative change.’ 

“With this service of innovative change fully realised, the Qwaqwa Campus will be able to produce students who can analyse, innovate, and solve real social and world problems. For me, this is the University of the Free State graduate I pine to see – and there had better be truth to the ‘free’ part of this intellectual soul! I see Qwaqwa as a site for this intellectual innovation catalyst,” she said.

Social anthropologist

Prof Sithole is a Social Anthropology graduate with both master’s and PhD degrees from the University of Cambridge in England. “I stumbled upon Anthropology as part of my three majors at the then University of Durban-Westville. This discipline confessed its previous conceptual sins in a way that inspired change! From the exploration of human origins, to economic and political developments, and that was Anthropology. I was just absolutely taken by its acknowledgement of the intellectual project being socio-culturally rooted,” she said about her chosen area of study.

“I have always been inspired by Archie Mafeje’s work. I was motivated by Bernard Magubane’s scholarship, and I marvelled at the rigour of Oyeronke Oyewumi and Marilyn Strathern in feminist discourse. I mention these, because they inspire intellectual passion in me and I eventually met them,” she added.

Higher education in SA

She believes the higher-education sector is succumbing to streamlining methods, uninformed processes, and very little impact. “Like in government, higher education should not suffer from reduction of people into statistics, interventions into annual performance plan targets, and planning and monitoring into sanitised expenditure against targets. I see the shortage of relevance, responsiveness, and humanness; as well as ‘being captured’ by the latest fashions of doing rigid academe as the major challenges of higher education in South Africa today. We need to liberate our own innovative potential. We really need to create space for Africa to be contributors and innovators of knowledge,” Prof Sithole, the author of Unequal Peers, said.

She is, however, optimistic about the future of higher education in South Africa. “The day that we will have our innovation systems and systems of defining excellence – liberated from merely kneeling before the altar of Westernisation – we will gain integrity both conceptually and instrumentally in terms of responding to a society that is waiting for higher education to solve societal problems. The solution is to let those who see this truth continue to produce the knowledge despite being less than pleasing to the average scientific oversight bodies steeped in conventional Western validation.”

Research interests

Prof Sithole was previously employed with the Public Service Commission as a commissioner, a position she held from 2015 to August 2019. Prior to that, she worked at the University of KwaZulu-Natal as an Associate Professor of Community Development from 2010 to 2015, and at the South African Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) as a senior researcher from 2006 to 2010. Her research interests and areas of expertise are governance, gender and development, analysis of social inequality, and the politics of knowledge production.

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