Trans­for­ma­tion tak­ing place in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem

Rel­e­vant African con­tent and col­lab­o­ra­tion are key

Mail & Guardian - - Nihss - Sarah Mosoetsa

The Na­tional In­sti­tute for the Hu­man­i­ties and So­cial Sciences (NIHSS) has re­cently cel­e­brated its first 100 PhD grad­u­ates, demon­strat­ing col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts be­tween his­tor­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged and ad­van­taged uni­ver­si­ties, and how fund­ing PhDs within the borders of South Africa brings the nar­ra­tive of trans­for­ma­tion in higher ed­u­ca­tion to life.

Just as South Africa has nav­i­gated through rad­i­cal change over the past two decades, so too is the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem in South Africa poised for trans­for­ma­tion. This trans­for­ma­tion will need to be re­de­fined. I am proud that the hu­man­i­ties and so­cial sciences (HSS) com­mu­nity has taken on this chal­lenge.

Firstly trans­for­ma­tion in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor is about build­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars who truly re­flect the de­mo­graph­ics of the coun­try and con­ti­nent. Yet, in its broad sense, trans­for­ma­tion goes be­yond eq­uity, given that we need to en­sure that stu­dents see them­selves re­flected in the con­tent they read. This is where most of the work is con­cen­trated: on re­search­ing and de­vel­op­ing sig­nif­i­cant, rel­e­vant con­tent to make up our new cur­ric­ula.

As things stand, Africa has been used as a case study in which some schol­ars from else­where col­lect in­for­ma­tion from here, and then ap­ply their the­o­ries. They then pro­ceed to tell our sto­ries back to us. This anal­y­sis and the­o­ris­ing lacks the es­sen­tial and au­then­tic con­text that Africans ex­pe­ri­ence first­hand. The fo­cus needs to be more on lessons taught by those who live on the con­ti­nent and who have a di­rect un­der­stand­ing of what they teach.

To plug this gap, the NIHSS is at the forefront of driv­ing re­search that strives to de­velop and cre­ate new par­a­digms, as well as to show­case new and al­ter­na­tive plat­forms for African voices to be heard, while en­sur­ing eq­uity in academia. The more than 600 PhD can­di­dates who’ve been funded through the in­sti­tute re­flect what it be­lieves eq­uity to be, with most of the re­cip­i­ents of this fund­ing be­ing African women.

The NIHSS is not just a fun­der of cat­alytic re­search projects and doc­toral stud­ies. Through greater sup­port, no­tably, by means of our men­tor­ship pro­gramme — with ini­tia­tives such as Shut up and Write that pro­vide doc­toral fel­lows with the op­por­tu­nity and space to think, write and ex­press their unique ideas — we are ex­hibit­ing ex­actly how, col­lec­tively, we can make the HSS more dy­namic on our con­ti­nent.

This ap­proach will re­sult in new knowl­edge pro­duced in Africa and not else­where, and how an Afro­cen­tric cur­ricu­lum will be de­fined by, and for, African peo­ple. It is our pri­or­ity to en­sure as the NIHSS that trans­for­ma­tion is re­alised in our life­time. When it comes to cat­alytic re­search projects, it is im­por­tant to hone in on four spe­cific as­pects that en­cour­age or­ganic trans­for­ma­tion in higher ed­u­ca­tion.

Our cat­alytic re­search project lead­ers are do­ing the work that they set out to do, of­ten with lim­ited bud­gets, with a fo­cus on ca­pac­ity build­ing – mean­ing that they ex­pose post­grad­u­ate stu­dents to the art of re­search and writ­ing, and to the world of academia as a cred­i­ble ca­reer path.

Se­condly, en­sur­ing that the var­i­ous projects’ col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts take place in South Africa and on the con­ti­nent. It is through the shar­ing of ex­per­tise, re­sources and cul­tures that we can work to­wards a uni­fied univer­sity sys­tem in which all de­grees from Africa are val­ued by the Africans who pur­sue them. This is how novel ways of think­ing and ac­quir­ing knowl­edge in the HSS will be es­tab­lished — on a solid foun­da­tion.

There are more re­search col­lab­o­ra­tions hap­pen­ing be­tween South Africa and the global north than be­tween South Africa and the rest of the con­ti­nent, which is why HSS schol­ars are en­cour­aged to ex­plore their world: Africa. We don’t want to be a South Africa ex­cluded from the rest of the con­ti­nent. Let’s be clear: this is not about ex­clud­ing the global north ei­ther, but rather, it is about in­clud­ing more of Africa and al­low­ing more African voices to flour­ish.

One of the great­est di­rect re­sults of col­lab­o­ra­tion among African coun­tries has been the re­moval of un­founded per­cep­tions of each other on the con­ti­nent. Con­tin­u­ing in this vein will en­sure that Africa’s his­tory is safe­guarded.

Thirdly, there are many op­por­tu­ni­ties that lie ahead for HSS schol­ars to fully ex­plore for the ben­e­fit of academia, the coun­try and con­ti­nent. Some of the ex­am­ples in­clude, re­think­ing of her­itage sites, in­ter/mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary re­search projects as well as ex­plor­ing new re­search sites and themes such as lan­guages and his­tory of slav­ery in South­ern Africa.

