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Transformation: the dreaded attack on mediocrity

Updated: Jun 1

Since I joined SUNewConvoRise, the single most voiced concern the movement receives is whether we are not scaring away progressive Afrikaans people by using “transformation” in our statements. Those who raise this concern usually fear that transformation is too radical in nature and too politically laden. They suggest rather the use of a more neutral term like positive change. It appears that transformation to Afrikaans people have become synonymous with loss – Afrikaans people view transformed spaces as less welcoming, less efficient, and less disciplined. In this blog I hope to showcase both why Afrikaans people feel this way, and also why even more radical transformation is absolutely crucial for the future of this country.

Coloniality of thought and being is closely linked to Christianity, capitalism, imperialism and neo-liberalism. What we saw after 1994 was not a transformation of society, rather it was a replacement of office bearers within the same power structure. As such, the institution of power in South Africa is still closely linked to these above listed concepts, despite the formal shift in power. This can be seen in every aspect of daily life: from the way in which government is structured, to the law and formal court processes, all the way to the policy surrounding what constitutes a basic education.

Transformation, in turn, is a concept that is very closely linked to decolonialty.[1] If decoloniality is the school of thought, transformation would be the verb that describes the decolonialisation of structures and institutions. It is not about a replacement of office bearers, it is about a replacement of the institution itself. It is my opinion that the single greatest reason for the collapse of state institutions in African countries following the withdrawal of the colonial forces in the mid 20th century, is not the sudden withdrawal of funds and resources, but the incompatibility of bureaucracy with community focussed African culture.

If coloniality of being is linked to capitalism, it makes sense that Western culture would prioritise an education system that is conducive to this particular ideology. Western education institutions are geared towards producing a complacent and well-disciplined work force that would be willing to prioritise individual gain at the expense of community or the greater good. To achieve this, Western culture tends to prioritise output over imput by shaming failure. People’s worth is measured by their utility to the money-making machine. We tend to praise accomplishments rather than effort, and it can even be shameful to be seen trying when you are not guaranteed a successful outcome.

In contrast, African culture teaches their children the importance of their community and family, and to prioritise the greater good over their own gain. They tend to prioritise input over output and African people praise effort rather than accomplishment. In African culture it is honourable to be seen trying, irrespective of the outcome. It is equally honourable to fail and to be seen failing, provided that you continue trying. This is not to say that accomplishments are not celebrated, but that accomplishments do not equal human worth.

This difference is especially evident in tertiary education. If you ask a white mother how her child is doing at university, she will most likely tell you their grades. If you ask an African mother, she will tell you about the effort her child is putting into their studies. At SU’s graduation ceremonies, white parents often come across as almost indifferent to the degree bestowed upon their child, because failure is unfathomable. If failure isn’t an option, success is much less worthy of celebration.

There is a second demon that lurks in the shadow of this particular mindset that unfortunately serves as an excellent reason for Western culture to often be oppressive and exclusionary: supply and demand. If a person’s worth depends on their accomplishments and success, it is imperative to have as little competition as possible, so that you can be the most successful in the room with the least amount of effort. If your worth depends on being the most successful person in the room, it would make sense that your natural instinct would be to disqualify others from competing in the race; whether that be on the ground of the race, gender, religion or culture, and best be sure, you will find a way to rationalise this based on “inherent differences”.

African families in contrast, do not merely celebrate the degree bestowed upon their child, they celebrate the child themselves and all the hard work that the child put in. If a person’s worth is not dependant on their accomplishments but on their humanity, there is no reason to feel threatened by the success of others. Accomplishments are also all the more worthy of celebration if a person is able, through their success, uplift those around them.

A second difference in the two cultures, is that western culture tends to view a person as synonymous with their job and as no more than that job. The person is whatever function they fulfil. People don’t have jobs, they are jobs and they are worth as much as their job. A person has no identity beyond their job and their job determines their standing in society. The higher a person’s standing, the more worthy they are of human rights. This culture prioritises the wealthy and successful and dismisses the vulnerable. Capitalist systems were not designed to recognise humanity. It was designed for maximum output. It sells us the lie that people have to earn their right of existence. Dependence is vehemently frowned upon and we are told that if we can’t deliver what is asked of us, it is because we fall short. Personal relationships cannot be allowed to stand in the way of your individual success, and preferably must be profitable in some way.

The converse is true in African culture. People are human first and thereafter only do they fulfil some or other function by virtue of employment. This does not mean that accomplishments are diminished, just that success is not a gateway to have your dignity and humanity respected. This is clearly illustrated in concepts like ubuntu that mean that I am human because those around me are human. Independence is a blessing that allows a person to have more concern for those less fortunate, but dependence does not detract from a person’s worth. Instead, it is accepted as a feature of life. The African culture prioritises human connection, personal relationships and the growth that come from people supporting one another. They teach their children that no one is an island and to reach out for help when they are struggling.

In South-Africa, the centralist, bureaucratic institutions that we inherited from our colonisers were never designed for a pluralistic society. As such, what has happened since 1994, is we have replaced the office bearers in these institutions, but we have not replaced the actual institution. Our country’s institutions are designed to serve a society that no longer exists, and it shows. That is why formalistic, impersonal institutions like home affairs, the justice system, universities, the military and the SAPS are perceived by white people to be less efficient, less disciplined and less welcoming compared to pre-1994, because what white people perceive to be efficient, disciplined and welcoming is not a universal perception.

That is what transformation is: moving away from an institutionalised culture that recognises the culture and perceptions of only one group of society as universal. We must ask why schools must have uniforms, why output is prioritised over input and why our basic education curriculum looks the way it does? We must ask what the purpose of our universities is and who they are intended to serve? We must ask why our courts have such formal processes and whether justice might not be better served with more informal and accessible processes. Institutions in South Africa today cannot just diversify, they must decolonialise – in structure and function – and they must do that through transformation.

To bring this argument back to SU and its current convocation “high-jacking” - transformation does not mean abolishing Afrikaans or “taking away Afrikaans students’ student experience.” Transformation means recognising that SU is a public university. Just because it did only serve white Afrikaans people for a long time, does not mean that it was ever fair, just or reasonable to do so, or that it is fair, just or reasonable to continue doing so. Transformation means recognising that the “student experience” of exclusion and discrimination that is advocated for by some, is not part of the Afrikaner culture. It was a by-product of the exclusion and discrimination brought about by policies that attempted to limit market competition. I refuse to have my culture watered down to nothing more than the weapon of choice of a small group of closed-minded old white men who fear that their mediocrity will be exposed if everyone is able to run the race. The students at SU deserve better. We are here, we are for change and we are for transformation. This is our university and we say #SUforall. If you are afraid of competition, move to Orania.

[1] See William and Mary Decolonizing Humanities Project available at: (accessed 25 May 2023). “Decolonial approaches, methods, and movements seek to disrupt colonial and settler-colonial logic and the seeming "naturalness" of racial capitalism. The methods and practices consider differences in ideas, social practices, histories, identities and beliefs as part of a myriad of means of “production of knowledge.” But also, we understand that producing knowledge and living it are not separate. We seek to learn and make visible the connections between knowledge, social practices and social action.”

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