Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 17 of a Series]


Sub-Saharan Africa, Part 2

In a March 2015 opinion piece for the Globe and Mail, Busani Ngcaweni and Robert Nkuna address the role of political dissent in the reshaping of South Africa’s universities and of the nation itself. Ngcawenu and Nkuna begin by drawing an unsettling contrast: “Allister Sparks believes apartheid architect Hendrik Verwoerd was a smart man. Sparks is routinely referred to as intellectual and veteran journalist with more than half a century of speaking truth to power. Mcebo Dlamini admires Hitler’s developmentalism. Dlamini is a social science student at the University of the Witwatersrand and its former student representative council (SRC) head. Mcebo has fallen, removed from office by vice-chancellor Adam Habib for putting Wits into disrepute” (Ngcawenu).

Somewhat later in the article, the authors show how the specific case serves to open and frame a discussion of much broader issues: “The fallout from Dlamini’s ‘I love Hitler’ comments and his subsequent removal from the SRC presidency has added fuel to the raging transformation discourse in South Africa. The Dlamini saga cannot be treated as an isolated case: it coincides with mass campaigns demanding qualitative transformation in higher education. At the epicentre of the storm are historically white universities–Cape Town (UCT), Wits, Rhodes, KwaZulu-Natal, and Stellenbosch. These were citadels of white privilege under apartheid, and the charge from students and academics is that they remain so. As student leaders in the mid-1990s, during the mass campaigns led by the South African Students’ Congress demanding the transformation of higher education, we are compelled to take a look at the latest developments. What is happening represents the unfinished business of the struggle for transformation. This discussion should not be limited to the latest events but should deal with the entire ecosystem of higher education, from the discourse on academic freedom, curriculum design and student welfare to general governance issues” (Ngcawenu).

And further on, the authors offer this succinct insight: “Academic freedom (and freedom of expression in general) and student governance are not divisible: they reinforce each other” (Ngcawenu).


In a lengthy opinion piece for the Sunday Independent. Shose Kessi makes the case that reforming or transforming South Africa’s universities is not enough—that, instead, the nation’s universities need to be decolonized:

“As a starting point, I suggest a change in the discourse of transformation. Instead of transformation, what we should be speaking of is the ‘decolonisation’ or ‘Africanising’ of UCT and other institutions of higher learning. As Professor Mahmood Mamdani observed, in Africa we have built many universities, but none are African.

“The reality is that the transformation discourse serves to sanitise, normalise, or conceal oppressive practices. When we speak of decolonisation, it becomes obvious why Rhodes must fall, whereas “transformation” inserts doubt or the possibility of “dialogue” into what are clearly cultural symbolisms of oppression and violence.

“By talking of a decolonised university, we highlight the historical legacies of capitalis’, racism and patriarchy as intrinsic to UCT culture and practices and we foreground the need to break from this past. It is to this that Professor Ali Mazrui pointed, saying that African universities are “colonial in origin, disproportionately European in traditions” and “the major instruments and vehicles of cultural Westernisation on the continent.’

“By talking of an African university, we move away from Eurocentric theorising and locate ourselves in a national and regional context that centres the African and African knowledge and practices as vital to human relationships and growth” (Kessi).

Kessi then describes the activism that can be directed into the “decolonization” movement, the ways in which “decolonization” would redefine institutional priorities, and the impact that the universities might then have on South African society:

“Recent events surrounding the #RhodesMustFall campaign have reinvigorated this drive. This movement is not just about a statue but about the need to decolonise the institutional culture and practices of the university more broadly. . . .

“Universities, and in particular university students, have been and continue to be central in driving social change within the institution and in society. Change at UCT must be tied closely to change in our society.

“Emerging from the conversations at UCT, a particular focus that resonated with me was the legacy of violence–economic, political, cultural, psychological and epistemic violence. We live in contexts characterised by vast differences in access to resources, where competition and conflict are pervasive and palpable.

“Economic poverty, health concerns such as HIV/Aids, malaria and Ebola outbreaks, gender-based violence, xenophobia and racism are all manifestations of the historical power dynamics that have given rise to social inequalities and which have created the contexts for poverty, discrimination and violence to flourish.

“These forms of violence are key issues that universities should be addressing” (Kessi)

Late in the essay, Kessi briefly but pointedly comments on the ways in which decolonization will redefine academic freedom or at least reframe discussions of its function: “Instead of presenting ‘academic freedom’ as an ahistorical, value-free and neutral concept, academic freedom should be contextualised and emerge through the relationship between academic knowledge and the knowledge of people located on the margins of society: young people, women, LGBT people, the disabled, the economically and politically disenfranchised, or those who have suffered displacement and other forms of oppression” (Kessi).


