Recently the Department of Home Affairs issued a directive that would make it almost impossible for universities to adhere to one of their core functions and responsibilities.
Let us open the doors of exchange
Recently the Department of Home Affairs issued a directive that would make it almost impossible for universities to adhere to one of their core functions and responsibilities: that of encouraging and facilitating the exchange of ideas and debate by means of regularly welcoming foreign scholars to their campuses to interact with colleagues and students on issues of current importance and urgency on the global agenda.
In the past it was possible to apply for a Section 11 (2) visitor’s permit/visa for visiting academics, allowing them to participate, for a few weeks or months, in the activities of academic departments and research centres. The new directive makes it clear: a Section 11 (2) will be considered a once off, non-renewable visa ‘that addresses an immediate short term urgent need for a limited duration of work activity’ and the entity requiring this service, has to write to the DG of Home Affairs to ‘confirm why the limited duration work envisaged is necessary and urgent.’ Prospective visitors, it is made clear, should apply for a work permit.
The thinking behind this directive is unfathomable. We are not talking about the appointment of hordes of international scholars in our universities or tertiary institutions. We are not talking about the kind of work that requires a work permit. We are talking about research and teaching visits (often for no longer than two or three weeks, or even shorter) which require institutions to compensate these visitors in order to provide accommodation and stipends. And such visits are often not a ‘once off’, but part of a long term relationship between a local and an international institution focused on joint research and knowledge production and dissemination.
South Africa is trying to play a leadership role in the global arena. It has its eye on a permanent seat in the Security Council; it might still hope to lead the AU Commission, it is actively pursuing its African Agenda through membership of IBSA and it is hoping to utilise its membership of the BRICS to illustrate its readiness for global leadership. But such leadership is embedded in the practice of interaction, regular contact and serious debate and exchange of ideas amongst members of the various international epistemic communities – groups of experts who develop new knowledge and who influence the global agenda, be it on nuclear energy, issues of governance, food security, climate change, human rights or transnational crime.
Curtailing such exchange by means of petty directives to curb academic exchange is short-sighted in the extreme. It should not be about ‘necessary and urgent work’ – it should be about ensuring that South African scholars remain connected to international networks. Rather than curtailing such efforts, Home Affairs should be at the forefront of providing a regulatory framework that would facilitate and encourage easy exchange. The point is not whether a ‘local’ could do the ‘job’. It has, in fact, nothing to do with ‘the job’ – it is all about ensuring that South Africa’s scholars and researchers have all the opportunity in the world to talk to their counterparts, to bring in people with whom we could discuss and debate, who could share their knowledge and insight with us (and we with them!) in the name of enriching us and giving effect to our goal of providing leadership internationally.
For a century or more Europe and America have been studying Africa. Most of the top international universities in these regions have African Studies Centres where African scholars share their knowledge and understanding of Africa with colleagues and students, enriching those countries and assisting them with devising policies towards Africa that are very often not in our best interest. Where in South Africa (and Africa) are the European Studies and American Studies Centres? We are at long last at least looking somewhat to the ‘rising East’ with a Centre for Chinese Studies at Stellenbosch and a Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Wits. But this is not enough. We need to expand our knowledge and understanding of other powerful countries and blocs, also in the West. We need to infuse the public sphere with ideas about these regions and how South Africa and Africa could best interact with them. We need to bring scholars from all over the world to South Africa – not only to learn from them, but also to share with them our knowledge and insights.
We need to encourage joint research with scholars from all regions. Openness to ideas, collaboration and debate is the hallmark of intellectual prestige and achievement. Closing down space and opportunities for such exchange is to stymie our growth and development and our status as an international powerhouse of innovation, exchange and leadership. Home Affairs should rescind this misdirected directive and should, rather, do all in its power to encourage and facilitate intellectual exchange. Much rather, Home Affairs should sit down with rectors and discuss ways in which much more regular exchange can be promoted and facilitated. Let us try to coordinate our policies and our ideals: if we want to be a world leader, we should act as one. We should become the preferred destination for visits from international scholars and researchers. We should encourage their involvement, because it benefits the growth of our own knowledge base and it is a simple, but crucial way in which we proclaim our international leadership role.
Prof. Schoeman is the Head of the Political Science Department at the University of Pretoria, and a grantee of SAFPI.