Submission by CGE to Ministerial Committee on Racism, etc, in Higher Education

“…public participation in the decision-making about restructuring the large cohort of higher education institutions inherited in 1994 has been through a distinct narrowing process. It has now reached a stage termed “symbolic participation” in which selected leaders are deemed to somehow embody the public. There are, however, no real structures of accountability, or avenues of communication between these leaders, their immediate communities, or the wider public. In addition, what is often termed “consultation” between the Ministry of Education and those leaders increasingly has three major aspects: deadlines are extremely short, talks generally are scheduled only after major decisions have been taken, and real agendas are not publicly discussed. Once public announcements have been made, lobbying around negotiable details occurs behind closed doors. The paper ends by asking what the wider implications of this style of decision-making in higher education are for South Africa’s emerging democracy.”[1]    


Within its legislative mandate to research, educate, and monitor on matters of gender equality, the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) has identified the support of democracy and governance as a significant theme for its work. As part of its five-year strategic plan on democracy and governance, higher education has emerged as a key focus area. This is because higher education is extremely strategic. It is within the higher education sector that our teachers, our social workers, policy makers and other groups of actors who have the choice to be perpetuators of existing structures or agents of critical social change, are socialized. Thus, while the sector is relatively small, it is influential far beyond its portion of the national expenditure. The extent to which higher education remains untransformed is also the extent to which our national vision for economic policy and social change will lack both imagination and capacity. The ability to grow and change requires skills that can be acquired or stifled depending on the educational environment we build.  In our post-apartheid society, the lack of skilled people has often been identified as a bottleneck to development. It is less seldom that this skills shortage has been identified in the area of social transformation, yet the argument applies here as much as to the building of houses or the production of energy.  We can allocate departmental budgets, but without sufficient numbers of people skilled in critical thinking and committed activism, we shall never be able to implement the vision of equality that guided the creation of this new nation. Therefore higher education forms a vital part of the operationalization of the CGE’s legislative mandate in the area of democracy and governance.

Values, Principles and Philosophy

The CGE has constructed this submission on the basis of its analysis of the relationship between racist and sexist violence on the one hand, and the ability to entrench democracy and good governance on the other. The CGE begins from an understanding that South Africa is a post-conflict society. As a nation we have emerged from three and a half centuries of an extremely violent history, where fundamental violations of human rights were not only the norm in society, but were in fact legislated and upheld by organs of state.

This poses two sets of problems to be solved for social transformation in today. These will be discussed from the perspective of the legislative mandate of the CGE to promote gender equality. The first set of solutions we need are to the general problems of transformation which confront every post-conflict society. In societies where extremely high levels of violence have become normalized, very high levels of violence against women, people of colour, of alternative sexual orientations, etc, will also be normalized and often normative, that is, supported through reference to an invented set of cultures and traditions. Such societies also tend to be hierarchical and stratified along a number of axes such as class, race and gender. Generally conflict will have emerged over the establishment of such hierarchies, and it is in the process of enforcing these hierarchies that violence will continue to be part of the “normal” fabric of such societies. Violence has become and continues to be a socially acceptable way of settling disputes and resolving conflict. The extent to which this principle governs society is also the extent to which democracy and governance will be undermined, since a society which is ruled by violence will also be unable to entrench people’s participation and practice good governance.

The challenge which faces the transition form a post-conflict to a peaceful society is in essence to de-normalize violence, to reveal it as the horror it really is, and to highlight the way in which it undermines the social fabric of human interaction. In order for levels of violence to begin to decline, the principle of violence itself as a means of resolving conflicts between interest groups has to be cast into question, destabilized and presented as an abnormality rather than a norm. A corollary of this argument is that the principle of hierarchy itself, that is the binary principle of have/have nots, white/Black, male/female, and so on, has to give way to the inclusive principle of human rights and dignity for all as expressed in our 1996 Constitution. A highly stratified society is by its nature always going to be violent, and for their survival those at the top are always going to seek to normalize this violence as an inescapable part of the daily fabric of life. A post-conflict society seeking to become a peaceful society has therefore by definition also to become a less stratified society. This implies that we shall only end violence to the extent that the nation actively implements the commitments to social justice set out in the Constitution.

