Business Unusual at the Faculty of Commerce

15 Nov 2015 - 11:15

It is no longer “Business as Usual” at the Faculty of Commerce at the University of Cape Town since the historic #Feesmustfall campaign.

Interim Dean Prof Mike Wormald predicted that the #Rhodesmustfall incident was the biggest transformational challenge to UCT since the Archie Mafeje incident, and he was no doubt correct.

Much soul searching has now happened and the head of the Transformation Task Team, Prof Kanshu Rajaratnam as well as the head of the Transformation Committee, Prof Irwin Brown reflected on the significance of the Student Spring.

“It would be a big mistake to go back to Business as usual. We have to grab the opportunities to change the transformational culture in the faculty,” said Prof Rajaratnam.

Prof Brown examined the trajectory of the Commerce Faculty towards transformation over recent years.

“We started in 2006 with the Khuluma workshops. This was primarily among staff talking about transformation and students were not really involved in the same fora”.

“What this year has done has moved us from talking to listening. If we reflect on recent events, one of the key lessons learned is to listen and to understand the issues being raised. Instead of spending time trying to define Transformation, what we have seen is an agenda for action emerge – first with Rhodes Must Fall and the need to revisit our signs and symbols, as well as the alienating colonial culture of the university”.

Both lecturers said they had come to understand what students meant when they said the dominant culture meant for many students “we can’t breathe” and “we experience mental violence”.

Stated Prof Rajaratnam: “I didn’t used to see the Rhodes as more than a statue, but because I came from war-torn Sri Lanka, I started to understand the students from my own perspective. I commend the students for accomplishing things that no staff have done. By putting Transformation on the national agenda, I am extremely proud of the way they have brought focus”. The latter view was reiterated by Prof Brown.

Both lecturers agreed that the limited terms of reference and resources of the Transformation Committee meant that it had not been able to speed up transformation of the staff body. By having the interim Dean, Prof Mike Wormald, driving the task team, departments would be propelled to put the issue centre stage.

The task team was set up in July, partly in response to RMF, and also as an outcome of a discussion on recommendations for transformation put forward to the DAC by Prof Kevin Johnston.

“It’s a good thing because it shows that Transformation is a strategic imperative driven by the Dean” said Prof Brown. “Transformation should not however be restricted solely to the work of a committee. It should be embedded in everything that we do as members of the UCT community.”

Said Prof Brown: “The impetus has given departments a fresh drive. For example, in IS we are creating positions for two black South African PhD candidates to join academia”.

Prof Rajaratnam added: “Those in leadership positions should be measured on Transformation in all their activities”.

They noted that the Faculty had some stellar examples of Transformation and this needed to be recognised. Cases in point include the EDU which has had a powerful impact on the lives of hundreds of Commerce students, whose marks in many cases are superior to mainstream students, despite a background of lack of privilege.

Also the Faculty is carrying out much locally relevant research – e.g. from the development research units of SALDRU, DPRU, CITANDA and others dealing with issues of transformation and development.

Many teaching examples also come to mind, including transforming the Actuarial Science and Accounting profession, where the Faculty has played and continues to play a deeply transformative role.

However, there has been a lack of empathy with struggling students and outsourced workers. There are students who go to bed hungry, who have sleepless nights worrying about fees and who sometimes have no-where to stay, and sleep in the labs. Likewise, outsourced workers have been increasingly marginalised when it comes to economic transformation.

 “We need to take the sincere voices forward,” said Prof Rajaratnam.

“There must be self-reflection,” concluded Prof Brown.


Story By : Carolyn McGibbon