On being black in UCT’s law faculty

The Rhodes statue a few weeks before it was removed from UCT. Photo by Masixole Feni.

Johan Lorenzen, Thamsanqa Malusi and Kevin Minofu

6 May 2015

Amid all the furore over the removal of the Rhodes statute, a crucial point must be made and reiterated: the Rhodes statue is not merely a symbol for the continued exclusion of black students, it is also the lived experience for many black students — as the experiences of black students at the UCT Law School shows.

The debate and discontent over a lack of transformation at UCT that resulted in the #RhodesMustFall campaign has been simmering for many years. Often in the face of this, challenges are levelled towards affected individuals to provide evidence in support of their claims. This plays into the worrisome narrative that institutionalised racism is a myth or just a collection of small, isolated incidents.

However, the issues of a lack of transformation and institutionalised racism are brought into sharp focus in the Wilfred and Jules Kramer Law Building, the home of the UCT Law Faculty. Ranked in the top 50 law schools in the world, the UCT Law school also represents a place where black people often feel marginalised, disrespected and discriminated against; symptomatic of the problems at UCT and white-dominated universities in this country in general.

In response to the deafening silence around these issues and after repeated signs of apathy on the part of staff, a frustrated group of final year law students wanted to give black students an opportunity to share their experiences of being black at UCT – seeking a space to educate each other, but also to know that our experiences are not isolated and random but part of an institutional culture that makes such experiences commonplace and uncontroversial. To this end, the platform planned for this was a race and transformation talk, which occurred last year, that sought to give an open space for students to share their experiences of being black at UCT.

The law school’s small size means that black law students experiences are heightened in an environment where – despite the fact that they should feel more comfortable in a small faculty with greater access to staff and their peers – the cloistered nature of the law school instead serves to alienate black students further; where black people’s separation and difference from the dominant culture – which is white and privileged – becomes even more stark.

The issues brought up by students ranged from overhearing racial slurs, to more subtle but equally painful micro-aggressions that alienate many black students from truly feeling included in the law school. Among other things, these included the gulf in social and cultural capital between black and white students: these are the social assets that white students inherit from families with a long history in tertiary education or, more generally, the simple fact that white students share similar social backgrounds to the white lecturers who dominate the law school. This often gives white students a sense of ease and familiarity when interacting with lecturers, tutors and often the curricula itself. As a result, black students shared that they often felt that their white peers were able to more readily develop a rapport with white lecturers, as white lecturers found it easier to relate to white students.

A black student shared the example of an occasion where she asked for guidance on the content of an upcoming exam and was met with a terse response from a lecturer, to then subsequently find out that a white student had later on asked for similar assistance and had been given detailed help. The resonance of this story with other black students’ experiences underscored the reality that black students have come to expect to not receive the same support as white students, discouraging struggling black students from asking for help and thus suffering in silence. These feelings are perhaps felt most acutely by black students from particularly poor or disadvantaged backgrounds, but middle-class black students also shared similar anxieties around the pervasive whiteness of the faculty and how they struggle to feel comfortable in the faculty because of it.

One of the lasting legacies of apartheid is that twenty-one years after apartheid, black students from middle-class backgrounds were still disadvantaged as compared to white students who had multiple generations of inherited privilege behind them.

Some of the students present were part of the Academic Development Programme (ADP), an initiative designed to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds, talented enough to get into UCT, to bridge the gap between school and university by extending the standard length of the LLB degree and providing them with extra support during it. The nature of the programme means that none of the students are white, and despite the programme’s good intentions, students who were part of the ADP felt that it is stigmatised within the faculty as being a lesser degree. They also expressed that as students they believed they were capable of completing the regular LLB programme if more assistance and support was given to them through their LLB.

Considering the poor education system that many black students come from, it is imperative that UCT and other universities do their utmost to provide for strategies and initiatives that aim to soften the transition from secondary to tertiary education. However, it is also imperative that UCT prevents, or at the very least, works to mitigate the seemingly concomitant stigma and ostracism that ADP students suffer; a problem that seems to hamstring the programme from its inception.