The second set of problems requiring solution emerges from the particular path South Africa has chosen to transform from its conflict-ridden past. The historical trajectory of “transformation from the top” which this nation has followed since 1994 imposes its own particular problematic that forces us to pay particular attention to the means through which this transformation is supposed to be delivered. In South Africa this has meant a sustained focus on changing the state institutions that are supposed to accomplish social change. Here we wish to highlight what can only be characterized as a social amnesia, namely that it seems to have escaped most decision-makers’ notice that the chosen instruments of accomplishing transformation from the top were the very means through which the colonial and then the apartheid state had enforced normalized violence for the purpose of dispossessing the masses.[2] Instead there seems to have been a generalized understanding, all the more powerful for remaining largely unexpressed, that instruments of state are tools like knives or hammers which can simply be turned to another purpose. 

The one exception to this general conclusion appears to have been in discussions around gender transformation. Feminist/womanist academics, the women’s movement, gender equality activists both within and without the state, and the CGE as an independent structure created by Ch. 9 of the Constitution have paid the closest attention to how one transforms the instruments of transformation. It is the purpose of this submission to bring to the attention of the Ministerial task team these deliberations, methodologies and recommendations.

Turning Swords Into Ploughshares

The first point to note about institutional transformation would be that it must be intersectional in its analysis, that is, that it would recognize the interrelationship of various forms of hierarchy such as class, race, gender and sexual orientation as they express themselves in the lives of the individuals and institutions. The second would be that it is contextual, that is, one cannot in the abstract determine the precise intersection of various forms of oppression, but that these have to be studied within their specific history and social context.

Third, and perhaps most important, is that change has to be qualitative as well as quantitative. Institutional transformation from an intersectional perspective has meant that we have to change the structures within which men, women, and intersexed people live and work. We cannot accomplish gender equality simply by replacing men with women in various positions. We would still be doing the replacing within a classist, racist and patriarchal structure. In effect, we would be forcing women to operate like men. So the process of making the numbers right has to go hand in hand with the process of changing the institutions to reflect the needs and aspirations of women, and especially of Black women from a working-class or rural background.  

The problem with institutional transformation for gender equality is that nobody really knows what a modern gender-equal society looks like. At present, complete gender equality does not exist anywhere in the world. There are historical examples, but none from within a highly technologically dependent economy. In fact, even very rich countries today who have with a century or so of democracy behind them may be slightly closer to gender equality than we are in some ways, but in other ways patriarchy is just as strong in the global North as it is in Africa. Even if this were not the case, we can learn from other examples but our reality is our own. We would still have to begin from our local situation because transformation is contextual.  We have to learn how to do gender equality as we go along. Therefore it is important to be serious and committed about what we are doing, and the best way to demonstrate this is by pursuing institutional transformation. We need to make sure that the gender equality we are building becomes as hard to undo as the patriarchy we found when we took over the running of this country. The only way to do that is to institutionalise it.

The blueprint for the desired change was expressed in the consensus within the movement reached in 2001 as set out in the National Gender Policy Framework.[3] This defined the process of transforming the instruments of transformation within the state as gender mainstreaming.

Within the NGPF, gender mainstreaming refers to the process of institutional transformation we discussed in the previous section. It has been found that it is difficult to institute all the small changes without introducing a concern for gender into every department and every unit within the state. The National Gender Policy Framework, which regulates all the gender work within government, sets out its position on gender mainstreaming as follows: Gender mainstreaming

“refers to a process that is goal oriented. It recognises that most institutions consciously and unconsciously serve the interests of men and encourages institutions to adopt a gender perspective in transforming themselves. It promotes the full participation of women in decision-making so that women’s needs move from the margins to the centre of development planning and resource allocation” [4]

The NGPF took pains to avoid the amnesia that seemed to have pervaded the rest of South African society and stated explicitly that institutions are possessed of inertia, they are upheld by individuals who have benefited from the system and who seek to continue to uphold it. The NGPF was adopted by Cabinet in January, 2002, and was implemented throughout the state with varying degrees of success. VERNET: would you like to briefly summarize findings of  latest Gender Barometer here?

