Having developed the current transformation framework at the University of Cape Town (UCT), Professor Loretta Feris, the deputy vice-chancellor (DVC) for transformation, shared her portfolio's innovative approach to transformation and decolonisation, both at the university and in South Africa in general during a recent Worldview podcast.
Part of Professor Feris's conversation focused on the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and Fees Must Fall (FMF) protests and the contribution they have made to transformation at the university. With a mandate to provide direction with respect to policies, processes and procedures that are pertinent to decolonisation and transformation at UCT, Feris was able to give unique insights into these movements.
The DVC assumed her role in 2017, following the RMF and FMF protests that arose in response to various social issues that existed at UCT and other universities across the country, particularly those that had been embedded in our society via colonisation.
"Countries that were colonised, like South Africa and others around the world, were forced to replace their own ways of being and doing with that of the colonisers. The history of colonisation is that we have embedded ourselves in these systems that come from our colonisers," she said.
"So, the RMF protests were about the process of decolonisation. And they were important for the country and for the world because they challenged the ways in which we think about higher education, the way we think about the curriculum, the way we teach, and how we understand knowledge; where it is derived from, who owns it."
The protest action was propelled by "born-free" students. These young learners were born into a democratic South Africa, free of the oppression that existed under apartheid. However, Feris said, when these students looked around at the social and economic situation they found themselves in, they began to question what this freedom meant.
"These students looked at their reality, and that reality is often one of deep-seated poverty and marginalisation. They didn't particularly feel born free, so colonialism became a conceptual lens through which they could critique the world as they experienced it," she explained.
Rather than replacing or removing the current system, the action was about pushing the institutions, other students and the public to think about the status quo that still exists in South Africa.
"What the students were saying is: 'We want to learn more about our own ways of doing; we want to understand what that looks like; and we want to infuse our thinking, perhaps in more innovative ways, by acknowledging indigenous knowledge systems.' So, when we're talking about decolonising education, what we're trying to do is to infuse more of what we have and the innovations that come from this continent."
Accessible education - a new digital age?
A natural extension to the conversation about decolonising education in South Africa, FMF focused on the barriers to education created by high tertiary education fees that were seeing steep increases each year.
"What the FMF movement was really all about was gaining access to education. For many people education is a way out of poverty. In the South African context, where poverty really is quite vast, many people can't afford education, which is what drove this move towards free education and residential accommodation."
"I think that digitally mediated education does not necessarily equate to accessible education."
While the recent transformation to digitally focused learning has partially addressed this issue by improving accessibility, Feris pointed out that digitisation is not a "silver bullet" for training in South Africa.
"I think that digitally mediated education does not necessarily equate to accessible education because it requires a number of things that poor people don't have," she explained.
For one, many students do not have access to a suitable device on which to learn. While smartphones are widespread, they are not the best way to navigate the learning platforms. To overcome this barrier, UCT extended its free laptop initiative to all students on financial aid in 2020, rather than only first years. Unfortunately, this alone was not sufficient to enable students to learn online.
"You need a device, but you also need data. As we all know, data in South Africa is extremely expensive [for the indigent], so you also need to provide access to data."
While this is helpful in some cases, there are still barriers to entry in many others.
"Many students live in rural areas where there's no connectivity or electricity, so the data is meaningless. Or there are socio-economic circumstances that prevent meaningful learning. For example, if you are living in a shack with seven or eight other people, it's not possible to study," she said.
Helping students overcome these challenges, said Feris, is one of the main drivers behind reopening university residences in 2021.
"That's why we made the decision to return students to residences this year. We'll still be teaching online, but we want them in an environment where they can actually study."
Focusing on the transformation we desire
This responsive approach has been the DVC's preferred tactic since she assumed her role.
"I stepped into this role in 2017 when we were fresh out of the major peaceful protests. But we still had some protests in that year; they were around access to university, about fees, access to accommodation, and mental health. Those were the three major issues in 2017, so that's where we focused our attention."
"We're looking at broader issues, such as language, the naming of buildings, staff transformation."
Since then, under "Towards an inclusive UCT", the framework for implementing transformation deployed by Feris in 2018, the university has begun focusing on more wide-ranging problems.
"We've moved on and we're looking at broader issues, such as language, the naming of buildings, staff transformation - and we we've made some strides in those areas. Then we're looking at issues such as gender-based violence and racism. I think what we're focusing on speaks to the culture we have at the university."
These are ongoing projects, the DVC said, that will make the university inclusive and reflective of South Africa's demographic profile and make it a place where everyone can work together with pride and a sense of belonging.
"It's very much a work in progress, but it's work that we are steadily addressing through policy change, through education and despite all kinds of tensions."