Barney Pityana: ‘It is obvious where this country went wrong’


Barney Pityana: ‘It is obvious where this country went wrong’

The lawyer and theologian is a former head of the Human Rights Commission and a former vice-chancellor of Unisa. ANNELIESE BURGESS spoke to him about the state of universities (including the mess at his beloved Unisa), why our public discourse is so shallow, and how SA can correct its course.


BARNEY Pityana's relationship with the University of South Africa (Unisa) stretches back to his student days. He studied at Fort Hare but was expelled for his political activism in 1969. In the years thereafter, he was subjected to a series of detentions and banning orders. In 1978, exhausted from a year in detention, he went into exile in England.

“Unisa became an avenue for us to complete our university education. By the time I left South Africa, I had obtained two degrees from Unisa," he tells me over a video call from his study, etched against overflowing bookshelves behind him.

After returning from exile in 1996, Pityana finished a PhD at the University of Cape Town and then led the Human Rights Commission. Then he was invited to apply for the position of vice-chancellor at Unisa.

“It was suggested to me that they were looking for someone with a transformation mindset. I didn't have a long record as an academic. Still, I was accomplished and competent in other ways. I took the role of being a unifier and a transformer at the institution very seriously, and we were very proud of what we achieved there."

After nine years at the helm, Pityana left Unisa as he had reached retirement age. 


What happened?

In the intervening 13 years, Pityana says he has watched the disintegration of Unisa with dismay but has kept his distance, not wishing to interfere. Until now, because he says there are no systems left for any self-correction to be possible.

He recently penned a furious opinion piece in the Sunday Times, calling for the university to be placed under administration. In its 150th year, he says, Unisa is in tatters due to corruption, incompetence, cronyism and a complete absence of vision. He lays much of the blame  at the door of the vice-chancellor for the past two-and-a-half years, Prof Puleng LenkaBula, saying “she swayed her power in the institution like a tinpot dictator writ large". 

“All systems of management and governance were taken over by under/unqualified and inexperienced people, some of whom were recent student activists there. Some key departments and colleges were simply taken over: human resources, student affairs, information and communications technology, supply-chain management and council. Much has been said about the dominance of the Black Forum and the extent to which, in the name of transformation, the concept of a university was trashed."

If it is so broken, can it be fixed? 

“Yes, with the right leadership. At the moment there is no leadership of any value there. But you also have to address essential issues like financial management, honesty and ethics in the institution's management. Over the years, people have viewed institutions like Unisa as another corporate structure where you make money. And that must stop. I am supporting the call for the removal of council and for the appointment of an Administrator who takes the lead in fixing the institution."

In a country that has become a graveyard for accountability at every level of society, Pityana's searing excoriation is sobering. As the very personification of a South African elder, his voice matters.


Are they working in SA?

“We need to reset our ideas of universities in this country. The National Commission on Higher Education of 1995 was about moving away from apartheid. But 30 years later, our higher education institutions are struggling. Yes, some outstanding institutions are not affected, but those that are historically and predominantly black are. We must ensure we do not have ‘mostly or traditionally black or white’ institutions. That is the first thing that has not worked.

“Secondly, the governance of universities has not worked. And the reason is this perception that the governance of a university can be a collaborative matter between various stakeholders. To my knowledge, there are very few places where university governance is done in the way we conceived it here. Whether workers or students, stakeholders have particular interests, and they're on the council because they want to achieve those interests. It has not worked. A university is not a parliament.

“Thirdly, we need to define more clearly as a society and a nation what we think higher education is about because universities are a major investment. We need a radical rethink about universities.”

How do you see the role of a university?

“I suppose I am rather old-fashioned in these matters. There's something about a university that builds character, that gives an imagination for the future you can construct for yourself. You often find that we lack that vision, that we are pedestrian. That it's about coming to the university and money because that is what many of the organised student movements are about these days."

Has this contributed to the shallowness of our public discourse?

“Absolutely, and these are the critical reflections we must have.

“One of the other reasons higher education does not work as it should is because we have conceived the university as a carrier of society's values rather than its aspirations. 

“I believe that everything we are going through as universities today is because we bring into this space of the university the burden of our past and location. We have come to believe that this burden is unchangeable instead of wrestling with the future that we want.

“That is a problem because universities, by their very nature, should be about research, about inquiry, about asking questions rather than providing answers.

“We find that students and workers have no idea what the university is. Many see it simply as a workplace. And students are no longer honest and enquiring about their degrees. They want a quick way out, and the courts seem to be allowing that. A student at Fort Hare who did not abide by the regulations, and was stripped of his degree, went to court recently, and the court said, ‘Give this student his degree'. Where have you heard of such a thing?"


