Transformation: What Exactly Does the Word Mean?

The following appeared originally in Afrikaans on Netwerk 24. Written by: Piet le Roux Translated by: Martin van Staden After my recent tweet against radical transformation, some people objected to my membership on the Council of the University of Stellenbosch. The objections have various implications...

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The following appeared originally in Afrikaans on Netwerk 24.

Written by: Piet le Roux

Translated by: Martin van Staden

Piet le RouxAfter my recent tweet against radical transformation, some people objected to my membership on the Council of the University of Stellenbosch. The objections have various implications which can only be determined if we ask: What is transformation?

Nowadays, every new law starts with transformation. Every political speech implores it, and every race quota or target is grounded therein. Yes, a handful of billionaires party on the front lawn, but in the backyard taps run dry and hospitals overflow; the value of the rand falls and prices rise; and everyone grows more race conscious and less charitable. Not only does this word not appear in the Constitution, but it isn’t defined officially anywhere else. Sometimes it appears as if it is transformation which is defining the Constitution. Alexander Johnston in South Africa – Inventing the Nation calls the concept “surprisingly elusive”.

Although a healthy skepticism is now coming about, well-intentioned people have been supporting transformation across a wide spectrum for the last 20 years. People were eager to move away from Apartheid to a new, better future.

But just what this new future would entail was seldom investigated. Except in ANC circles; transformation has been thoroughly considered there.

Joel Netshitenzhe, then-ANC policy chief, wrote in 1998 that transformation entails that all levers of power must be brought under the control of the National Liberation Movement, including the civil service, courts and semi-state institutions. “They should reflect in their composition the demographics of the country; and they should owe allegiance to the new order,” he said.

One observes the same points throughout. The golden thread is racial representation and submission to the state. With Black Economic Empowerment, Rob Davies, Minister of Trade and Industry, advocates that in the economy “control, ownership and leadership” should reflect the demographics of the country, “in the same way the political space does”. Jimmy Manyi is known for his insistence that the “over-concentration of coloreds in the Western Cape” needs to end. This all in the name of transformation.

In other countries and periods, such plans were deemed fascist.

When Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, convenes his summit on a “new trajectory on radical transformation” for universities in South Africa, the premises will not differ.

My tweet about transformania

So, on 6 September, I tweeted: “Blade Nzimande en #transformanie gaan nie wen nie. Ondersteun die nuwe Afrikaanse Alumni-vereniging.” [English: Blade Nzimande and #transformania won’t win. Support the new Afrikaans Alumni Association.”] This statement drew fierce reactions.

Two days later the tweet appeared on the Cape Argus’ front page; and not long thereafter, Nzimande’s spokesperson declared in the media: “We recommend that the Council discuss Le Roux’s continued membership at this critical moment in the transformation of the nation’s universities.” A farfetched idea, one might think: alumni had elected me to the Council, and it is not for Nzimande to decide otherwise.

Nevertheless, on 14 September the Council’s Executive Committee recommended that I be investigated for disciplinary purposes (which I had to find out in the media). Apparently my “actions and statements with regard to universities … are anti-transformational” and “are contrary to the Council’s official position”.

If the above is the result when a council member, who is not even employed by a university, raises his views in an independent manner without reference to any specific university, what does it tell us about academic freedom in South Africa?

In 2004 Tony Leon spoke of “the closing of the South African mind”. “Transformation,” he said, “has become an immutable given in our society. It has been put beyond objection and debate. Support for transformation is the necessary condition to avoid being ‘racist’, ‘reactionary’, ‘unpatriotic’ – indeed even ‘counter-revolutionary’.” Shall I add “anti-transformational?”

Suppose now that a professor of political science today presents a critical analysis of transformation. Will his university defend him when his class is disrupted? If a law lecturer calls Black Economic Empowerment “expropriation”, will he still have a career? And if a student leader or student journalist takes a position against transformation – right or wrong – will he be expelled? The answers to these questions are unfortunately not clear anymore.

The issue is by no means limited to Stellenbosch or to other universities where Afrikaans is being scapegoated. Like Prof. David Benatar wrote earlier this year about the University of Cape Town: “When the ‘transformation’ card is played in university meetings, as it repeatedly is, almost everybody marches in lockstep. People fall over themselves in displays of political correctness, each paying obeisance to the mantras and slogans of contemporary South Africa […]”

A new direction

Our mission therefore twofold: Firstly, and urgently, we must make transformation debatable. This is because the destructive form is currently prevailing and tolerates no criticism. If it wins, everyone in South Africa loses. Much more will be lost than merely Afrikaans; and much more will be lost than merely universities. Secondly, we must take a new direction. Call it constructive transformation, if you will. A direction that will take us to the destination which Prof. Abraham de Vries pointed out in 2006: “Die teenoorgestelde van apartheid en al sy wegkruipplekke is nie nóg ‘n eksperiment in social engineering nie, die teenoorgestelde van apartheid is normaliteit.” [English: The opposite of Apartheid and all its manifestations is not another experiment in social engineering, the opposite of Apartheid is normality.”]

Author: Piet le Roux is a member of the Council of the University of Stellenbosch, the Head of the Solidarity Research Institute and an Associate at the Mises Institute South Africa (

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1 comment

  1. Alice Fullard Reply

    Just another person who is in agreement with the author.

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