There were, however, three critical areas of transformation which were not addressed specifically within the NGPF. These are transformation within the judiciary, the media, and transformation within higher education. We submit that institutions which under 1996 Constitution were made independent of the executive have formed a critical gap in the “transformation from the top” policy which has characterized institutional change in South Africa since 1994. These sectors were to be independent of the executive for very good reasons – to safeguard the  independence of the judiciary in the first instance, to protect the freedom of the press in the second, and to ensure the preservation of academic freedom in the third. This has meant, though, that there have been three critical areas of social organization which the executive has been largely powerless to transform. Political will, in these sectors, has meant very little.[5] All the state has been able to do, amidst stiff opposition from individuals entrenched at the top of the hierarchy in these sectors, has been to exercise the power of the purse in attempting to enforce certain limited administrative reforms. Bound by the Constitution, the state has not been able to reduce the levels of hierarchy, flatten the structures, or address the perpetuation of physical, economic and epistemic violence prevalent in these institutions with any degree of effectiveness.  

This situation has been exploited by patriarchal individuals and structures within universities in that every time the state seeks to promote the provisions of the Constitution with regard to non-discrimination, higher education institutions resist under the cry of preserving academic freedom; and this despite a high degree of gender activism inside these institutions. While none can be said to be exempt, this pattern is most visible in those institutions of higher learning who possess the highest degree of financial independence. These tend to be the universities which in the past have been most marked by extreme racial and gender hierarchies. Thus Mama and Barnes argue that:

“… university administrations exhibit a range of contradictory and ambivalent responses in resisting feminist activism. …Thus UCT [the University of Cape Town] (currently celebrating its new status as number 200 on a list of the 200 best universities in the world) has belied its liberal status once again by failing to respond to the opportunity to entrench a successful gender equality programme.”[6] 

That UCT has well earned its position on the feminist hit list is not news, while apart from a lack of qualitative change, even when it comes to the most quantitative of measurements the University of Witwatersrand and Rhodes University consistently score amongst the lowest in the country in terms of employment of Black women staff and the recruitment of Black women students.[7] Thus a relatively consistent pattern of historically white institutions also perpetuating deeply patriarchal systems, beliefs and organizational cultures emerges. These extreme examples of intersectionality notwithstanding, there is little to prevent the general conclusion that the policy gap in the NGPF, the state’s inability to act creatively within the limits of the Constitution, and the comparative isolation of feminist/womanist activists within these institutions from broader mass movements has led to a severe degree of under-transformation in higher education.

While South African society generally suffers from a high degree of normalized violence, therefore, we should not be amazed to find this exacerbated within higher education institutions. The racist and sexist violence of four students at the University of the Free State should surprise no-one. These students were educated within a system of higher learning that normalized violence and practiced a high degree of defensiveness towards the values enshrined in our Constitution. As Bennett et al have argued in their study of gender-based violence at universities:

“We do not see this situation as proof of the idea that in Southern African institutions  of higher learning, feminist energies around sexual harassment policy-making have failed. Our research on sexual harassment policy implementation shows evidence of an ongoing contest between core principles of feminist activism and ideas which erase gender from a general approach to questions of social justice, an erasure quintessentially rooted in intellectual and philosophical fear. On each campus, there are feminists (men and women in different strata of the campus) who remain dedicated to practicable gender justice within the institution. Simultaneously, there are those at both management and student levels who feel that ‘gender is over, the gender issue has been dealt with, we have other issues to deal with now.’”[8]

The question which remains to be asked is: what support has the Ministry of Education been able to render in this battle to denormalize violence within the higher education system? While there are Constitutional constraints, it must also be pointed out the Department of Education has not been able to deliver even within its executive competency. On the contrary, its history since 1998 has been one of consistent non-delivery. Thus even the pre-intersectional  recommendations of the Gender and Education Task Team, now a decade old, were never implemented. VERNET: DO YOU WANT TO EXPAND ON THIS SECTION, USING THE EDUCATION REPORT?  The DOE, following the adoption of the NGPF in 2002, commissioned the writing of a national gender policy, as well as nine provincial gender policies. However, we cannot find that any of these policies, with the possible exception of the Gauteng provincial policies, were ever officially adopted, much less implemented. The creation of a small and underfunded Gender Unit seem to have been the main concession to the NGPF, while the more fundamental provisions regarding gender mainstreaming, capacity building, and monitoring, appear to have been forgotten. The creation of a Ministerial Advisory Gender Forum in 2004 cannot be said to have led to concrete change.  Certainly, the CGE’s own recently completed study of gender in secondary education shows conclusively that the DOE’s institutional infrastructure for gender mainstreaming is weak, fragmented, and demonstrates a severe degree of non-compliance with the NGPF. VERNET: REFERENCE FOR CURRICULUM STUDY?   Thus it is not with high expectations that we embark on the next phase of our research, namely gender mainstreaming in higher education. While more far-reaching conclusions must await the outcome of that study, certainly we are in a position to declare that the CGE does not suffer from amnesia and has sufficient reason to request that this Ministerial task team explain how it is going to be more effective than previous Ministerial initiatives.

