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The real tragedy behind “student” riots – we all lose, but Africa the most

Among modern man’s greatest deficiencies is the ability to act in ignorance. We have all done things that looked ridiculous once the fuller picture was revealed. But an unfortunate attribute of the human condition is how, especially during times of great emotion, we consistently refuse to accept there is much we do not know. The invasion of Iraq, appeasement of Hitler, mass murdering by Mao and Stalin – those sins and many more were the result of people lacking the humility to appreciate they did not know what they did not know. This superbly crafted op-ed from Philip Rosenthal’s ChristianView Network argues that South Africa is witnessing a similar tragedy at its higher education institutions, specifically the University of Cape Town. In advancing their beliefs, those burning down libraries and bringing in farmhand muscle to terrorise students are forging a path which accelerates a destructive race to the bottom. Many of Africa’s brightest and best brains are already poached by talent-seeking foreign institutions possessing deeper pockets. In an age where ideas trump cash; where brains beat brawn; every fresh exile hampers the continent’s development. But until political leadership appreciates the cost and finds the courage to step in and address it, the bleeding will continue. If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. – Alec Hogg

By Philip Rosenthal and ChristianView*

Last Thursday night (15th September) at the University of Cape Town (UCT), students writing tests had their papers stolen. The next morning, the handful of protesters occupied the Student Administration building and set off the fire alarm, forcing staff to evacuate. The administration staff have to treat false fire alarms as real and evacuate, for the risk it could be a real fire.

UCT Jammie steps

Campus was then closed for Friday and Monday in the hope the situation would cool down. Yesterday morning morning (20 September), protesters marched on residences again setting off fire alarms and trying to get more to join them. Access to the campus was blocked.

Studying has been disrupted as the campus enters a busy academic period of tests.  It appears the protests are being orchestrated from off campus. In a letter to students on Monday (19 September), Max Price reported farmworkers being brought in from as far as Robertson, school children from Khayelitsha who should be in school and students from other campuses.

While the protesters claim to be opposing colonial legacy, and promoting transformation, they actually threaten not only UCT, but to set back Africa’s development. Why? Because the single biggest retarding of Africa’s development is it ‘brain drain’ of the best and brightest African students to Europe and America.  Most of these students go overseas to study and never come back to Africa. Why do they go? Because they want to study at the best universities in the world. Why do they not come back? Because they can earn up to ten times as much in America and once used to the good pay, don’t come back to re-invest in the continent.

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Making matters worse,’transformation and diversity’ employment policies of American universities make them desperate to poach African academics to comply. So millions are invested in sponsoring Africans to get PhD’s and Africa gets no benefit from it, because as soon as they get PhD’s, the brainiest Africans are stolen. That is one of the main reasons retarding Africa’s development since the end of colonialism.

In the past decade, a solution to the African brain drain was found through an agreement between African governments and the University of Cape Town.

American Ivy league universities reached an agreement to recognise UCT courses as equal to their own. Thus American Ivy league students study on exchange at UCT and can use the course credits in at their home universities. At the same time, African governments reached an agreement, to guarantee the payment of fees and rent of their students. They want them to study in Africa at UCT because then they stay in Africa and once they get degrees they will come home. The plan has been working for ten years. As these students get older, the whole of Africa is set on a positive upward growth path – if it continues.

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But these protests threaten UCT’s world class status in four ways:

  • Firstly, they threaten the economic viability of the campus through fee demands – and thus fund quality academic posts and research.
  • Secondly, they demand immediate replacement of top professors on the basis of race. The difficulty is that it takes about twenty five years of career development after PhD qualification, to get an academic to world class professor standard – and then only a few make it. You cannot ‘microwave’ a professor.  Former UCT Vice-chancellor Mamphela Ramphele declared her assets just before the last election at 50 million rand. She would not have earned that if she had stayed as an academic. So the universities find it hard to compete with the private sector. If they give in to demands and appoint professors who are not ready yet, UCT will lose its international academic recognition. Then the top students of the rest of Africa will stop going to UCT and rather to overseas again – the brain drain will re-start and Africa’s development will be set back a generation.
  • Thirdly, the disruption of studying threatens the academic performance of students and disruption of tests, the testing of that performance. Then the universities are pressured to downgrade their testing standards to push through students.
  • Fourthly, news of disruptions and safety threats will get back to overseas universities and they may cancel their exchange agreements.

Other universities are also threatened in much the same way, although in the case of UCT, the impacts of such downgrading will be felt through Africa for a generation.

The same dynamic of African brain drain is also affecting the Christian community, where the best and brightest Africans go do theology PhD’s at overseas universities. Then they are offered top jobs at ten times the salary, by theological faculties wanting ‘diversity’ and never come back to Africa. Thus millions of donated sponsorship investment for their PhD’s is wasted. These faculties think feel that by becoming more ‘diverse’ they are helping racial equality, but actually they hurt Africa. Recently, the South African Theological Seminary was recognised by an international study as offering  a large scale and world class PhD programme similar to UCT for other disciplines. Hopefully, this will help reverse the African Christian brain drain.

The accelerated ‘tranformation and diversity’ agenda is actually backfiring and retarding Africa’s development. What is needed to develop Africa is for peace on the campuses, for students to stay in Africa, work hard, get quality degrees and build the continent.

  • Philip Rosenthal runs the Christian View network which is where this article was first published. Click here for more.
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