A Seat at the Table

This is effectively my last blog for SAYAS. I am so grateful for the opportunity to reflect and share my thoughts with a wider audience. When I thought about what I wanted my last piece to be, the title ‘a seat at the table’ popped up not only because it is the title of my current favourite album by Solange, but it also sums up the reason why I pursued a doctorate: I wanted a seat at the table.

I have quickly learned that this degree is not enough and I must stay open to doing something completely different.

As an African scholar, it is very evident that there is precious little space for our voices in mainstream academic scholarship – even when Africa is the subject. Celia Nyamweru found that part of the challenge is that African-based scholars have additional time and resource pressures, that their European and North American colleagues do not necessarily face. Moreover, publication selection processes in international journals are opaque, and African scholars often struggle to access the international networks that give their Western counterparts a boost.

I hope that as universities grapple with the fact that it can’t be business as usual (thanks to #feesmustfall as well #decolonisethecurriculum), they would also think very carefully about how to equip emerging scholars to be internationally competitive and add value to society. I wonder how many talented scholars have been left out because they don’t have appropriate access to professional networks or simple mentorship.

I’ve seen that for young African academics, one of the biggest challenges is to get your foot in the door. Year after year, there are roughly the same voices; with space for only one or two new people. Projects and funding arrangements are often agreed to in conversation in corridors, by people who have long grown comfortable with one another. This means: that as an emerging scholar, you either have to have a promoter or you have to find a way to get noticed.

In the final few months of 2016, I was privileged to attend the Fourth Post-Graduate Academy at the Tshwane University of Technology, hosted by Professor Mammo Muchie, as well as the Fifth Post-Graduate Academy (now called the Afrikana Post-Graduate Academy), jointly hosted by Professor Muchie and Professor Chris Landsberg. The purpose of the academy is to up-skill post-graduate students, and emerging scholars, from a variety of disciplines. It also provides an alternate path to professional network building.

As great as the ideas driving academy are, it is not enough, and it does not abdicate individual, as well as institutional responsibility for ensuring that the ivory towers are inclusive, and produce candidates of a high standard. None of us can leave the hard work to someone else, or to some other institution. Each academic, each student, needs to hustle – becoming the change you want to see.

Should all our #institutionsfall?

2015 and 2016 are arguably the Years of the Fallists in South Africa. From #rhodesmustfall to #datamustfall, there was a plethora of social media, and real world, campaigns calling for a radical break from the status quo.

It is very easy to argue that its merely populist elements raising their heads, or even more ominously, the emergence of a fascist element. Dennis Davis gives a sober warning about fallists, particularly academics, that support ‘disruption for its own sake, which in the current environment has violent undertones coated in warped identity politics.’

But to believe that this is a purely South African phenomenon is incorrect. Indeed the overall situation is a lot more nuanced than popular media would have us believe. These protests are taking place in the context of a global social shift. If you pay attention to the events around world, there is growing unrest with the status quo and people generally don’t trust institutions, particularly government. Rachel Botsman gave a TED talk about how people are increasingly losing trust in traditional institutions whilst simultaneously putting their trust in unknown entities and people.  In a recent Gallup poll, they have found Americans trust in their government and its related institutions are at an all time low. Many would argue that this distrust underpins Donald Trump’s meteoric rise. In South Africa, and rest of the continent, the picture is not very different.

In recent times, no institution has faced the level of upheaval than our universities which are at the coalface of the anger against the prevailing socio-economic system. A university, as some would argue, is a microcosm of society. Therefore, understanding and dealing with what is going on there, serves as a good basis for creating solutions on a larger scale.

Coming back to the South African context, often on social media, and in the real world context  people ascribe nefarious intent to heads of institutions but gladly follow mysterious people or processes. But does this mean that all traditional institutions, including universities, should fall? I don’t believe so. What I do believe its that there needs to be a drastic re-ordering of the our institutions if they have any hope of survival.

One of the key contours that should guide our re-ordering of the prevailing social milieu is ensuring the appropriate inclusion of women. It is one thing to decolonise the curriculum and ensure properly funded access for poor. But, without a concerted effort to ensure that women don’t get left behind, at any level, there can easily be a roll back towards a more intense patriarchy. We can already see the pockets of this in the fallist movements, where women and non hetero-normative activists, although being literally on the frontline, have been increasingly and sometimes violently side-lined. We can’t allow this to become the new status quo.

Without a doubt is that change is coming. Within our circle of influence we have an unprecedented opportunity to work towards building a just and equitable society. However, we have to be conscious where we place our trust. I would end with a quote for you to ponder from George Orwell’s 1984, which admittedly may be considered a bit subversive: “power is not a means; it’s an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship”.