One on one with Zine Magubane

24 Apr 2015
24 Apr 2015

Pictured above: Professor Magubane clarifies transformation at a Panel Discussion held in April. Themed 'Decolonizing the University', the event attracted close to 250 UCT staff and students.

Professor Zine Magubane joined the Faculty of Humanities recently in her capacity as Visiting Professor in the Van Zyl Slabbert Chair. This post is located in the departments of Political Studies and Sociology. Zine is the daughter of anti-apartheid struggle veteran and well-known academic, Professor Ben Magubane. She is currently based in the Sociology Department of Boston College, Massachusetts, where she teaches courses in Postcolonial Studies, Race, Ethnicity and Popular Culture. 

In this article, Humanities News asked the busy academic to share her thoughts on transformation as well as plans for her six-month tenure at the University of Cape Town: 

HN: What informed your decision to take up academic residence at UCT?
ZM: A few years ago I was invited to apply for a Van Zyl Slabbert Visiting Professorship. I applied and was accepted.

HN: Broadly speaking, your research interests include social theory, gender and sexuality and the sociology of post-coloniality. In what ways will these interests inform your work with the Van Zyl Slabbert Chair at UCT?
ZM: I came to do archival research on all of those things. I am particularly interested in the history of social science in South Africa. When I came I imagined that it would be seen as a somewhat obscure topic—and then the #Rhodes movement started right in front of my eyes. Those brave students, far more effectively than I ever could, demonstrated that my research topic wasn’t so obscure after all!

HN: In 2005 you co-authored a book on transformation titled Hear our Voices, which is about institutional racism and sexism as experienced by black academics in South Africa. You now arrive back on campus at a time when the transformation debate has reached an all-time high. What are your thoughts on why this is still an issue at UCT?

ZM: When Reitu Mabokela (my co-author) and I brought together a group of Black women academics who had either studied or taught at UCT we were trying to get those experiences into the open. Each of us had felt very silenced and marginalized during our time at UCT. The point of the book was to contextualize and historicize these experiences—to show that they were not about isolated individuals but about deep systemic problems and to root those problems in history.

As an historical sociologists I am deeply aware that change over time is slow. I am also aware that change doesn’t happen spontaneously or on its own—social actors are key. They are the forces that move history. The students have become those social actors. And they have done so in a way that not only goes beyond simply writing articles or having meetings, but has made the urgency of the issue real and alive. It is amazing. I’m in awe of them, really. It is the kind of thing one reads and studies about, but rarely gets to experience first hand.

When we wrote the book we hoped that it would spark change—or at least a conversation about change. We also hoped that the women who followed behind us (a number of the women whose essays appear in the book eventually left UCT for various reasons in the years after the book was published) would find solace, inspiration, comfort, and affirmation from our reflections. 
I’m not surprised that transformation has unfolded slowly over time. Universities are notorious for their resistance to change. Most of the time they have to be forced!

HN: Your father, the late Professor Ben Mgubane was a sociologist in his own right. What drew you to this same field of enquiry?
ZM: He did! He was always reading and writing something. But he was always going to meetings as well and working with anti-apartheid groups in the United States. He inspired me very much. He showed me that scholarship matters in  very concrete way.

HN: Both your Masters and Doctoral degrees were earned at Harvard University. Do you think that there are particular challenges associated with being a young, black and successful female academic?
ZM: Yes, the challenges are many. Clearly institutionalized racism and sexism are huge barriers. The isolation of being ‘the only one’ in a department or program can be really hard. Furthermore, there is a way in which knowledge is structured that can be very difficult. There is a way in which certain ‘facts’ get agreed upon and become the basis for knowledge production that it is very difficult to dismantle and disrupt. In many ways, each act of scholarship is simultaneously a ‘tearing down’ and rebuilding. Take the issue of Rhodes’ legacy, for example, we are still having discussions where he is called a ‘humanitarian’ or an ‘entrepreneur’! This, about a person who said that he ‘prefered land to niggers’! To enter into scholarly dialogue means having not only to engage with things that insult you and your history in very profound ways but also to have to write through and against them. This is not easy.

HN: What parallels / differences exist between American and Southern African society, with regard to attitudes towards race, gender, sexuality and transformation?
ZM: The United States and South Africa are similar in many ways. Universities there are also just now awakening to how their failure to address the legacies of slavery, racism, and colonialism continue to exert pernicious effects. In both places people are struggling to come to terms with history and all that that entails. 

HN: After a brief period in South Africa, first as lecturer in the UCT Department of Sociology (1996) and later at the Human Sciences Research Council (1997 to 2000), what changes do you now perceive in South African society, 14 years later?
ZM: There have been many positive changes in South Africa. I think spaces are more open to dialogue and debate. I think that young people, especially, are really amazing in their insistence on living life on their own terms and claiming space for themselves. I think that has been the most amazing thing to see unfold. If the young people of today are any indication, exciting times lie ahead.

HN: Which achievements (academic or personal) are you the most proud of and why?
ZM: Academically, I suppose it is that I have survived this long and also that every once in a while I will get letter or email from a young person who read something I wrote and it helped them. That is the best feeling. Personally, I suppose it is my three kids (Zazi, Andile, and Liam) they keep me on my toes!

About the Van Zyl Slabbert Chair:
The Van Zyl Slabbert Chair is made possible through a five-year grant established by The Open Society Foundation for South Africa, a foundation that works towards developing vibrant and tolerant democracies. The visiting professorship at UCT holds the Van Zyl Slabbert Chair in Politics and Sociology, which honours Dr Slabbert’s commitment to an open and democratic society.