Sadly, in South Africa, her­itage sites have been treated as mere tourist at­trac­tions rather than as spa­ces for au­then­tic knowl­edge pro­duc­tion. This is where cre­at­ing more PhD schol­ars can yield im­mense value. There are no pri­mary doc­u­ments to read or lis­ten to at some of these sites, open­ing an op­por­tu­nity for HSS schol­ars to for­mally doc­u­ment ac­cu­rate, rel­e­vant re­search about each site, for the ben­e­fit of their fel­low schol­ars as well as layper­sons.

The NIHSS is work­ing with var­i­ous her­itage sites, call­ing them “hu­man­i­ties hubs”, to take on this im­por­tant chal­lenge. Sim­i­larly, as we pon­der on the HSS’s role in pro­duc­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars who are able to de­velop rel­e­vant con­tent, the need for col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts in in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary work also arises. For in­stance, when Homo Naledi was un­earthed, it sig­naled a prime op­por­tu­nity for the dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines such as ar­chae­ol­ogy, his­tory, so­ci­ol­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy to join forces and pre­serve this new his­tory in the mak­ing.

There is fas­ci­nat­ing re­search on the slave trade route link­ing Mozam­bique, South Africa and In­dia, yet the arte­facts be­ing un­cov­ered are not skulls, but mu­si­cal in­stru­ments and pot­tery. These carry hand­crafted nar­ra­tives about slav­ery in the global south. This high­lights the need for strate­gic and in­trin­si­cally linked dis­ci­plines to come to­gether, which also so­lid­i­fies the rel­e­vance of the HSS.

Fourth and fi­nally, an­other as­pect of trans­for­ma­tion in the higher ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor cen­tres on the rel­e­vance of knowl­edge pro­duced. The ques­tion to ask is: “What is the point of knowl­edge and re­search if it doesn’t touch lives, be it on a po­lit­i­cal, so­cial or eco­nomic level?

The knowl­edge pro­duc­tion agenda and cur­ric­ula must be rel­e­vant, both in the con­ti­nent and for the global com­mu­nity. All of this will in­form the new con­struc­tion of our higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem as it should be. Al­ready we are see­ing sig­nif­i­cant out­puts, as all this re­search and con­tent comes to life.

Re­search out­puts from HSS have a di­rect in­flu­ence for trans­form­ing ed­u­ca­tion and help­ing us evolve as a peo­ple in post-apartheid South Africa. Take the win­ner of the HSS Award 2018 for Best Non-Fic­tion: Sin­gle Au­thored, Jolyn Phillips. Her book, Tjieng Tjang Tjer­ries & Other Sto­ries, is a col­lec­tion of tales high­light­ing the lives of the poor and marginalised, which should be part of the South African cur­ricu­lum. Through the NIHSS, Dr Nomkhosi Xulu-Gama pub­lished her first book based on her doc­toral stud­ies, Hos­tels in South Africa: Spa­ces of Per­plex­ity.

An­other ex­am­ple of work that be­longs in the pub­lic do­main for fur­ther­ing dis­course and new knowl­edge is a fas­ci­nat­ing PhD about the life and times of Daniel Can­odoise “Can” Themba, sub­mit­ted by NIHSS grad­u­ate Dr Siphiwo Ma­hala, a Univer­sity of South Africa grad­u­ate un­der the su­per­vi­sion of NIHSS men­tor, Pro­fes­sor Kgo­motso Masemola. His the­sis In­side the House of Truth: The Con­struc­tion, De­struc­tion and Re­con­struc­tion of Can Themba; pro­vides a com­pelling nar­ra­tive about Themba’s works as well as some as­pects of his life that are barely writ­ten about. It weaves to­gether Themba’s com­plex life story in­clud­ing his trou­bles with the Transvaal Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion, which, in spite of him hold­ing a de­gree from the Univer­sity of Fort Hare and pass­ing English with a dis­tinc­tion, re­fused to recog­nise him as a ful­lyfledged teacher.

Works such as these, along with our cel­e­bra­tion of the 100th NIHSS grad­u­ates, make a com­pelling case for trans­form­ing our higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem. The first re­cip­i­ent to have re­ceived a PhD schol­ar­ship is also the 100th scholar to grad­u­ate this year. This demon­strates that it is pos­si­ble to re­alise the ob­jec­tives we have set out to achieve, de­spite try­ing cir­cum­stances and re­cent chal­lenges.

His­tor­i­cally, work­ing to­wards ob­tain­ing one’s PhD was de­scribed as a very lonely ex­pe­ri­ence. The NIHSS has turned this no­tion on its head en­tirely through its men­tor­ship pro­gramme, its cat­alytic re­search projects, hu­man­i­ties hubs and its over­all view on col­lab­o­ra­tion. Here, the HSS aca­demic com­mu­nity demon­strates the spirit of ubuntu, a dis­tinctly African no­tion, which has been brought to life in the world of academia.

Above left: Dr Qu­raysha Is­mail Sooli­man, Univer­sity of Pre­to­ria. Bot­tom left: Dr Siphiwo Ma­hala, Univer­sity of South Africa. Pre­to­ria. Pho­tos: Sup­plied

Above right: Dr Kag­iso Pooe, North-West Univer­sity. Bot­tom right: Dr Sithem­bile Mbete, Univer­sity of

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