Thursday 1 June 2017

Book Review: Transformation and Legitimation in Post-apartheid Universities

J.C. van der Merwe & D. van Reenen (2016). Transformation and Legitimation in Post-apartheid Universities: 
Reading Discourses from ‘Reitz’. Bloemfontein: Sun Press.
Reviewed by Najma Agherdien

The book titled Transformation and Legitimation in post-apartheid Universities: Reading Discourses from ‘Reitz provides a deep analysis of the Reitz incident in 2008. Historically, Reitz male residence was infamous for violating people’s rights and dignity. Through a number of conceptual frameworks (for example legitimation, Visagie’s postural theory, etc.), the book provides an insightful, contextualised account of what transpired before, during and after the introduction of the residence placement policy. By looking closely at neglected issues of the lack of (and resistance to) transformation, the authors present a “critical philosophical analysis of discourses and practices that, either explicitly or implicitly, reproduce resistance towards transformation” (p. 34).

In Chapter one, the authors (interestingly, two white Afrikaner UFS staff members) provide a contextualised description - together with a transcript - of the notorious video that rocked South African Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) specifically, and wider communities more generally. The authors present the view that the video speaks to a wider, social ill, viz, a lack of true transformation and therefore cannot be seen as a silly prank, as some made it out to be. In fact, they argue that the true motivation behind the video was to protest against the planned integration of residences.

In Chapter 2, van der Merwe and van Reenen explore the institutional UFS culture and the unwillingness of both black and white staff and students to transform. Instead, they prefer to fit into a culture that is segregated and that values white supremacy. The authors analyse a range of media articles, institutional policies and plans, institutional correspondence as well as conduct interviews with various role players (including institutional management, students, staff, and members of university governance structures). They conclude that the UFS leadership failed to drive the transformation agenda.

Chapter 3 describes residence and student life at UFS and gives an account of the student protest that erupted on campus and which resulted in extensive damage to property. The authors suggest that on close scrutiny, it appears that Black students protested against the way the Dean of Student Affairs had treated them and not against residence integration per se. They further argue that the residence culture and its associated traditions need to be questioned, especially the expectation to ‘fit in’. The call is for radically new, more progressive models. In my experience in working with student residences, the residence space is a very hierarchical, traditional space where students often uncritically accept (hegemonic) practices as ‘the way things are done here’’. The unspoken rules are often so powerful that students dare not go against tradition. Chapter 4 explores the bodies responsible for the university’s reputation and legitimacy (i.e. the congruence between the institution’s values and accepted norms). The closure of Reitz in 2009 was seen as a means to salvage the institution’s reputation, however, only to be replaced with Heimat, known as the ‘’new Reitz’’ (p. 189). To my mind, the unwavering persistence to uphold the old tradition and culture speaks volumes about an ongoing resistance to transformation.

With a focus on justice proceedings, Chapter five gives an account of the legal proceedings and Jonathan Jansen’s (the newly inaugurated VC of UFS at that time – around 2009) ­­decision to allow the four students to continue their studies and to reopen Reitz and transform it into “a model for reconciliation and social justice for all students” (p.193) The latter, however never happened. In chapter 6 (the final chapter) the authors make the case for UFS to rethink transformation. They argue that since 2007, not much has changed with regard to the transformation discourse. They acknowledge that efforts to engage in social justice issues or rights-based frameworks are seen as ‘’liberalist kumbaya’’ (p.255). Nonetheless, by way of moving forward, they suggest the following:  a changed institutional culture, UFS become political spaces for students, active inclusion of anti-racism work, establishing pre-conditions and creating guidelines for democratic behaviour and habits, i.e. a rights-based approach.

For me, this book serves as a reminder that twenty-something years into democracy, much of the injustices, discrimination and social ills remain and is reflective of wider communities and South African society. Despite transformation efforts by institutions, students are now starting to drive the process.  They have moved beyond transformation to a call for decolonisation. This call for decolonisation of curricula and pedagogies have been at the heart of some of the recent student protest action. While much remains unclear about what such curricula and pedagogies might look like, we remain hopeful that South African higher education Institutions will continue to engage in ongoing discussion and debate. After all, they should serve the public and pursue, in the words of the authors, the ultimate goal of social justice.

On a final note, I want to make the point that if HEIs are to take advantage of this “unique historical opportunity” to engage in “a relentless struggle against racism” (postulated by Samuel in the Preface of the book), it is imperative to actively include the student voice. I feel it is therefore a shame that this book is not written in more accessible, student-friendly language so that students - although not the primary targeted audience - can also benefit from such a thorough, critical account of transformation and legitimation at post-apartheid universities and the proposed invaluable lessons on how to move forward. It was quite a heavy read, but a thought-provoking one indeed.