By Lukhona Mnguni

For the first time since South Africa’s democratic transition, voter turnout dipped below 70% in the recent 6th national elections. While the country still boasts one of the highest voter participation rates in the world, there is cause for concern. About 9.8 million citizens of voting age were not registered for these elections, of whom 6 million were considered to be youth. Many reasons have been advanced for this, with some ascribing it to youth apathy while others characterise it as a sign of dissatisfaction with the pace of transformation in what appears an unchanging political landscape. Furthermore, the proportional representation system has been criticised as giving inordinate powers to political parties and disenfranchising the electorate.

The 2003 Van Zyl Slabbert report on electoral reforms, which has been largely ignored, argued for a hybrid system to elect public representatives to the National Assembly, with 300 seats being constituency-based and 100 being allocated through proportional representation. This would be akin to the local government elections. However, the report cautioned against a first-past-the-post constituency-based system; instead calling for multiple representatives per constituency. This would promote plurality and ensure that public representatives are selected by communities rather than being imposed on society by political elites, as is the case with the current system.

It is against this background that many South Africans are becoming increasingly alienated from politics. When systems fail to transform, they alienate those who should be participating in them and eventually they begin to lose legitimacy. The evolution of society demands that institutions and systems adapt to change without losing their core values and cultures, although they might be required to relinquish certain practices if these are exclusionary.

As in the political landscape, university transformation is slow or absent at times. This is often due to the desire to protect the elites that are embedded in past values and cultures that are being called upon to transform. Transformation always meets resistance because it disrupts comfort zones. Given that it seeks to re-order power relations, there will be both winners and losers. This calls for decision makers to demonstrate boldness in pursuing a vision of transformation founded on social justice.

Failure to transform alienates young minds from pursuing careers in universities. Clinging to the pedagogy and methods of inquiry of the past favours the generation that inherited them. Young people co-create new knowledge on a daily basis on social media platforms and they shape public discourse on subjects that matter to them. While theory is important and academics must be grounded in it, there is also value in being in sync with contemporary discourse as this shapes questions of morality, politics, religion, social capital formation, and linkages and delinking from various groups in society.

If the methods of inquiry must change, it follows that instruction methods must also change, particularly in the humanities. Teaching 350 students in a cramped venue cannot be the only way of doing things. Where are the outdoor classes and simulations of debates, protest, negotiations, psychosocial trauma, religious disputes, etc.? What efforts are we making to understand how students imagine being taught creatively?

Faced with massification of the university, we have turned to technology as a saviour. This enables us to upload lecture notes, presentations and other text for students to read in their own time. While lectures are still held, this sometimes seems to be more in deference to tradition than a necessity. Should students who have not developed sufficient appetite to engage with their material be entrusted with self-teaching? How are we examining these students? In the humanities, multiple choice tests and exams have taken root to help lecturers to cope with the endless piles of marking. Is this the best way to assess in the humanities? Absolutely not! Indeed, multiple choice assessments should be banned and an assessment system with marking support structure for lecturers should be devised, in the humanities. No single person should mark 300 essays.

Space does not permit discussion of the numerous other dimensions of the crisis currently facing our universities, including postgraduate studies, supervision and archaic ethical clearance procedures. This crisis can only be resolved through collaboration between policymakers, management and implementers at the coalface. When done right, transformation is about ensuring that every endeavour undertaken by the university functions in a manner that enables the institution to keep up with the times and produce graduates equipped with the tools of analysis and engagement required to grapple effectively with contemporary issues.

Mr Lukhona Mnguni is a PhD intern researcher at the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit at UKZN. He is also a social and political analyst who holds a Bachelor of Community and Development Studies degree (cum laude) and an Honours degree in Conflict Transformation and Peace Studies (cum laude), both from UKZN. Mnguni obtained a Master of Science degree in Africa and International Development from the University of Edinburgh in November 2015 after having received the Commonwealth Scholarship to pursue his studies. He believes in the promotion of dialogue as a tool to foster inclusive and sustainable solutions to development.

*The views expressed in this column are the author’s own.