The issues they raised resonated with a larger point raised by black students who believed that the structure of the LLB degree itself favoured privileged white students. For example, many black students felt that the traditional time-pressured examination method of assessment was less an assessment of intelligence than an assessment of one’s ability to quickly write in English. This was particularly detrimental to students for whom English is not their first language. This point was further highlighted by the experience of one student who described how she commonly does very well in essays, where she has the time to capture and present her knowledge, but does poorly in exams. Other means of assessment could be used to assess students, or these considerations could be incorporated into setting the time limits in exams.

The struggles of black students are particularly relevant in the context of a university known for being white-dominated – the law faculty’s undergraduate body is 19% South African black compared with 27% for the university – a problem which is further exacerbated by the fact that the law school has historically graduated a very small cohort of black South African students. Recent statistics showed that between 2006 and 2013, the percentage of black South African graduates (students who would have been categorised as apartheid-era ‘black)’ ranged from 4% to 14%. In a country where the legal profession is still radically untransformed, the fact that UCT is producing so few black lawyers only serves to compound that larger social problem.

The biggest hindrance for many black students at the law school was the fact that institutionally the law school is geared to make black students feel as the minority or the “other”. Students shared stories of how a white tutor described to a class of first-years how the white males would have to make sure they worked significantly harder because of affirmative action policies. Another student described how when a white professor, in a fictional legal scenario used to illustrate a point of law, had given the characters ordinary Nguni names there was laughter from the white students in the classroom, as if it was preposterous to imagine a person called “Jabulani” suing on a contract.

A first year ADP student described approaching a white member of the Law Students’ Council to ask for information on the ADP, only to be redirected by the white member to one of the black members on the Council. A student described how African Customary Law, which is the system of law followed by the majority of South Africans, is taught as a single course towards the end of LLB and was often treated with derision and disrespect by white students who described it as “not really being law”.

These experiences create a climate where black students feel excluded from being able to fully incorporate into the law school and for many black students this underlying hostility makes the process of studying towards the LLB even more difficult.

Furthermore, many students believed that because the faculty was made up predominantly of white lecturers (many students had never been taught by a black lecturer for the duration of their LLB) there was no impetus to address these issues. Many of the discussions about race and transformation were facilitated completely by students and there seemed to be little comprehension of the problems faced by black students by the faculty. Moreover, to compound the dearth of black lecturers, the tiny few that are there are often disrespected and undermined, in ways that would not be applied to a white lecturer. A group of students described a black lecturer missing a single lecture (on account of a family bereavement) receiving numerous emails demanding an explanation for his absence by students, while a white lecturer who taught the same class had missed several classes and had not received anywhere near the same treatment.

Perhaps the most painful aspect of the talk was the collective realisation for many black people in the room that the experience of being at the UCT law school had worn them down and demoralised them. Many arrived as bright and ambitious students to only come out feeling unsure of themselves or second-rate, as the experience of the student in the ADP programme shows. Many will say that is the nature of the tough and humbling university experience, but this sense of despondency is something that seems to so disproportionately affect black students. Furthermore it is a poor indictment on a university which claims to be the best in the country but is actively failing to empower the next generation of black graduates and leaders that this country needs.

But it is testament to the commitment of some black students that meaningful suggestions were raised, however incremental they may be. These included mandatory race sensitivity discussions at the beginning of university to better inform students about the issue of race from the start; a more representative pool of tutors and lecturers who could have more meaningful contact with students to prevent the apparent bias many students had experienced; and more frequent and meaningful engagements with staff that would seek to hold them directly accountable for the problems described at the talk.

Though Rhodes has now fallen, the pressing issues facing black students remain. Their call is a simple one: to be included meaningfully in the university as truly equal members of society. Be that through the representation of students and staff, the scope and content of the curricula, and the respect and understanding of white students and the white academe of the privilege that serves to undermine black students. The debate over the Rhodes statue cannot obscure that; it serves to remind the powers within university structures that the real soul searching has only begun.

The authors are former UCT law students. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of GroundUp.