The world’s best universities know that their international status, reputation and ranking depend on recognising that talent cannot be contained within borders. Their leaders travel around the world to headhunt top academics and stellar postgraduates.
This is not a recent epiphany. Some of the Western world’s top-ranked institutions climbed the ladder during the 20th century by warmly welcoming academics who fled persecution in Europe. Many of these refugees became distinguished scholars or even Nobel laureates in their adopted lands.
Institutions that hire only from their own backyards simply cannot compete. In this era of the global university, they will quickly become irrelevant.
So, how can universities balance their need for diverse, multicultural thinkers with rising anti-immigrant sentiment around the globe?
In South Africa, the dust seems to be settling after a series of xenophobic attacks that made international headlines. The dissolution of Libya has driven tens of thousands of people across the Mediterranean Sea and pushed debates about migration to the top of the European agenda. England’s UK Independence Party wants unskilled migrant workers kept out of Britain for at least five years to save “British jobs”.
South Africa’s academy should be very worried about xenophobic attitudes spilling over into university lecture halls.
Two steps to real transformation
Since 1994 – when South Africa became a democracy – much of the discussion about transforming universities has centred on empowering the people who were most marginalised during apartheid: black Africans.
This is perfectly understandable. When it came to power in 1948 and introduced apartheid, South Africa’s National Party merely formalised a centuries-old status quo. A stroke of the pen barred black, coloured and Indian people from studying at most South African universities.
Each of South Africa’s 25 universities has its own transformation plan. In its strategic plan, the institutions' umbrella body, Higher Education South Africa, calls for a:
… transformed system in which the student and staff bodies … reflect diversity as well as social cohesion.
It argues the ideal of transformation:
… should be embedded in significant changes in respect of the core functions of teaching and learning, research and community service of institutions.
In 1965, almost 500 British professors and lecturers heeded the then-banned African National Congress’s call for an academic boycott of apartheid South Africa. The United Nations ordered a similar boycott in 1980. This was part of a larger international campaign to isolate the pariah state.
Apartheid ended formally 21 years ago. Universities are absolutely right to diversify their staff and student bodies by building spaces for black South Africans. But they cannot properly emerge from the isolation of the past without throwing open their doors to professors and postgraduate students from other African countries. The curricula, cultures, research and knowledge of these nations can help establish our African identity.
The contributions already made by intellectual giants like Achille Mbembe, Mahmood Mamdani and Shadrack Gutto prove that actively recruiting scholars from places like Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Senegal and Ethiopia to the South African academy will greatly enrich the depth and quality of scholarship in post-apartheid universities. They have influenced individual universities as well as South Africa’s broader community far beyond their respective disciplines.
Embracing the benefits
World-class scholars don’t simply walk into a lecture theatre in Johannesburg or Durban. They must be sought out, enticed and nurtured on South African soil. They can help mould South African graduates to international standards. By doing so, they can become powerful weapons in South Africa’s quest for equity and social justice.
Some university vice-chancellors are already working hard to attract the best undergraduate students from African countries with strong school systems, like Zimbabwe. Our next crop of young professors across disciplines and faculties will come from this cohort.
Scholars from elsewhere on the continent can also serve as compelling role models. They challenge some white students' stereotypical ideas about black people. Racial and racist thinking begins to erode when those granted academic authority are from the broader black community.
Respected, empowered scholars from the rest of the continent can go a long way to helping black South African students deal with the xenophobic attitudes they are experiencing in their own neighbourhoods and families. Black Muslim academics can offer curious students alternatives to the Christian ideals that still reign at more conservative universities – another form of transformation.
Unless we begin to look seriously beyond our borders, South Africa’s universities will remain poorer in their intellectual ambitions, transformation agendas and development commitments.