The Durban campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
The Durban campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Transformation has been high on the agenda of our universities. Central to this is the constitutional imperative of creating a nonracial and nonsexist society. It is also about ensuring South Africa is able to benefit from all of its intellectual resources. The results are largely disappointing.

It is for this reason that the achievements at the University of KwaZulu-Natal are so impressive. By 2011, 33% of the academic leadership was female (0% in 2004) and 67% was black (38% in 2004). There was also an improvement in research and knowledge production, with 81.3% of staff being active in research and research productivity rising from 46% to 61%. This is encouraging: it shows (it) is not about numbers, it is also about qualitative improvement. The force behind this achievement is Oxford-educated vice-chancellor and renowned immunologist Malegapuru Makgoba.

In an age in which many students graduate to unemployment, it is heartening that 84% of the university’s graduates are employed within six months of graduation. It has ensured that its curriculum is in sync with the changes in the market and the economy.

It is a strategic change that gears the institution for the future. This is the kind of change that some would have us believe borders on the impossible. The fact that the change took only seven years to achieve is remarkable. It required galvanising the entire institution around a compelling vision.

One would have expected that these improvements would have generated a lively debate on what constitutes transformation and leadership. That it has not, reflects on the type of society we have become. We are so caught up in negativity that even when solutions to our problems are presented to us, they remain unnoticed. Headlines are reserved for bad news. The more strident and cataclysmic the prophets of doom, the more editorial space they get.

Indeed, much of the so-called intellectual activity is stale and sterile in that it does not lead to any change. You need not finish an article or an opinion piece to know that it would end by saying that South Africa is on a perilous path and that we need bold leadership. And often those who shout from the rooftops, seldom provide the kind of leadership they expect from others.

Understandably, KwaZulu-Natal University’s achievements will be unsettling in some quarters as they shatter popular myths and national narratives about transformation.

One shattered narrative, commonly advanced with predictable and monotonous frequency by those opposed to institutional transformation, is the notion that you cannot find blacks and women for positions of academic leadership. The numbers speak for themselves. The percentage of professors with doctorates in the national system in 2010 was 84%; at KwaZulu-Natal it was 87%. The same is true for its associate professors and senior lecturers with doctorates being above the national average (78% to 70% and 59% to 41%, respectively).

Another shattered narrative is that the appointment of blacks and women translates into the lowering of standards — this is easily disproved by looking at the university’s research productivity.

Another important narrative has to do with the behaviour of blacks and women in positions of authority. The oppressed suffer from the notion of being "the only black person" or "the only woman" syndrome. Instead of taking others along as they climb, they become an impediment to empowerment. Their newfound status makes them forget that were it not for the many struggles and sacrifices that were waged on their behalf, it would have been impossible for them to rise to those positions. They assimilate and become defenders of the status quo.

They are bandied about precisely because they promote a white supremacist agenda. Interestingly, in their new role of gatekeeping, they end up being despised by all. They fail to see through the faint praise and become useful idiots against their own.

These changes are significant when compared to those historically white institutions that are or were black-led. Despite having two black vice-chancellors for 15 years, the University of Cape Town failed to attract a significant number of black scholars. At the last count in 2010, 90% of professors were white and male. Faced with this glaring failure, new vice-chancellor Max Price put transformation at the top of the agenda.

Clearly we are dealing with an ideological problem that afflicts both blacks and whites. It is ably articulated by Prof Mamhood Mamdani: "Both the white and black institutions were products of apartheid, though in different ways. The difference was not only in the institutional culture, that the former enjoyed institutional autonomy and the latter was bureaucratically driven. The difference was also in their intellectual horizons. It was the white intelligentsia that took the lead in creating apartheid-enforced identities in the knowledge they produced. Believing that this was an act of intellectual creativity unrelated to the culture of privilege in which they were steeped, they ended defending an ingrained prejudice with a studied conviction."

Ironically, Makgoba’s achievements were almost derailed by a group of white academics during his tenure at Wits University. Responding to their spirited campaign against him, Makgoba wrote: "The fuss was largely to protect white privilege; to protect white power; to protect a dying, unsustainable imitative ideology; to protect the family jewel and business; to protect the poor qualifications of some of the academics; to protect the poor record of research output, research mentorship, low quality research ideas; to protect the low international competitiveness; to protect the inability by (sic) academics to attract first-rate research funding; to protect the low academic standards and, finally, the protection of a eurocentric educational philosophy."

Unfortunately, when some are appointed into key strategic positions, they do no more than become apologists of the system and allow apartheid’s inequalities to reproduce themselves. It would seem that KwaZulu-Natal University has sought to disrupt the apartheid logic of knowledge production.

Do those who climb the ladder conduct themselves in a way that suggest they add value arising out of the experience they bring? Or do they perpetuate a view that there is nothing of value that can come from the experiences of blacks and women in shaping institutional culture?

The KwaZulu-Natal University case study shows that transformation can be done in less than 10 years provided we have leaders committed to change in public and private sector institutions. Imagine what could be accomplished if we had 100 such leaders. The KwaZulu-Natal University leadership is the kind that makes things happen. It is different from the failed kind that is routinely paraded, but whose contribution goes no further than finding fault.

The KwaZulu-Natal case can be used to challenge antitransformation agents beyond South Africa’s borders. It presents a business case for successful transformation and lays a foundation for deeper research to analyse the factors that led to the success. The case should enable the government to provide support to those institutions that are committed to diversifying the academic environment by attracting and nurturing blacks and women as researchers. Most institutions are nothing more than a slaughterhouse for black talent. The KwaZulu-Natal story proves that you cannot put a good man down.

• Seepe is a political analyst.