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  • Public sociology and the transformation of the university
  • Anthea Metcalfe (bio) and Jacklyn Cock (bio)

Introduction: Public Sociology

In Burawoy's formulation, Public Sociology is distinguished by its use of reflexive knowledge and its appeal beyond the university. It 'engages with diverse publics, reaching beyond the university, to enter into an ongoing dialogue with these publics about fundamental values' (Zussman and Misra 2007:5). This formulation was in part a reaction to the way in which public universities in the USA have responded to mounting attacks from the 'right':

…with market solutions - joint ventures with private corporations, advertising campaigns to attract students, fawning over private donors, commodifying education through distance learning, and employing cheap temporary professional labor, not to mention the armies of low-paid service workers.

(Burawoy 2007:27)

Universities in the Global South face similar challenges in terms of resisting marketisation and serving the needs of the wider society while maintaining academic freedom, adequate funding and political independence (Subotzky 1999, Webster and Mosoetsa 2001, Singh 2001, Badat 2004, Reddy 2004).

These challenges were amplified in South Africa during the apartheid era when universities were predominantly elitist enclaves serving white minority interests. For this reason Public Sociology in this context involved not only 'reaching beyond the university' to struggle for the redistribution of power and resources to promote social justice, but also attempting to transform the institution itself. This 'Janus-faced' approach distinguishes Webster's practice of public sociology from that of the originator of 'Public Sociology', C Wright Mills. Unlike Mills, Webster's practice was linked to a 'political imagination forged through collective and collaborative practices with [End Page 66] groups, organisations, movements beyond the academy' (Burawoy 2010 in this volume).

At the same time it should not be thought that Webster's vision of institutional transformation was limited to changing the social composition of the staff and students of the University of the Witwatersrand. In his roles as founder and director of the Sociology of Work Programme (SWOP) and as three-time head of the Department of Sociology, Webster articulated a wide vision of transformation which also involved equipping students from both advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds with the social commitment and skills to contribute to the transformation of South African society. This paper focuses on one such initiative, an internship programme, to illustrate how Webster combined his political and sociological understandings and practices in his attempts to transform the institution in which he was located.

The historical context of higher education in SA

The historical context of higher education in South Africa is a necessary point of departure to understand the ways in which colonialism and apartheid ideology shaped the character, development and provision of higher education for all South Africans, black1 and white. In an earlier article (Buhlungu and Metcalfe 2001) it was argued that processes of social exclusion under colonialism and apartheid created an environment that ensured that whites retained control over knowledge production and dissemination which was not conducive to the emergence of a critical mass of black intellectuals. One of the consequences of this is that black people and women remain underrepresented in academic and management positions in the Historically White Universities (HWUs).

Black people gained access to HWUs through the Extension of University Education Act of 1959 that allowed a limited number of black people to apply to study at these universities on condition that they obtained written permission from the Minister of Education. Permission was only granted when the applicant's proposed programme of study was not offered at the institution designated for the race group to which he/she belonged (Bunting 2002). This meant that a disproportionate ratio of the small number of the black students registered for 'permit subjects' such as Industrial Sociology, African History and Comparative African Government and Law. African people struggled to gain permission for access to HWUs as the state was determined to force them to study at the newly established black universities (Niven 2004). In response to student boycotts, workers' strikes and the [End Page 67] increased pressure from economic sanctions, the government passed the University Amendment Act of 1983 that made it legal for HWUs to admit black students (Mabokela 2000). With...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1726-1368
Print ISSN
0258-7696
Pages
pp. 66-85
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-19
Open Access
No
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