21 years after democracy do black academics still find themselves at the periphery of  the countries academic institutions?


Wits has been ranked the top university in Africa and 114th in the world. Photo: Wits Communications

BLACK SCHOLARSHIP: The history of black academics in South Africa dates back to the 19th century. Photo: Wits Communications

The recent appointment of Rhodes University’s first black Vice-Chancellor has brought the debate about transformation in institutions of higher learning back to the lime-light. Rhodes is regarded as the least transformed university in the country. The University has  57 full-time professors but only four of those are black. The university has no black deans.

This follows the controversy sparked last year when the University of Cape Town’s  Associate Professor Xolela Mangcu penned an article about the lack of black professors at the University. The article, and subsequent responses by the university’s Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price, rekindled a decade’s long debate on the place of black intellectuals and academics in South African universities.

This timeline takes a look at the seminal events, achievements, scandals and progress made by black academics within the South African academic space:

1877 – Tiyo Soga:

Umfundisi: A biography of Tiyo Soga, 1829-1871 by Donovan Williams, was the first biography ever written about a black South African intellectual. Soga translated the first Xhosa bible and composed many well-known hymns, including Lizalis’idinga lakho (Fulfil your promise). He is considered to be one of the first modern African intellectuals. Soga’s burial site in the Eastern Cape was declared a National Heritage site.

1905 – Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke:

Charlotte Makgomo Maxeke became South Africa’s first black woman graduate. She obtained a B.Sc. degree from Wilberforce University, Ohio. Maxeke wrote extensively about women’s rights and later co-founded the Bantu Woman’s League (the first women’s organisation in South Africa) in 1918.

1935 – Benedict Wallet Vilakazi:

He was the first black academic in South Africa to receive a PhD. He wrote and published many Zulu poems and books, and he helped compile the first Zulu-English dictionary. Vilakazi Street in Soweto is named after him.

1968 – Archie Mafeje:


THE MAFEJE AFFAIR: Archie Mafeje caused a stormed at UCT

The “Mafeje Affair” is one of the most well-known disputes at the University of Cape Town. Mafeje was appointed as Social Anthropology senior lecturer at UCT. However, the university reversed the appointment, because of strict apartheid laws. Almost 600 students and some academic staff occupied Bremner Building in protest. Mafeje left UCT and went on to obtain a PhD in Anthropology from Cambridge University.

1975 – Sam Nolutshungu:

Nolutshungu’s PhD thesis, which was turned into a book, is considered to be one of the first major study on South African politics by a black South African. He later published four more books. In 1996 Nolutshungu was selected to be the first black Vice-Chancellor at Wits University. He declined the post due to health reasons.

1995 – Malegapuru William Makgoba:

The University of the Witwatersrand was polarised by the “Makgoba Affair” in 1995. Thirteen senior academics signed a 297-page dossier alleging William Makgoba, the then Deputy-Vice Chancellor, misrepresented his qualifications in his CV, made statements that put the university into disrepute and general mismanagement. Makgoba denied the accusations and then revealed the personal files of the 13 accusers, accusing them of tax evasion, nepotism and lack of qualifications, amongst other things. Makgoba was later suspended.

1996 – Mamphela Ramphele:


A HISTORY OF FIRSTS: Mamphela Ramphela made it into the history books

Mamphela Ramphele becomes the first black person to be the Vice-Chancellor of a university in South Africa, after been awarded the post at the University of Cape Town.  She is a qualified doctor who helped establish the Zanempilo Community Health Centre near King William’s Town, Eastern Cape. She holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from UCT.

1997 – Mahmood Mamdani:

Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani was the former director of UCT’s Centre for African Studies. He drafted a new syllabus for a compulsory humanities course called “Problematizing Africa”. The Universities majority white faculty rejected the proposal and Mamdani was later suspended from teaching. He left the UCT shortly after the saga and has gone on to be a world renowned academic

2009 – Jonathan Jansen:

Professor is no stranger to the academy. He was the first black dean of education at the University of Pretoria. After being at Wits for some time, he was appointed as the first black rector and Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Free State.

2015 – Sizwe Mabizela:

Dr Sizwe Mabizela’s is inaugurated as the first black vice-chancellor at Rhodes university.