Do we have enough respect for intellectualism in SA?

No, we don't. Growing up, being a student at Fort Hare was a big thing in my township. I suppose you were highly respected, partly because we were few. So the massification of universities has something to do with it. But it also has to do with academics and intellectuals falling short of enabling societies to function better due to the insights and knowledge that learned people bring into the activity of being human."

Do we have an intelligentsia in South Africa?

“Let me put it this way. There is an intelligentsia that is schooled in the idiom of language, contestation, philosophy, understanding and argumentation. Then you have the so-called intelligentsia, people who have received certificates and flaunt those certificates. But they are very, very empty about what meaning those certificates convey." 

State of the nation

Why does it feel like the centre is not holding, that institutions are generally all broken? 

“We've become a very greedy, individualistic, self-centred society. Please don't ask me why; I don't have the answer. That is one of the reasons so many institutions, including universities, are broken. We also have a massive lack of visionary leaders in politics, as well as in academia and education in general. 

“In terms of business, while it's correct that they abide by the law, they have taken too much of a follower attitude towards the government."

Where did it go wrong?

“It's obvious where it went wrong. The ANC elected Jacob Zuma as president. But someone like Zuma only became the president of the country because the government in 1999 rejected the recommendations of Van Zyl Slabbert's commission regarding another electoral system for South Africa. We should have had a different electoral system by 2004 at the latest, but there was a conspiracy by political parties to maintain the system for much longer than was intended. It wasn't only the ANC; the IFP and the DA were part of that. 

“It was that system that brought a Zuma into place. And if you ask how it was possible that the ANC could have elected a Zuma to lead it, then I can't answer that question except to say the ANC itself was corrupted as an institution."

The formation of COPE was a fork in the road. Why did the party fail?

“It promised a lot, and many of us did believe, but in retrospect there were two main problems. First, it was people who were rooted in the ANC, and they wanted an ANC-lite. They were not setting up a new way of thinking about our country's politics. They established COPE to be the ANC outside the ANC. That was a problem, and I didn't see it then.

“The second problem was that individuals who considered themselves to be founders of COPE began to claim ownership of the party and started fighting among themselves. And that's what broke the party. It had no vision for this country except through the ANC lens. And it had individuals who were very, very opinionated and very, very self-centred."


What is your feeling about 2024 and coalition politics?

“I live in two cities with coalition local governments, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay, and they don't give one any confidence that coalitions are the future of this country. 

“I know coalitions work in various big economies in Europe, but the reason they work there, whether Italy or Germany, is that no matter what government you have, there is a solid public service system and a solid judiciary in place that is free of political influence.

“We have a solid judiciary, and in general we have very good media, but we do not have a public service that would hold up the government irrespective of who the political head of that government is. I have always supported the idea of coalitions but they don't seem to work here."

Why do we have such an ineffective public service?

“The Public Service Commission under apartheid was an independent commission, and then we subsumed it into government and made it a department with a minister. That was a mistake. That is when the public service began to fall apart.

“The Public Service Commission simply became a kind of monitoring body with no power and no authority, and the heads of public service departments were no longer subjected to a rigorous selection process. There may have been an argument for political appointments in the beginning. Still, even then, appointments should not have been made without recourse to skills and competence and psychological solidity.

“With all the talk about making the public service more competent, one could have hoped that we would have stopped cadre deployment. We need to make the Public Service Commission a much more independent commission, like in England or India, through which all senior appointments are made."

The future

“There are a lot of conversations taking place about the future. They are happening all over the place and I am involved at different levels in some of them. There is a lot of despair and alarm that this country has come to this point, but there's also a lot of thinking about what can be done to turn things around.

“It doesn't seem that anything will be achieved to our satisfaction by 2024. The answer does not lie in a multiplication of parties because that brings this ghost of coalitions with it, where you can have a one-person party dominating.

“I don't hold out much hope for 2024. We should be thinking further down the line, thinking about what can be done to make sure that by 2029 we have at least a prospect of a changed economic, social and political environment."

And that would be a different way of looking at politics?

“Yes. And maybe a couple of amendments to our constitution, including to the powers of the president and how we source our cabinet.

“We may well need to do something not unlike what the Americans do, where the members of the executive are nominated but have to go through a parliamentary inquiry system, for instance.

“I think it was Dikgang Moseneke who said our constitutional systems were built around the persona of Nelson Mandela. When that persona is no longer there, things fall apart."

♦ VWB ♦

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