Discomfort needn't be a bad thing, says new transformation special advisor

3 Aug 2015 - 09:45

Assoc Prof Elelwani Ramugondo's new office is sparsely decorated, containing only a laptop, desk, small table and a few chairs. The vice-chancellor's special advisor on transformation says her first few days in Bremner Building – the university's main administration building (and the site of generations of student protest action, more recently in March and April this year) – have provided an opportunity to speak to people who work along its corridors, and hear how they see themselves playing a role in transforming UCT. She spoke with Yusuf Omar about the unavoidability – and value – of discomfort when it comes to transformation conversations.

Elelwani RamugondoAssoc Prof Elelwani Ramugondo is UCT's newly appointed special advisor on transformation, having stepped into the post on 18 June.

Ramugondo was head of the Division of Occupational Therapy (OT) until 2013, and was recently appointed the chairperson of the dean's transformation committee in the Faculty of Health Sciences – this, after being the only student in her UCT OT undergraduate class that was a vernacular African first language speaker, and one of only two black students in the late 1980s. She took up the position of special advisor on 18 June, and will serve in that capacity for twelve months.

Ramugondo shared her thoughts about transforming the university and where she sees herself fitting in, and cleared up a few misconceptions in the process.

How have your first days in this position been?

ER: The vice-chancellor has immediately placed me into committees where major decisions are made, and put me in contact with key individuals responsible for some lines of accountability. This has been useful, and perhaps signals a healthy level of trust. I've also taken the opportunity to speak to people in this corridor. I think it's a good way to read how the environment is either ready or not for this role. Speaking to those who clean offices, those who wash teacups, but others [too] who I'd never even known are in this building; it's been good to touch base and also get a sense of how they see their own contribution towards transformation in this institution.

There are some misconceptions around my appointment that need to be dispelled. The first is about the nature of the appointment. Some people think it is a 'post' or a promotion; it's important to point out that this is neither about filling a post or a promotion but fulfilling a responsibility.

I've also picked up through conversations in the wider university community that some people feel that this appointment guarantees the end of protest action. As long as there are legitimate reasons for protests it will happen, regardless of whether I'm here or not.

What does the special advisor on transformation do?

ER: I've accepted the responsibility to listen with and, at times, on behalf of the vice-chancellor when he is unable to be there himself or when he is chairing meetings, which I have noted he does a lot of. This responsibility is not only about listening, but also about hearing, in order to inform action. My long-held view is that when one becomes embedded in an institution like UCT, it becomes increasingly difficult to hear what one needs to hear and see what needs to be seen and acknowledged. We all need to take responsibility for failure to see what is patently obvious and act accordingly.

It's important that we understand that as a university community, we acknowledge long-standing patterns of exclusion. I really don't think we can leave this responsibility to fight for inclusion to one constituency.

Having listened to Rhodes Must Fall through direct engagement since March, I've become acutely aware of constituencies and ways of being that sit outside or on the margins of the academy at UCT. My involvement with TransformUCT or the Black Academics Caucus at UCT has brought me very close to the issue of long-standing exclusionary practices that leave black voices and experiences outside of our curricula and research.

As an institution, we need to face the fact that there are those who legitimately feel that they have been excluded over time. We need to confront this fact with honesty and courage and not rush back to 'business as usual'.

Is transformation about individuals, and replacing one individual in a position with another?

ER: It's never about individuals. It's about institutional culture, the content of curricula, what that represents about what we want to know or wish to dismiss. It's about research that 'counts' and what doesn't, and what informs that; and a real cognisance of what happens outside the academic space – the lived realities, and a real commitment for there to be conversations between the spaces within UCT and outside realities.

If one understands the university as a space to explore meaning, it should be understood that that meaning is about lived realities. So who does the interpretation of that lived reality? Research gives us, as academics within the university, the tools with which we can state what we've understood about people's lived realities. There is immense power in this, which sometimes can work against communities, unless researchers are conscious about their own vantage points in relation to those they research, and mitigate against the risk of misinterpretation.

The fear to confront exclusionary patterns that continue to pervade our institution tells me that as post-apartheid South Africa we have a long way to go towards understanding what our society ought to look like and as a result, what the university community ought to reflect about that society. This fear also tells me that we are not spending enough time reimagining what there is to gain from having a diversity of voices and experiences informing our deliberations in offices, within our curricula and in the research we do.

I would urge the university community to look with fresh eyes at who sits around our roundtables, and reflect deeply about who is presently excluded and why. These are conversations I definitely wish to have as I visit every space around campus that has a story to tell.

Is it possible to speak about transformation without causing some discomfort?

ER: It's not possible to avoid discomfort [when speaking about transformation]. Because as we speak about what there is to gain, we are not going to be able to avoid talking about some losses and some compromise.

I shouldn't be misunderstood here to be saying that compromise relates to standards. I don't understand how diversity competes with standards. I think also foregrounding an African agenda gives us a global competitive edge. So the compromise is about comfort zones; it's about looking at what people might have easily taken for granted as 'well-deserved' spaces.

What does a transformed or transforming university look like and do?

ER: I think that question is one that is central to the conversations we ought to have. I can't have an answer to that on my own. As a university we have an opportunity now to step back and reflect deeply and have conversations rather than come in already with a view, especially if we currently sit on the side of historical privilege in this institution, to the exclusion of others.

Some of your research involved bridging the power relation between children and adults? How might that influence your work, and the way the university approaches its students and staff?

ER: I think it links to a question we need to ask about whose future it is that we are talking about. My research was around children's play, focusing on intergenerational shifts and continuities within family. The study revealed how a family can easily find itself unable to construct a coherent play narrative from one generation to another, owing to a western-led model of globalisation. Children's play can thus serve as a mirror through which to appraise agency within family and society in constructing the future, prompting adults to confront how they might have contributed towards the present; how they might have been complicit, in many different ways. When we have a conversation that allows a diversity of voices; diverse lived experiences and intergenerational voices, then we have a chance at forging a future that addresses past and present failures.

Tricky question, perhaps, but what are some of the obstacles to transforming the university?

ER: That's the thing! That question is key, but I can't answer it yet.

Okay; what are some of the programmes and strategies the university community can look forward to?

ER: It's too early to tell. If you haven't listened and fully understood, then what plan are you putting forward? What is it informed by? Of course I do have some ideas, given my long history at UCT and some managerial experience. The Division of Occupational Therapy has over the years seen massive transformation in terms of curricula, research and both student and staff profiles. We currently have a 50% black staff profile and a student profile that is over 60% black, this, while still regarded one of the best OT programmes both locally and internationally. Our research outputs since 2008 (PhD qualifications and publications) attests to excellent scholarship. It took planning and sharing a common vision to get to this point. Perhaps some of the lessons learnt there can help scale-up transformation at an institutional level. In the next few weeks I will be testing out how much appetite there is within the university leadership to take up some of these ideas.

Recommended reading for people who want to familiarise themselves with the transformation debate?

ER: [pauses]. There's an article by Njabulo Ndebele, titled 'Good morning, South Africa: Whose universities, whose standards?' that was published in 1987. This article has proven to be prophetic of our present times on university campuses. Another article worth reading is by Helena Sheehan, called 'Contradictory transformations: observations on the intellectual dynamics of South African universities', which was published in 2009. Then there is Protest Studies by Tad Friend. All these articles and many others I could list, are illuminating about what it is that we are confronted with in our efforts to transform universities.

Curated by Yusuf Omar. Image by Je'nine May.