Cape Town university ‘alienates blacks, perpetuates whiteness’
Written by Yazeed Kamaldien
Black students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) feel overwhelmed by the institution’s “whiteness” even though efforts are underway create a more inclusive campus.
This was among early findings of a research project by a UCT psychology department lecturer, Shose Kessi. This week she presented her talk: Coming to UCT: Black students, transformation and the politics of race.
Her research explores “how to address issues of identity, such as race, class, and gender, that impact on people’s participation in transformation efforts”.
The Harvard University fellow, with a doctorate from the London School of Economics, told a small gathering that UCT is “really good at posing” when it comes to racial integration.
She interviewed 24 students who were black, coloured and Indian to find out “how black students are isolated when they come to UCT”.
“When I went to university it was liberating. For these students, the isolation and alienation takes over. There is something about this institution that is alienating,” said Kessi.
“Black students say white students are better able to deal with white authority. They have an easier affinity with their white professor. The black students say it’s like the white students are talking to their dads.”
“Black students end up not talking or asking questions in class. One black female student said she does not want to ask white students in her class for help. She believes it would perpetuate a stereotype that she’s not good enough to be there,” said Kessi.
Racial stereotypes remained entrenched at the university, with “black students who assimilate are called coconuts,” she said.
“Assimilating has repercussions on their identity. You hear people say when they go home they don’t fit in anymore,” she added.
She said the “experiences of black students are essential to tell us how to deal with transformation at UCT”.
“There’s an assumption that we have transformed already. We need to get students to know about race consciousness and not say racism doesn’t exist anymore. There’s a need for effort and facilitation to have a dialogue.”
UCT also needed to encourage diversity, she said, by “looking at mixed races in the classroom as enriching our understanding”.
Associate professor Xolela Mangcu who teaches at UCT said he found “white students in my class want to talk about race”.
“They want to discover this other world. We need to talk to them about race and culture in this country. For a lot of them racial history comes through shame,” he said.
He said black lecturers also needed to “teach what we think we need to teach”.” “But there are white bosses or heads of department that might not get transformation. It can be very lonely here,” he added.
UCT vice-chancellor Dr Max Price, who was also at Kessi’s presentation, said the research was biased.
He added though: “I think it’s true that many black students feel like they really don’t belong here and this is a white campus. They are alienated. We need to address this.”
He said they may feel this way because of “stereotypes” and because “most people in authority and professors are white”.
“The whiteness of the institution… that is how this institution is and we have to change that. We are renaming buildings. We have parts of the university that are being renamed after people who were part of the Struggle,” said Price.
“Our purpose is to say that our history is not only that of white colonialism and European empire. It is also a history of the San and the anti-apartheid struggle. Telling a different history of the university is essential.”
Price said UCT worked towards integration by, for example, “not allowing students to choose their residences”.
“We randomly place them in residences so they can live with people from very different backgrounds. That can change their attitudes,” he said.
While UCT students had differing views on racial integration, they mostly agreed that the campus felt mostly like a space for white students.
Sihle Nkunzana, a third-year social sciences student, said that “whiteness could be a critique of all universities in South Africa because all our institutions are westernised”.
She also said black students “need to take it upon themselves to integrate and participate”.
Andrei Damane, a second-year political science student, who “lived a white lifestyle in a black household”, said students “of the same race still hang out together”.
“My father is white and my mother black. We lived in a white suburb and I went to boarding school. I have insight into both sides,” he said.
“UCT is very much a white institution. If you have an accent that sounds white then you get more respect from others. People want to fit in and get ahead so they start to assimilate,” he said.
“They pick up a white accent and dress differently. They give up who they are.”
Tariq Essop, a second-year English literature and politics student, said “UCT is geared more towards a white English-speaking person”.
“It is a white institution. The names of buildings on campus perpetuate that and the education is very Eurocentric,” he said.
“I don’t feel alienated though. I went to a private school and mostly hang out with students who went to private schools. I enjoy the education but it could be more inclusive of other perspectives.”
Leta Honegger, a journalism exchange student from Switzerland, said she “was surprised to see that it’s so separated”.
“I expected everyone to be together. You still see people of the same race groups together. Before I came here, I didn’t even think about it. It’s weird,” she said.
“A coloured girl told me about places when you go out you will find mostly coloured or black or white people. I’m not used to that.”
Daniel Thomas, a first-year engineering student, said black students could face “animosity because the application process favours them”.
“Some white students feel they had to work harder to get in,” he said.
He added: “UCT does need to change. All the people in powerful positions are white so it comes across as a white institution. There should be a more diverse representation of power.”
His classmate Keegan Smith added: “Most of the lecturers are white. We don’t have a lot of black lecturers.”