Higher Education and Social Transformation: South Africa Case Study

Policy Brief


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University of Cape Town

This paper advances and draws on the following four propositions. First, in analysing the role of universities in social transformation there is a need to draw a distinction between the pre- and post-Apartheid periods; the former focuses on practices of resistance to the Apartheid regime and the latter on constituting a democratic polity in part by addressing Apartheid legacies. The second draws attention to the unintended consequences of National Party policy. It established black universities to produce passive elites to administer ethnic political institutions but created instead terrains that established a vibrant oppositional student movement and other forms of resistance within and related to the higher education sector. Third, in the post 1994 period the position of the state towards the role of universities and social transformation is derived from a policy inevitably open to reading in two opposing ways. The state demands that universities contribute towards economic and socio-political transformation, yet the nature of the transition from Apartheid to a democratic regime, its macro-economic state policies, and the constraints of globalisation have led to two opposing tendencies. In the first, universities are expected to perform as viable “corporate enterprises” producing graduates to help steer South Africa into a competitive global economy. In the second, universities are expected to serve the public good and produce critical citizens for a vibrant democratic society. To be sure these two tendencies need not be inherently contradictory, yet they do contain in a country with deep class, race and gender divisions the possibility of pulling in opposite directions. Last, when we consider universities as intrinsic sites of civil society, then the focus on the relationship between the state and civil society can be used to better illuminate some of the problems associated with the role of universities in the post-Apartheid system. While the ANC controlled state actively pursues a transformative agenda, institutions of civil society continue to be sites of ongoing contestation and remain more reticent to change. Universities, like other civil society institutions, if they are not simplistically conceived as monolithic coherent blocs, but as constituted by different constituencies (faculty, departments, students, administrators, workers, etc.) allows us to see how various sectors could function in contradictory ways - reproducing, eroding, transforming or remaining consciously oblivious to inherited and prevailing social relations.