In the past three years, university students in SA led countrywide protests demanding transformation, an end to outsourcing of contract workers, as well as free quality education. In the mainstream media and literature, these protests have been branded as the fallist movement, based on their various hashtag themes: #RhodesMustFall, #OutsourcingMustFall, #SexualHarassmentMust Fall and #FeesMustFall.

This movement demonstrated the potent role and agency of the youth and students on the scale witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle. Many universities and academics had long lost their appetite or urgency for transformation and their quest for social justice — but they had to respond or react to these demands.

Many universities have embraced transformation as an imperative that seeks to eradicate colonial, apartheid and imperial legacies while also repositioning the higher education sector for global competitiveness and relevance. Society has generally shifted its focus away from transformation programmes and this is largely due to our obsession with ever-changing headlines of dramatic stories such as protests, corruption and scandals.

As a consequence, little, if any, effort is being made to assess progress, regression or stagnation of university transformation. Furthermore, some informative literature analysing student-led protests for social justice is emerging away from the mainstream media headlines.

These include The Struggle for #FeesMustFall: We are no longer at ease, edited by Wandile and Busani Ngcaweni; and Fees Must Fall: Student Revolt, Decolonization and Governance in SA, edited by Susan Booysen. But most of this literature is an analysis of the nature of protests than an account of what is emerging out of efforts to transform.

What follows is an overview that highlights some lessons from transformation efforts at Unisa and the South African University sector. I am mindful of the fact that complexities and variations of transformation programmes cannot be adequately expressed within the confines of a single article.

1. Race matters and gender eclipsed

Various articulations of transformation have foregrounded racial issues as a whole, often overlooking gender and other strata of social injustice in society. Most of the discourse and literature on decolonisation and africanisation has mainly focused on the racial dimension, with the gender agenda receiving marginal attention. This is a weakness that needs intervention at its early stages as it has been demonstrated in our history of post-colonial Africa that African nationalism does not automatically resolve gender issues.

2. Social sciences in the front line and hardcore sciences and professional fields on the defensive

The conceptual, theoretical and philosophical foundation of university transformation discourse is often led by social sciences and presented as a template for other fields such as pure science and engineering, as well as other professional fields such as accounting, health, economics and management sciences. This has caused tension and the perception of imposition instead of co-creation and co-determination of the terms of transformation.

Social sciences are more advanced in critical theory and have dedicated more time and effort in developing tools of analysing the weaknesses of our education systems. There is an urgent need to affirm the principle of co-creation and a reciprocal dialogue among these disciplines to advance the transformation of content and pedagogy.

3. Indigenous languages, mono-lingualism and the dilemma of multi-lingual programmes

While there is a general agreement on the principle of promoting multi-lingualism at universities, there is no consensus on how to operationalise this in practical terms. Resentment of Afrikaans as a symbol of apartheid control and exclusion has led to a call for the removal of a bilingual official language policy, which translated to an immediate endorsement of mono-lingual, English domination by default as development of other African languages is a long-term process.

The rising mono-lingualism is a reality of unintended consequences with the hope that, over time, other African languages will be developed and resourced to be offered or used as an academic and research languages in the mainstream.

4. Delicate balance of local context and global competitiveness

Part of the resistance to transformation of the curriculum is based on a misplaced notion that contextually based and locally focused or grounded studies will not be rigorous enough to be globally competitive.

5. Political history versus science history of Africa

Most of the existing mainstream literature tends to focus almost exclusively on the political history of pre-colonial Africa, with little or no attention given to achievements in science and technology. Cumulatively, this has created an impression that Africa had no contribution to human civilisations in these areas. In this literature there is no comparative work that also factors in the role of Asian and indigenous American civilisations, which also contributed immensely to human and societal advancement.

6. Some contested dimensions of transformation

The primary focus in the transformation of curriculum, pedagogy, symbols and names has not extended to a clear grasp of dominant institutional cultures within universities on other dimensions of transformation, such as procurement trends, as well as the staff composition of those producing knowledge or leading research. There is a lot of work to be done to give full attention to all these dimensions.

The transformation programme at our universities is beginning to yield results, despite facing subtle resistance disguised in many forms, such as those conflating high standards with the preservation of the status quo. The transformation of our universities is a national imperative given the legacy they inherited, but it will also give them contextual relevance and competitive edge if successfully implemented.

• Makhanya is principal and vice-chancellor of Unisa.