The Meaning of UKZN Heritage
When I presented on the topic My UKZN! My Heritage! The efficacy of student protests? I dissected the meaning of UKZN’s heritage and how students relate to it. A historical review of the institution called a university and the specific history of UKZN allows us to interrogate what we mean by UKZN heritage.
Not all heritage is to be celebrated. At times we must rethink or denounce certain aspects of it. It is also important to note that not all history becomes heritage.
The history of UKZN is marred by the history of colonialism, and World War I and II. The University’s campuses are on land that was violently, immorally and illegally taken from indigenous people. The Howard College campus came about after TB Davis lost his son, Howard, at the battle of the Somme, in France in 1916 during World War I. He donated money for the construction of the Howard College building in memory of his son to jumpstart a new Durban campus for the then Natal University College. The Memorial Tower Building (MTB) was built to commemorate students who lost their lives during World War II. Therefore, while situated in South Africa, UKZN has Eurocentric roots.
The concept of the Heritage Cycle is important in understanding why we should appreciate heritage. According to Simon Thurley (2005), it suggests how we can make the past part of our future.
By understanding (cultural heritage), people value it; By valuing it, people want to care for it; By caring for it, it will help people enjoy it; From enjoying it, comes a thirst to understand; By understanding it… etc.
However, it is important to understand that heritage “is a human creation intended to inform” (John Feather, 2006). Two things become apparent when we view heritage as a social construct. The first is the people who have the power to curate heritage through choosing what aspects of history are translated into heritage and which parts are not. The second is how those people are trying to inform future generations; put simply, what consciousness do they wish to build in the minds of future generations through the heritage they have selected? It follows that unlike family or community heritage, institutional heritage is highly contested, especially when it comes to universities.
In the late 1970s, Ali Mazrui described “the African universities of the time primarily as institutions for the promotion of Western civilization” (Brock-Utne, 1999:91). For Mazrui the post-independence African university needed to be indigenised in order to be rooted in the African experience. Today, we talk about the need for decolonisation of Higher Education including the spaces that house it. These calls are lamentations that decry the overarching dominance of western civilisation in our institutions because that dominance denies African students and scholars the ability to exist and express their identity in all its fullness. The identity of Africans is subordinated or at worst rejected by western civilisation because of the assumption that Africans needed to be civilised by westerners. This rejection of African civilisation continues to permeate the curriculum we teach, the research we undertake and the rubric we adhere to for international rankings.
A rebellion against western civilisation is quickly denounced as uncouth conduct, and being ungrateful for the opportunities offered. At times, it leads to institutional castration, rendering one persona non grata in the corridors of Higher Education. Some people (especially managers) embrace the language of transformation and decolonisation to gain public political mileage while in private they suppress efforts at transformation. This leads to stunted institutional outcomes and breeds frustration among those who are at the brutal receiving end of the dominance of western civilisation. Academics are aware of this, especially those whose research interests do not resonate with their colleagues or with journals for publication. In this era of “publish or perish”, the academic is forced to abandon their true intellectual calling in order to “fit in”. In doing so, this same academic goes on to discourage students who agitate for change. Students’ intellectual aspirations are dumbed down and drowned by the pervasive western civilisation. The student is turned into a different being, but one they can never be, and a part of them is stripped as competing intellectual and heritage forces render him or her an incomplete being. This sparks an identity crisis. When a critical mass of students experienced such an identity crisis, it prompted them into action to call for the decolonisation of Higher Education. The nationwide protests resonated with many in society. Beyond decolonisation they called for free quality education. This also resonated with many given the wealth disparities in our country and the fact that many deserving people miss out on opportunities simply because of their poor backgrounds. The problem arose when criminal and violent elements accompanied the student protests. In response, people began to denounce the protests and the student body as a whole. This was a cardinal error.
Violent student protests alienated supporters because some people believe that this damages Higher Education Institutions’ reputation. However, the outcomes of student protest mainly depend on how those in power respond and management’s response generally determines its direction. If management is repressive, students will retaliate with violence. We cannot judge student responses without interrogating the methods of those who are in management. Furthermore, we need to interrogate the extent to which students relate to the institutional heritage within which they exist. Due to the contested nature of this heritage, students have little to uphold as their “own” – elements of history they can identify with. As a result, they decide to rebel. Simply put, the University must identify its heritage and build collective consciousness within the Institution to bring people’s attention to this heritage.
Mr Lukhona Mnguni is a lecturer in the School of Social Sciences and a Researcher at the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit. He was the guest speaker at a recent UKZN webinar on heritage.
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.