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‘There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here’

The promise of more freedom drives South Africans to carve out research niches at previously disadvantaged universities. But it comes at a price, reports Sarah Wild.

You might expect a decorated geneticist returning to South Africa from Europe to aim for one of the ‘top five’ universities in the country: if not Cape Town or Wits, then maybe Pretoria, Stellenbosch or KwaZulu-Natal.

Yoshan Moodley made a different choice. He joined the University of Venda in Limpopo—a university far from the hot centres of South African research that caters mainly for poor, black undergraduates. It was partly a lifestyle choice, he says, talking on Skype from underneath the litchi tree in his garden. He often works from home.

But it was also freedom that attracted him. “The thing about the University of Venda is that the place allows you to do what you want. There isn’t pressure, so you can expand in any direction,” he says.

Moodley is not alone. Other South Africans have returned from stellar careers overseas to take up posts in universities with modest academic reputations. One of them is Roy Maartens, an astronomer who joined the University of the Western Cape after spending over a decade heading up a cosmology institute at the University of Portsmouth in the UK.

“I was quite happy to come to UWC, given its historically disadvantaged status,” Maartens says. “I was keen to build up astronomy with research excellence plus a transformation agenda.”

Venda and UWC are two of South Africa’s so-called ‘previously disadvantaged universities’. During Apartheid they catered to the black majority population, and saw substantially less investment than their white-majority counterparts. This investment gap remains visible in the former’s continually low postgraduate numbers and research output—although people like Moodley and Maartens are trying to change that. 

It’s a big ask. Between 2005 and 2014 the University of Cape Town produced more than 14,600 articles, followed by the University of the Witwatersrand (11,266), the University of Pretoria (10,442), Stellenbosch University (10,221) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (10,143). UWC, the only previously disadvantaged university in the top 10, published 2,834 articles over the 10-year period.

But there are signs of improvement. The number of UWC’s publications increased from 114 in 2002 to 470 in 2014, according to its annual report. A large part of this was due to astronomy, which was introduced at the university in 2009. Maartens holds a Square Kilometre Array research chair in the department—a position funded on the back of aggressive national investment in astronomy and astrophysics capacity to enable the country to host the vast radio telescope, together with Australia.

And last year, Moodley became the first researcher at the University of Venda to publish a paper in the journal Science.

Maartens says that it is often easier to build a new research area in a university, particularly in a smaller, less established university, than join or transform an existing one.

“This isn’t only peculiar to South Africa: the more established the university, the more established hierarchies,” he says. “It is difficult for people to come into an environment like that and build up a new research area… whereas at UWC, where you are starting off from scratch, the sky is the limit.”

Moodley says he noticed this when he applied for a position at one of South Africa’s top research universities following the completion of his PhD, before going overseas. “They would say, ‘No, you can only do this [area of research].’ I had difficulty telling them that, actually, my research isn’t only on human genetics, but also the genetics of animals and a broader interest in the environment,” he says.

“People are territorial, and you tread on other people’s space, there is politics. At UniVen, if you want to start a new course, you do that. I said we needed to revamp the genetics course, and UniVen said, ‘Okay, go for it.’”

The price of freedom

However, freedom comes at a price. Chris Allsobrook, director of the Centre for Leadership Ethics in Africa at the University of Fort Hare, agrees there is more space to grow at previously disadvantaged universities. But there are also administrative hurdles: “If you’re willing to handle a high level of frustration, especially with administration, without taking too much to heart, a lot can be done that you’d never get the chance to get elsewhere until later in your career.”

All the academics who spoke to Research Africa agreed that red tape, which exists at all South African universities, is worse in the previously disadvantaged universities. “It’s the chaos that allows the opportunities, but the same chaos makes everything difficult,” Allsobrook says. “Everything I do, I now expect to go wrong … I’m almost scared to believe it when something actually works. That said, a lot has gone very well.”

Moodley is more direct. There are often two kinds of academics drawn to such an environment, he says: Those who want to build something and do unencumbered research, and those who want to wait out retirement: “This leads to all kinds of academic woes. The ones who want to get on and are serious have to jump through all these hoops to stop people doing dodgy things, such as hiring their girlfriend or mistress to be a research assistant.”

Maartens says that is where institutional leadership becomes important: “You can’t just parachute one top person into a university and think that you are going to build up an excellent research unit. There needs to be support from university management.”

But while previously disadvantaged universities can help ambitious mid-career researchers carve out a niche, it’s no place to start an academic career, Moodley says. “You couldn’t establish yourself as a scientist here, or rather, it would be very hard. As a young scientist, you need someone who really knows how to mentor you as it’s hard to do anything serious because the administration inadvertently blocks you.”

Young researchers need to broaden their horizons before settling down, he says. “You have to send these kids out there to see how other scientists in the rest of the world are kicking it, so that they can come back and lift the level—otherwise it is impossible to build up an international network from here.”

Moodley knows he made the right choice. “There are places where researchers get oodles of cash and do cutting-edge research, but I can collaborate with them and live here. I could not think of another academic institution in the world where I’d want to be.”