Wed, 12 May 2021

The DA is at it again with cheap politicking and point-scoring, seen in the recent piece penned by Dr Leon Schreiber. The piece was in response to the plea by the Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University (SU), Professor Wim de Villiers, that the institution not be used as a punching bag by those who lead society.

I call it 'cheap political point-scoring' because Schreiber is guilty precisely of what he accuses De Villiers of doing at SU.

In Schreiber's response, he drives a polarising and divisive discourse that is vapid and smacks of an intellectual triteness that completely misses De Villiers' framing of the issue as fraught with numerous complexities. Schreiber also demonstrates an absence of leadership we have in our society.

I have two disclaimers that I must make upfront.

In the first instance, I am not affiliated with SU in any way. I neither read at SU, nor am I teaching at the university. What sparked my interest in this matter was Schreiber's very poor conception and application of Article 29(2). It is a very selective reading as he elides 29(2)(b), on which I wish to take him to task presently.

On the second disclaimer, I must declare that I found myself for the last two years (2019-2020) teaching at the University of Pretoria, which has in recent years moved to a monolingual language policy vis-à-vis teaching, learning, and assessment. This move was made following calls from students in preceding years where it was highlighted that the use of Afrikaans facilitated epistemic access for some while disadvantaging all those who were not mother-tongue speakers of Afrikaans.

Need for sophisticated politics

I call the straw man argument developed by Schreiber vapid and intellectually trite for many reasons, but I will focus my attention on only two matters.

The first is a comprehensive reading of 29(2), which feeds into the second point: a research-intensive University like SU.

On the second matter I draw-both Schreiber and the readers'-attention to the requisite need for a more sophisticated politics; one that doesn't endanger our institutions or create sites of political contestations that might derail us from the function and purpose of a university, which is committed to teaching, learning and research.

On the first matter, 29(2), I wish to pay attention to the derivative conditionalities that are attached to the right Schreiber quotes as the Constitution 29(2) reads,"[...] taking into account:

(a) equity;

(b) practicability; and

(c) the need to redress past racially discriminatory laws and practices."

I sympathise with De Villiers, as I am certain that contained in his framing of the issue as constitutive of a series of complexities, he is very aware of 29(2)(c).

Still, I do not wish to pay attention to this component as I am of the view that it will require its academic treatise and not merely an opinion piece which could never exhaust the debate in practical and generative ways.

My interest lies with 29(2)(b), as practicability is something-I am sure-the management of SU take into account as they govern.

On the first count of practicability, De Villiers indicates without reservation that the global crisis in which we found ourselves was what led to the decision to go with what was seemingly seen as monolingualism (ie English).

READ | Is Stellenbosch University phasing out Afrikaans? 12 questions with Rector Wim de Villiers

I was one of those who was in the trenches, at a university, with unseemly numbers in terms of our capacity, when in the middle of the first semester the national shutdown was imposed. The challenge of re-curriculating mid-stream seemingly flies over Schreiber's head.

Moreover, the challenge to adapt, in what became known in the sector as emergency remote online instruction meant limited time, with large numbers of students. We were all concerned with concluding the academic year successfully and not leaving any student behind.

Under these conditions, the practicability of dual language instruction seems to be a bit of a challenge.

With students in Namibia, Zambia, and all over the region, the comfort of a second lecture given in another language was no longer available to us, practicably speaking.

Challenge of online teaching

Maybe Schreiber should try teaching online as this might subsequently lead him to reconsider his selective understanding of the facts and the reality that faced many academics. And to publicly misrepresent the Rector as obfuscating facts and being anti-Constitutional when in fact, he knows the situation in his institution is cheap politics in my assessment.

On a secondary matter, those of us who work with and in any of the indigenous languages of South Africa-and here I include Afrikaans-know that while we read and engage these texts in their original form here at home, when we take the world stage, we do such work in English.

This is known in all Afrikaans Departments across the country as well as in departments housing African Languages.

To demonstrate, for a book of mine that is contracted with Palgrave Macmillan, insofar as I read SEK Mqhayi's in isiXhosa and engage with it in its language of inscription, for the actual monograph, I am developing the ideas in English to make them accessible to an international audience. This is but one of the myriads of complexity that is constitutive of moving to a multilingual institution, which De Villiers accepts and admits without reservation while painting for the South African public - the steps taken by SU to move in this direction.

Maybe the good Schreiber needs some instruction at rereading the Constitution - 'a close reading' in philosophic speak.

Moreover, and moving now to the second point, such cheap politicking endangers our public universities' institutional mandate by creating of them spaces that pander to public opinion while distracting them from their core business, which is teaching, learning, and research.

In the context of a research-intensive University like SU, the ineptitude that defines colleagues like Schreiber, who serve a narrow political agenda that seeks to frame certain individuals of society as victims (under democracy) doesn't appreciate the parochialism that this mode of thinking fosters and the competing demands that higher education administrators have to balance.

In the first instance, a university-in terms of how it was conceptualised in the historical framing of the White Paper 3 of 1997-ought to go back in some respects to Bill Readings' framework of the Humboldtian University Culture as seen in Germany.

Simply, this is a public institution meant to support our efforts to fashion a national culture and a sense of belonging for all.

Again, De Villiers appreciates and understands this when he lays out the investment made by SU in developing the languages of the region, ie isiXhosa and the continued institutional investment in Afrikaans. Thus, he suggests that the politicians should stick to their business and leave universities out of their myopic views that in no way work towards building a national culture, but drive divisive divisions.

Beyond just building a national culture, research-intensive universities account for a huge proportion of the continent's research output(s).

With Africa contributing less than 5% of the global knowledge outputs on an annual basis, most of that research emanates from institutions like SU, which are located in South Africa.

A distraction

To rope the institution into public debates through nonsensical squabbles that don't even recognise the reality faced by lecturers and academics on the ground demonstrates precisely this triteness I accuse Schreiber of, but more importantly distracts institutions, their leaders and academics from the business of ensuring that we keep our eyes fixed on the prize, that is producing research that is responsive to the contexts in which we find ourselves.

No more has such a demand been seen than in this time of a global crisis that requires scientific research to come up with effective responses that are aimed at protecting the lives of all Africans, not only South Africans. Furthermore, such a position is troubling in how it fails to recognise that certain delegitimating moves have effects beyond the university that influence broader society by calling into question the leadership of the institution, its capacity to fulfil its functions and roles, which suggests-to some degree-dysfunctionality. This is precisely what Schreiber is doing in his thoughtless piece.

For these reasons, De Villiers insists that we be careful about the portrayal of this highly complex matter to the broader South African public. Institutions dedicated to research should not be distracted by people who fail to understand this matter's complexity and seek merely to be the loudest voices in the room.

And finally, the desire to be the loudest voice in the room - through a blinkered vision demonstrates the absolute dearth of leadership that South Africa is currently facing.

It seems to me, that all our politicians are interested in is heckling each other in Parliament, serving narrow-minded agendas that militate against a collective South African (read national) culture that is responsive to the needs of our people-that is the people of South Africa in their collective entirety.

Additionally, they fail even to be fully up-to-date with the documents that they ought to draw from in the process of governing, that being the Constitution with this point demonstrated by Schreiber's failure to take into account 29(2)(b).

Source: News24

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