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In 1986 Wits University did a survey about its relevance to South Africa: another is needed

AS the number of black students increased at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in South Africa in the 1980s, township struggles spread onto the campus and management came under increasing grassroots pressure to implement change within the university.

In response, social scientists in the Faculty of Humanities, with the financial support of the university’s research office, undertook an extensive survey of perceptions of Wits. It included organisations in black communities as well as of international academics, students and staff at Wits. They even had a meeting with the then-banned African National Congress (ANC) in Lusaka.

EDWARD WEBSTER, Distinguished Research Professor, Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, University of the Witwatersrand

JACKLYN COCK, Professor Emerita in Sociology and Honorary Research Professor in SWOP, University of the Witwatersrand

The outcome of this Wits-initiated research project was published at the height of apartheid in 1986 . It revealed a disconnect between black South African’s perceptions of Wits and the image the administration had been attempting to convey of the university as a progressive opponent of apartheid.

The research revealed that a large proportion of the community members surveyed thought Wits served mainly white, corporate interests.

The report recommended further transformation of the university.

Knowledge for whom, for what, by whom?

Nearly 40 years later, university leadership, staff and students are increasingly representative of South Africa’s demography. Wits has made progress towards what the late anti-apartheid cleric Reverend Beyers Naudé described during the interviews as: “securing a democratic, educational future for all in South Africa”.

However, we must ask whether the university’s responses to the multiple crises South Africans face today are not reproducing a similar disconnect. A growing number of students are struggling to pay their fees, and impoverished masses are eking out an existence in the country.

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Do we need another survey to establish whose interests and needs the university is serving?

This survey needs to be framed by three crucial questions: Knowledge for whom? Knowledge for what? And knowledge by whom?

Mind the mines

These questions are of relevance because of the university’s long-standing relationship with the mining industry. Its origins go back to the South African School of Mines, established in Kimberley in 1896.

At the time of the Perspectives of Wits survey, the Chamber of Mines – and Anglo American in particular – was the university’s largest private donor.

Of course, there have been occasions when the Chamber, now Minerals Council, felt it was not receiving a satisfactory return on its investment in the university. An example was the attempt by the asbestos industry to suppress the findings in the 1950s by the Wits Pneumoconiosis Unit of a link between asbestos and cancer – the hidden disease of mesothelioma.

On balance, however, it can rightly be claimed that Wits has served mining capital well over the years.

Today, extractivism – the process of extracting natural resources from the earth to sell on the world market – particularly of coal, is under attack because of its relationship to climate change and deepening inequality. As in the past, there are various responses to these crises among Wits’ diverse constituencies.

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The establishment of the Southern Centre for Inequality Studies and the recent appointment by Wits of a Pro-Vice Chancellor on Climate, Sustainability and Inequality is an exciting response. It places Wits at the forefront of two central national challenges. These are climate change and the persistence of South Africa’s position as the most unequal country in the world in terms of income and wealth.

The high levels of inequality have been sustained, and in some cases have deepened, in the post-apartheid era.

Will researchers at Wits help promote a shift in the dominant view of coal? From being seen as a source of energy, jobs and foreign exchange, will coal be seen as a driver of inequality and environmental damage?

Will it help promote a democratic “just transition” from coal, which includes the lived experience of people in coal-affected communities?

In the present cacophony of voices addressing the question of a just transition, we hope that these marginalised voices will be heard.

Commodifying knowledge

Much has changed over the past four decades as Wits and universities globally have been restructured according to a market logic. Knowledge is largely valued in terms of its capacity to be commodified.

As the state has defunded universities, funds have been sought through raising student fees, the provision of short and online vocational courses, trusts and foundations, and endowments from wealthy alumni.

One of Wits’ biggest mistakes, which it has since rectified, was to try to cut costs by outsourcing its service staff to avoid paying benefits.

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Furthermore, over time, the balance of power has shifted from academics to the administration. A form of academic managerialism triumphed and Senate was in danger of being sidelined. The Senate is accountable to the Council for regulating all teaching, learning, research and academic functions and all other functions delegated or assigned to it by the Council.

The Australian academic Jill Blackmore suggests that this market logic

results in epistemic injustice … it ignores the social and material conditions of knowledge production – the social relations of collegiality and collaboration, the emotional labour of teaching and researching.

She warns that this is “dangerous for democracies”.

As Wits proudly celebrates a century of independent critical thought, maybe it needs to revisit the perceptions of its external stakeholders. This is particularly pertinent in the face of increasing inequality, casualisation of labour and ecological devastation.

Indeed, is it not time for all South African universities to revisit their multiple publics and explore with them what a public university in southern Africa in the 21st century could – and should – become?

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the University of the Witwatersrand’s special Curiosity edition to mark the institution’s 100th anniversary.

By The African Mirror