In December 2014, William Gumede contributed an article titled “Boost Africa’s Economy with Knowledge” in the Mail and Guardian. In response to that article, Thinyane Molelle wrote an article titled ”The Shifting Face of a University,” which was also published in the Mail and Guardian, in February 2015. Molelle framed his article in the following way: “Gumede’s recent article on  generating knowledge for the economy is on point and requires many more academics to continue probing ‘the idea of a university.’ . . . They should do so because the mandate of universities is to provide open, scientific and critical intellectual debate. My purpose here, by providing a brief historical overview of the idea of a university, is to show that a single discourse can accommodate all conceptions of the ‘ideal university.’ In essence, the regulative principles of an ideal university contain a deep-seated ambiguity, which endured for many centuries.”

Later in his article, Molelle emphasizes the importance of academic freedom, but in making his case, he cites the Yeshiva decision as supporting evidence—something that would give considerable pause to many American academics:

“South Africa’s higher education system has incorporated all the historical university influences mentioned above. These can be summarised as academic freedom, institutional autonomy, teaching, scientific research, social improvement and internationalisation. Academic freedom, often misunderstood, is about freedom to seek and practise true knowledge, and to allow students, scholars and professors to traverse the world in its quest. Institutional autonomy, also often misunderstood, refers to ownership and control of a university’s strategic intent. The ground-breaking Yeshiva case, a 1980 US Supreme Court ruling on a union-related conflict between New York’s Yeshiva University and the National Labour Relations Board, concluded that the Yeshiva staff substantially and pervasively in effect operated the enterprise (the university) and that they had extensive control of academic and non-academic decisions based on the institution’s central policies. This judgment implies that institutional ownership and control by the state, university council or industrialists can only be exercised to the extent that it does not tamper with academic freedom or search for true knowledge.

“Teaching and scientific research refer to what Pirsig wrote is the primary goal of academic staff, which is to serve, through reason, the goal of truth. This simply means finding truths by scientific research and teaching those truths without restrictions imposed by a university’s control and ownership. Social improvement refers to the application of truths discovered by empirical methods about the dilemmas within the civic milieu of universities. The internationalisation of universities refers to the richness of scholarship resulting from attracting scholars and professors from diverse academic and life orientations. . . . What then should be the essence of regulative principles that define the ‘idea of a university’? My answer is that a university is a mind-set legally practised at a place–virtual or physical–to balance academic freedom, institutional autonomy, scientific research, social improvement, internationalisation and teaching, in order to provide the education Newman defined: ‘University education gives a man a clear, conscious view of his own opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them.’ It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility. It shows him how to accommodate himself to others, how to throw himself into their state of mind, how to bring before them his own, how to influence them, how to come to an understanding with them, how to bear with them.”



Kessi, Shose. “Time to Decolonize Our Universities.” Sunday Independent [South Africa] 12 Apr. 2015: 17.

Molelle, Thinyane. “The Shifting Idea of the University.” Mail and Guardian 6 Feb. 2015.

Ngcaweni, Busani, and Robert Nkuna. “Wits: Difficult Issues Should Not Be Stifled.” Mail and Guardian 15 May 2015.


Previous Posts in the Series:

Post 1. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 1]:

Post 2. Canada—University of British Columbia [Part 2]:

Post 3. Canada—University of New Brunswick:

Post 4. Canada—Capilano University:

Post 5. Canada—Overview:

Post 6. Canada—Additional Items:

Post 7. Australia– Nikolic, Powell, and Price:

Post 8: Australia–Copenhagen Consensus Centre at Flinders University and Monash University Branch Campus in China:

Post 9: New Zealand—Police and Government Interference in Academic Freedom, Tertiary Education Union and Association of Scientists:

Part 10: United Kingdom, Part 1: Free-Speech Rankings, Issues in Higher Education, and the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act:

Part 11: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 2:

Part 12: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 3, Scotland:

Part 13: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: United Kingdom, Part 4, Northern Ireland:

Part 14: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Continental Europe:

Part 15: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Central America and the Caribbean:

Part 16: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015: Sub-Saharan Africa, Part 1:


2 thoughts on “Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues in 2015 [Post 17 of a Series]

  1. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues [Post 18 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

  2. Pingback: Global Survey of Academic Freedom Issues [Post 19 of a Series] | ACADEME BLOG

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