Looking backwards: how to be a South African university
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In this paper, the author argues that the contemporary South African university cannot be understood and engaged with outside of an appreciation of its constitutive beginnings. Race is central to these beginnings but how it takes form, is worked with and deployed in the university is, to be historically accurate, not a deliberate teleological project. The approach the authors takes in this work is to see it rather as a site of perverse ambivalence. He argues that this ambivalence is unable to impede the momentum of whiteness as a sense making paradigm in which the university is to operate. It is not, however, a totalising apparatus. Contestation surrounds it, even in its most powerful moments. He suggests, in terms of this, that even as white dominance deepens there continue to be agents who both reflect on and act critically on the circumstances in which they find themselves. The first part of the paper provides a brief description of the inauguration of the higher education system. A second looks at the social conditions in which this inauguration played out. A third part then looks at how the universities in their engagement with this social context responded in determining who should come to it and what should be taught. Flowing from this, the paper closes with preliminary thoughts on how the South African university might begin to address its constitutive challenges.
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