In the ongoing Nation Brand Forum University Dialogues, a panel at the University of Pretoria (UP) spoke about the role of the tertiary sector in shaping the nation brand reputation.
Chaired by Professor Vasu Reddy, dean of the faculty of humanities at UP, the panel discussed the tertiary sector and its impact on brand and branding. The panel agreed that the timing was fortuitous as the role and responsibility of the sector in nation building was the subject of intense scrutiny and debate.
Reddy highlighted issues that he considered critical when discussing tertiary education: unmet expectations of students and in delivery, transformation of the Eurocentric curriculum, and the experience of Black African students who perceived tertiary institutions as hostile to them and their culture.
The panel could venture opinions but the issue was nuanced and in need of real study before solutions could be decided.
Professor Siphamandla Zondi of UP’s department of political sciences suggested that universities were a useful laboratory to study the challenges we faced as a country. The sector would be the space in which we could find solutions to wider challenges.
It is a task that universities cannot escape. They are already being asked to solve socio-economic problems in wider society. It is expected of universities to find innovative solutions to the problems of unemployment, inequality, poverty and failures in governance. Universities are being asked to solve these issues while aligning policies to national objectives.
Universities have been tasked with eradicating the legacy of apartheid. The National Development Plan highlights the sector’s importance in building an inclusive society. Universities are being asked to imagine a future society and develop the skilled population to build that new society.
Universities have taken this challenge upon themselves. Zondi pointed out: “We (UP) talk of a promise to produce the human capital, knowledge and technologies that make a difference. Universities themselves are promising to fix the national problem.”
But we are a country in transition. We are a fractured country. How will the tertiary sector manage to fulfil this promise when universities mirror the fractured society? “Given the disruptions at universities can we be entrusted to imagine this new future? If we seize the opportunity presented by the current crisis to demonstrate courageous yet empathic, wise yet daring leadership to harness this crisis to produce a new university, perhaps we will move close to a multiversity.”
Sithembile Mbete of UP’s department of political science, believes that the Fees Must Fall movement is remaking national identity, is remaking the meaning of the universities themselves and recreating our understanding of the 1994 settlement. The university crisis is reconstructing the identity of university leaders, people whose self-image was shaped during the struggles of the 1980s.
The current university crisis has shown up the limit of our national imagination. Young people who grew up under the new dispensation are saying that the settlement of 1994 was not enough. This crisis is a brash, confident generation that grew up free, crashing into the limitations of that settlement.
“The crisis we are facing in our universities is really a crisis of national identity. It is a crisis of who we are. What our identity is, what our beliefs are. And how we think about the development project that is South Africa.”
POWER OF IMAGES
The advantage Mbete believes students have over the older generation who run the universities is their innate understanding of the power of images. We are living in a visual time and these students have been able to harness the power of optics to communicate their grievances more effectively to the outside world.
University management and the government are losing the visual war. Securitising the campuses has also changed the language of the protests; today we use battle language when we talk about the protests. This has also allowed students to define the national identity to the outside world. “They have defined the country’s identity as one of crisis. We are not whole, we are not unified, we are a nation in crisis.”
In commercial terms, brands do not change because people who own the brand decide it needs to change. “What we are seeing are university students who are the primary consumers of brand South Africa. The ones who are going to have to deal with congested Johannesburg in 30 years’ time. Who are going to deal with shaping the country of the future are saying we don’t love this national brand and we think it should be something different.”
William Mpofu, researcher at the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, argued that nation branding had its dangers. “Brands and naming are either weapons for destruction or tools for liberation and development.”
We are living in an information age, but we are failing to convert from an information society to a knowledge society. This failing means we lack a compass to guide us forward. This is where our crisis begins. South Africa has been branded as post-colonial, but we need to find our own identity. Developing a national identity begins with undoing the historical identity of the nation.
“Universities make claims to being universal, but in fact these institutions are provincial western Eurocentric institutions that may be geographically located in Africa, but they are western universities in Africa. Not African universities.”
Professor Tinyiko Maluleke of the Centre for African Spirituality and Culture prefaced a question by saying that students who burnt down libraries had ceased to be students. “Why don’t you put their ancestors inside that library? Why don’t you put their own history inside the libraries? Why don’t you put their history and genealogies and culture of their own mothers inside of the library?”
He ended his talk by asking if students would so easily burn down libraries if they dealt with the healing of historical injustices.
Maluleke wondered how we as a nation dealt with the madness of destroying knowledge.
He shared Mpofu’s scepticism about nation branding, arguing that branding was a natural extension of authenticity and not just what was positive. “Branding needs to be about what is true, what is credible because it simply is, not because we have worked hard at making it true.” When we talk about universities in relation to brand, this idea becomes important.
South African universities were designed to be elitist, to include only a few in a society. Today we are talking about a million students, whose impact has been bigger than their numbers. It was not a system designed to accommodate the vast majority of the population. Over the last 20 years the system has had to deal with the influx of larger numbers of female and black students. When you talk about branding you have to take cognisance of these changes.
“I put to you that the crisis we face today is a little like a bottle made for wine that is now full of umqombothi and the system has not been able to adjust to that new reality.”
Disenchantment is not unique to universities. The students revolting on campus are representative of youthful South Africa so there is very little that universities alone can do. Universities can think about solutions but the problem is much larger than just the tertiary sector.
In wrapping up Maluleke said: “Branding is a little bit about what people call you, but it is also about what you call yourself. It is what you have inherited rather than what is imposed on you. The idea of branding as putting on a jacket is too soft. It is a constant battle of self-definition because the country is constantly changing.”
Mpofu added that all intellectuals were academics but not all academics were intellectuals. Academics were hardwired to follow routine and ritual. They could not be asked to invent new ideas. Tertiary sectors could not be held responsible for inventive answers.
Mbete added that it was not the responsibility of the tertiary sector to find innovative answers to the country’s challenges. Innovation needs to come out of practice. It needs to come out of society, from people who are in every different area of life. The duty of academics is to ensure that students are better equipped to understand their context and interpret their context and to think up the innovation the country needs.
Zondi ended by pointing out that the ideas that change society oftentimes came from outside academia. Academics needed to honestly engage with society from their position of privilege.
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