Can our current Transformation efforts learn from Past Struggles?

Prof. Ben Turok (Director) addressed Smuts Hall (UCT) on Thursday 23rd April. His notes are published below. 


  1. South Africa under apartheid was a partial democracy for white people and a dictatorship for Africans, Coloureds, and Indians.
  2. Our present system is referred to as a constitutional democracy or a parliamentary democracy based on three main institutions Parliament, the Cabinet (with the public service), and the judiciary. The system works with checks and balances so that no single authority has total power.
  3. In addition there is press freedom and many civil society institutions, including trade unions. These also provide checks on state power.
  4. There can therefore be no comparison between the previous repressive regime and our current system.
  5. Because of the repression, national liberation movements resorted to a number of struggle methods: public statements to the media, public demonstrations, stay at homes (strikes) which impacted on the economy, and finally sabotage and armed struggle. The object was to overthrow the government by making the country ungovernable.
  6. It must be stressed that the key lay in organization and the constant promotion of political education so that cadres acted in a disciplined manner and fully understood the objectives of the movement. It was also soon realized that it had to be inclusive which meant involving Coloured people and Indians as well as many white progressives as possible.
  7. This was not just a matter of principle, preparing for a nonracial society, it was also a strategic requirement- Maximise your own forces to encircle the enemy.
  8. Is any of this relevant in our current system?
  9. How does UCT go about transformation?
  10. It is clear that there can be no comparison between the two systems. But this is not to say that our system in the country and at UCT is satisfactory.
  11. Even where there are democratic checks and balances there may be deficiencies in democracy. Sometimes the existence of multiple institutions is used to delay decision making and proper participation. Decisions are deferred or the buck is passed to others.
  12. There is also a hegemonic culture of hierarchy: senior common rooms, superiority measures, snobbishness, the imposition of values from very conservative institutions overseas and so on. Hence there is a build up of frustration leading to spontaneous unorganized protest. We need a new culture of egalitarianism and a proper commitment to Africa.
  13. We learnt in the struggle years that unorganized protest is easily defeated. Indeed it may give authority an excuse to strengthen counter measures.
  14. Transformation is fundamentally a political process which requires broad buy-in if the gains are to be substantial and lasting.
  15. It requires a fundamental understanding of how the present system works, where are the weak points, and what remedies are required.
  16. It also needs a vision of where this is going, what kind of university/system is desired.
  17. None of this can be achieved by spontaneous unorganized action. There must be an organized body with continuity of leadership and a plan of action.
  18. These plans must take account of the fact that many new students come from seriously disadvantaged homes and poor schools. UCT should consider a foundation year for all students which is interdisciplinary and where tuition support is maximum and by the best academics. UCT must also do more research on learning not just teaching.
  19. This foundation year should have external assessors to ensure proper performance. There are many other ideas that should be explored.

To see the Institute for African Alternatives Statement on Transformation at UCT  Click here

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *