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I am a UCT alum and I recently attended the UCT Association of Black Alumni (UCTABA) event which hosted a discussion with Vice Chancellor, Dr. Max Price. The event was quite well attended and, having never been to an UCTABA event before, I found it refreshing to network with familiar and unfamiliar black alums. In my experience of interacting with UCT Alumni, even across racial and generational lines, there is always a sincere sense of pride and gratitude in having graduated from an institution so highly respected on the continent and across the world.

Nonetheless, the topic of discussion at the event was on Transformation at UCT, and Dr. Price focused his talk on the recent Rhodes Must Fall movement that brought the spotlight on institutional racial reform in the university and subsequently other campus’ around the country. Although the statute had been removed by the time of the event, the discussion was very interactive and commentary and contributions from the black alumni ranged from personal experiences of outright prejudice on campus, to lack of sufficient black representation in key decision making bodies, to questions around Rhodes has fallen now what. During the peak of the ‘should Rhodes fall’ debate, I began asking UCT Alumni in my own circles how many black lecturers they were taught by during their time as students. While I was studying, I was fortunate enough to be a student across three departments and two faculties- Economics (Commerce), Politics and Philosophy (Humanities). But, when I recall my own experience of Faculty racial diversity and even gender diversity across departments, it ranged from zero diversity (in one department) to moderate levels of diversity, which prompted me to think about what other students’ experience of transformation at UCT had been like from that perspective. I had also deliberately asked this question to people who had graduated between 10 years ago and 6 months ago to get a more relevant sense as to whether there has been a change, and to put it into context for our country that’s between 11 and 20 years after democracy. Astoundingly, more alumni than I expected had answered this question saying they had no black lecturers at all during their UCT career. Furthermore, a class of 2014 commerce graduate told me that in her four years (that’s eight semesters with more or less four courses per semester) of studying Business Science she had only had three black lecturers. This made me realize that despite growing numbers of black students entering university, not much has changed at a Faculty level. This also made me think back to the appalling racist incidents of last year involving white UCT students and realize that the realities that students who are supposedly “born free” are subjected to in this day and age undermine the society that I, and I am sure they, want to live in (see article: http://www.dailymaverick.co.za/opinionista/2014-11-27-cape-town-racist-club-assault-the-tragedy-and-danger-of-an-ahistorical-upbringing/#.VUXygfmqqko).

After the event, I realized that we really have a responsibility as black alumni to participate in institutional transformation not just in comfortable spaces- amongst ourselves, or on social media etc.- but also in spaces where our contribution can be more meaningful. As black alumni we also need to raise our voices in forums that matter. According to Dr. Price, the majority (75%) of alumni (in South Africa and abroad) who wrote directly to him on their views on the statute debate where white, and according to this opinion pool the right thing to do was to keep the statute. However, when looking back at the views on the timelines of my social media pages as expressed by black alumni, it seemed that majority where pro-removal of the statute. Which begs the question as to whether my seemingly opinionated network of black alumni actually voiced their opinions on platforms that more directly influence top institutional leadership?

No doubt, the opportunity is not lost to contribute to the discussions of transformation at UCT and engage on / propose solutions in meaningful ways. For instance, what my rudimentary study on the number of black lecturers at UCT helped me realize was that there is a weak pipeline of black lecturers, and Dr. Price confirmed this as fact, and this is not just a problem at UCT but nation-wide. However, putting this in the context of being 21 years into democracy, I cannot accept that one day when I send my children to UCT that they will be lucky if they are taught by three lecturers of colour in their entire university career. We need more strong academics of colour and women in the field. So, my personal project will be to start engaging alumni on how the pipeline of black and female lecturers can improve.

Too often, young, black middle class South Africans are branded as “apathetic” or “disconnected from social issues” perhaps as a result of being distracted by climbing their career ladders or dealing with the next level of institutional racial reform- at the corporate level (we’ll leave this for another blog article). But occasionally we realize how contributing to society more actively and in an area that is of sincere interest to you can make a powerful difference in your life and others. I have seen black UCT alumni create a YouTube channel dedicated to bringing strong social messages to African youth (see channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCrn_VdsOhK82fzMK2SnPywQ), UCT white students have started a project called UCT: White Privilege (see Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/UCT-The-White-Privilege-Project/1562888517320865?fref=ts). UCTABA even have a bursary scheme which alumni can donate towards, and thus far has funded six students through university since 2010 (these include medical, actuarial sciences, management studies and accounting students). There are so many ways that we can make a difference, and the more we do, the bigger the impact.

Regardless of the tertiary institution you attended (college, university, FET) it is likely that you experienced situations that undermined your vision of a democratic South Africa. Now that we have walked further down life’s path, we all undoubtedly have brilliant ideas on what can be done to make our institutions (educational and others) more representative and our challenge is to translate this into something of meaning to the next generation of graduates. But we also need to stop underestimating what can be done TODAY. As Mark Twain said “don’t let your schooling interfere with your education”.

Article by: Magcino Radebe | Mbewu Movement Founding Member

Magcino Radebe holds a Master of Philosophy in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (University of Cape Town). She is a former Strategy Consulting Manager and is currently on sabbatical until she embarks on a career in Insurance Financial Services.

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