Conclusion and Recommendations

This submission has located a policy focus on higher education within the broader thematic context of democracy and governance, and has explained how this work ties into the promotion of gender equality. It has provided a conceptual analysis placing South Africa within its historical context and argued for the centrality of higher education transformation as an area in which our democracy has underperformed. Finally it has briefly looked at the role of the Ministry of Education in this regard.

Arising out of this analysis, the CGE at this point has only one recommendation to make:

It recommends that within a year, the Ministry has set up a broad-based, ongoing and sustained consultative forum for the purpose of first, mapping out a strategy and second, monitoring progress on class, race and gender transformation within the higher education sector.   This forum should approach transformation as an ongoing process that cannot be done to tight, unrealistic and ad hoc deadlines; that necessitates both structural change and change within individuals, requiring both quantitative and qualitative dimensions. The proposed forum should include representatives from government, civil society, policy makers in the higher education sector as well as feminist/womanist activists in research institutions, the Council For Higher Education, and independent Constitutional Commissions. Lastly, this forum should take the concept of consultation seriously, as defined by the Constitutional Court decision on public participation, and seek to avoid the appearance of crisis management, tokenism, and rubber-stamping. 

[1] . Barnes, Teresa Nation-building Without Mortar? Public Participation in Higher Education Institutional Restructuring Policy-Making in South Africa, Paper presented at the Education Policy Unit, University of the Western Cape, January, 2004, pp. 1.

[2] . Of course the topic has engaged many feminist scholars: cf. eg.  Mtintso, Thenjiwe “Women in Decision Making: a Conceptual Framework”, in Women in Politics and Decisionmaking in SADC: Beyond 30 % in 2005, SADC Gender Unit, 1999; Abrahams, Yvette “The Life And Times Of Sarah Bartmann: Locating this Biography in the Present” in Oliphant, Andries (ed.) Democracy X, Iziko Museums, Cape Town, 2004; Hassim, Shireen Women’s Organizations And Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority University of Wisconsin Press, 2006; Fester, Gertrude Grassroots Women Organizing For Freedom In the Western Cape, South Africa, 1980-1993:Acheivements and Challenges After a Decade of Democracy (1994-2004) Ph.D. Thesis, London School of Economics and Political Science, 2006.

[3] . South Africa’s National Policy Framework for Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equity prepared by the Office for the Status of Women, Office of the President, January, 2002, hereinafter NGPF.

[4] .  NGPF, pp. xviii.

[5] . Studies claiming otherwise have been somewhat undermined by their lack of an intersectional approach: cf. eg. Review of Higher Education in South Africa: Selected Themes, Council For Higher Education, Pretoria, 2007.

[6] . Mama, Amina and Teresa Barnes “Editorial” in Feminist Africa: Rethinking Universities II, No: 9, 2007, pp.1 of 2. Available at Last accessed 21/05/2008.

[7] . Cf. eg. Mabokela, Reitumetse and Zine Magubane (eds.) Hear Our Voices: Race, Gender and the Status of Black South African Women in the Academy UNISA Press, Pretoria and Koninglijke Brill, Leiden, 2004; Mabokela, Reitumetse and Mawila F.N.K. “The Impact of Race, Gender and Culture in South African Higher Education”,  Comparative Higher Education Review 48 (4), pps. 396-416, 2004.    

[8] . Bennett, Jane with Amanda Gouws, Antoinette Kritzinger, Mary Hames, and Chris Tidimane “’Gender is Over’: Researching the Implementation of Sexual Harassment Policies in Southern African Higher Education”  in Feminist Africa: Rethinking Universities I, No: 8, 2007, pp.1 of 1. Available at Last accessed 21/05/2008.