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  • Under new management; the ambiguities of 'transformation' in higher education1
  • Ulrike Kistner (bio)

The academic institution in which I work makes of me – unintentionally on my part – a sociographic observer. The first thing to be noted in this sociography concerns the changing definition of the role of the university that is given effect by this institution. Here, the sense of wonder that sustains the desire to know turns into amazement at how a university can function on the basis of systematic and continuous intellectual sacrifice. This creative destruction is ritualistically celebrated with song and dance, red carpets and opulent spreads, glossy colourful group photo-illustrated annunciations heralding the arrival of the African Renait—the Renaissance baby—in a range of styles and postures commanding acclamation. This performativity pulls the rug from under the feet of an independent sociographic observer. It converts its roles and rules into institutional facts that confront me in numerous directives on who is racially and nationality-wise to be considered appointable in academic positions, and who is not; on whom I may, racially speaking, invite as a visiting lecturer and whom not; on how many additional percent graduate students I have to recruit this year; on how many publications I must produce, and in what kind of journals; on how many students I must rake in to make my courses viable, in abstraction from all other criteria; and on how I must 'align' my research and teaching with acronymic formulae posing as strategic plans, while maintaining the requisite levels of 'research fun'.2

In trying to find events fitting the bill of the Key Performance Areas (KPAs) that serve as criteria for quarterly performance assessments, I try to select the more academic ones. Those officially endorsed and prodigiously resourced come with denouncements of the depravations, depredations, [End Page 136] and deprivations wrought by colonialism and announcements of refreshments. Framed by opening and closing ceremonials, laudatios, praise poetry, choral renditions and standing ovations, these stagings pose no greater challenge than that of repressing an uncontrollably encroaching cringing sensation in those seeking the more distant pleasures of critical inquiry and debate.

This is 'the African university in the service of humanity',3 sectionalised into tribes in the Latin inscription pro gentibus sapientia under the neo-traditional 'authentic fake' (see Chidester 2004: 70; also Chidester 2005:172–189)4 coat of arms prominently displayed as part of the brand, the launch and promotion of which University of South Africa (UNISA) decision makers considered worth R17 million. It is the place of choice for study for some, the place of only option in the otherwise priced-out-of-reach promised land of higher education for numerous others – in fact, for over one third of South Africa's students. UNISA prides itself on having over-fulfilled the racial-national quota in some faculties' academic appointments, having Africanised course offerings, and on giving prominence to 'African leadership'.

In this blend combining Africanisation, employment equity and black empowerment, notions of 'transformation', 'equity', and 'redress' have acquired a plethora of meanings, interpretations, and performative styles. So malleable have they proved in servicing particular interests or interest groups that they have now come under the critical spotlight even from within the ruling party itself.

Recognising such malleability, and hinting at 'abuse', Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe addressed the inaugural meeting of the President's Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Council with the following remarks:

We … have to admit that the 'broad-based' part of BEE has seemed elusive. In the main, the story of black economic empowerment in the last 15 years has been a story dominated by a few individuals benefiting a lot. The vast majority of those who are truly marginalised: women, the rural poor, workers, the unemployed, and the youth have often stood at the sidelines. Only a few benefit again and again from the bounty of black economic empowerment. This is a state of affairs that can no longer be tolerated. … This may mean that we look at black economic empowerment beyond business deals and shareholding companies. … what we are proposing is prosperity for all rather than for a few.

(4 February 2010; see


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