This opinion piece represents one slice of an ongoing conversation between three people at a certain South African university. We have been talking about this topic for a while, but this is the first time we are sharing the conversation with a wider audience.
Thinus: Before we continue our conversation, let’s quickly get the audience up to speed. To kick off, let’s clarify what we are talking about. We are focusing on how South African universities try to deal with issues related to racism and racial inequality. When I say we, I am referring to Londiwe, Silandiwe and myself. The two of them have first-hand experience as university students and we are trying to think through the implications of their experiences. Our conversation focuses on a certain South African university, but the points we want to discuss might apply to many South African institutions. For now, let’s use a pseudonym and call this university the Academy of South Africa, or ASA.
Londiwe: I would like to pick up the conversation by starting where we stopped just before the audience joined us.
Silandiwe & Thinus: Go on.
Londiwe: Thanks. So, I wanted to mention something that happened in one academic department at ASA. I was a student in that department and the university was in the process of making all students study in English, but this department was taking the whole process one step at a time, which meant that we still had English and Afrikaans classes.
Silandiwe: Okay. So, what was the issue with that?
Londiwe: It was something subtle that no one noticed at first, but over time we figured out that the Afrikaans classes were just presented in more detail. In other words, the work was explained more thoroughly and the students were given a more comprehensive scope in terms of how to study for exams.
Thinus: So, the language of instruction became an issue?
Londiwe: Well yes, but the issue became racialised because you see most of the students in the Afrikaans classes were white (at least, I think of them as white) and even white students who spoke English started to attend the Afrikaans classes. The result was that we basically ended up with one mainly black class and another mainly white class, which meant that students were not sharing ideas and creating knowledge in a properly inter-racial manner. I don’t think that’s good for a South African university. We need to put different experiences and different forms of knowledge in conversation with each other.
Silandiwe: Did you try to do something about it?
Londiwe: Absolutely. Despite that fact that we, as students, are already very busy, we brought the issue to the attention of the university leadership.
Silandiwe: What did they do?
Londiwe: They simply said that students are allowed to study in their mother tongue for as long as the option exists, and that eventually English would become the primary language of instruction. This is frustrating because the leadership completely overlooked how the issue was not simply a matter of language. We explained to them how race was being entangled with language. We explained how racial inequality was being perpetuated by the lower quality of the English classes. But they just overlooked the issue. Now, ASA has reached a point where most classes are presented in English, but my point is that this whole experience makes me very sceptical about how committed South African universities are to racial justice. Universities can say publically that they care about reducing racism and about promoting anti-racist values, but when they fail to listen to students – like the leadership of ASA failed to listen to us – I become sceptical. It’s just difficult for me to trust universities.
Silandiwe: You know, I feel like similar things are happening in other departments.
Londiwe: How so?
Silandiwe: Well, I’m not talking about the language of instruction. I am talking about departments that try to teach about racism in a critical manner, but they still end up failing to centre students’ voices.
Londiwe: What do you mean?
Silandiwe: So, picture this: Let’s say you’re studying in a department that teaches literature, like a department of English or a department of African Languages.
Silandiwe: Now, imagine that many of the novels and short stories and poems and plays and whatever deal with issues around racism.
Londiwe: That sounds pretty relevant to South African students. It could really help students to think about how to reduce racism.
Silandiwe: Well yes, in principle. But now imagine that even when you read texts on racism, you are always told to, “focus on the text” and to never, ever bring your own experiences, your own opinions or your own knowledge into the essays you write.
Londiwe: But that makes no sense. What is the point of reading and analysing a story if you cannot interpret that story in terms of the world you live in?
Silandiwe: That’s what I was thinking. So, you were talking about a department that did not listen to you when you explained how the language of instruction can uphold racial inequality. Now, I am talking about moments when a department really tries to teach about racism, but they fail because the department never really allows students to make a text personally relevant. One of the reasons why this happens is because we – as students – are always told to stay away from making a story personal. “Focus on the text, not your opinion” is what we are often told. The result is that students just analyse the text on a superficial level, because we stop caring about what the story might have to say in relation to our lives.
Londiwe: Is that the only reason why things go wrong?
Silandiwe: There is a second reason. Students are often told to write in strict, formal academic formats – like an academic essay.
Londiwe: Oh, I know what that’s like.
Silandiwe: Yup. Now, I am not saying that academic writing is a bad thing. I understand that learning to write in academic terms is one of the objectives of a university education. However, just like the language of instruction, it becomes a problem when the university concentrates so much on academic writing that they completely ignore what we – as students – want to say about the texts we are reading. We actually have our own opinions. We actually have ideas about how a novel or whatever relates to our lives. However, we are never encouraged to discuss these ideas with fellow students. We are never given a space to think together so that we can improve, sharpen or even change our ideas. Basically, we never get around to explaining those views either in class or in our individual essays, because we are forced to focus on the strict rules for academic writing. Publically, the university tells us to, “think for ourselves” and to become, “critical thinkers”. That sounds good in principle, but the university should translate those principles into practice by giving students a real chance to do that. Remember that academic writing is only a means to an end. It’s only a way to communicate what we think, but what we think is what really matters.
Londiwe: I agree. All I can add is just to say that we know that universities are trying to address racism, and we know that the issues are complicated, but we need universities to take us seriously and to listen to us.
Thinus: The more we talk about these points, the more we learn about the nature of the obstacles we need to tackle. We are going to continue this conversation in the hope that we can come up with ideas about how to change things in concrete ways. In the meantime, dear reader, we hope that this conversation has given you something to think about. Perhaps, it has even resonated with experiences that you have had. We need to think carefully about how to improve South African universities so that the educational experiences they offer can actually promote the anti-racist values and critical thinking that universities promise to cultivate.