Interview by Hakeem Onapajo
As a fresh Nigerian doctoral graduate in the United States, why did you choose to go to South Africa and not Nigeria to start an academic career?
At the time, it was a fairly straightforward matter because the Nigerian terrain at the time, we are talking of around 1996 that I came to South Africa, was very difficult; extremely so to the point that virtually everyone I told that I was considering going back to Nigeria were asking: “to do what?”, “why do you want to come here?” Those in America asked: “why do you want to go there when people there want to get out?” Also, Nigeria was not the easiest place partially because getting a job required that you know this person and that person. But, I actually wanted to leave the United States for Africa.
Of course, coming to South Africa was a challenge. I had said to many of the African colleagues in the United States that “I don’t see why you guys are here (in the United States). You are senior people who are more needed at home; why don’t you go back?” One of the colleagues at the University of Rochester, where I was doing my post-doctoral fellowship — Professor Sam Nolutshungu (who has passed away since) — actually took umbrage. He was a South African who had worked in Nigeria. We had had debates with arguments around issues of going back or not [to Africa]. One day, he came to my office and dropped a leaflet [job advertisement]. I don’t know how he sourced it, but someone had sent it to him. He dropped it on my table and told me, “you want to go back to Africa, here is an opportunity!”
Going to South Africa in 1996 when they were just two years away from the changes that took place was not a choice for me. I did not really think of coming, but I applied to take up Nolutshungu’s challenge. To my surprise, they contacted me over the phone [to inform] that I had been shortlisted and that an interview was going to take place. On the day of the interview, which was over the phone, I answered the questions not caring. It was like a joke. And to my surprise, they called back a few days later to say that I got the job. My initial response was: “I don’t want it.” I actually said so. The guy at the other end said, “No, I want you to think about it. The conditions are going to be much better than you think, I can assure you. I know you are concerned about this and that but I can assure you it’s nothing like what you are thinking.” Anyway, I got their letter and looked through it; I still did not want to come. It was followed by many calls from a number of people assuring me that it would be a good situation even though it was a White institution. For me, the vision I had just looking at it, I thought I wasn’t going to cope in that kind of [apartheid structured and nuanced] environment. But over time, people were calling and saying: well look, there are such and such persons from the United States who are there; these are White Americans who are here working. I did not know them personally, but I was told it was not an isolated place like I was envisioning. So I said maybe I should think about it and I taught about it.
The context was that there were also some challenges in the United States. I trained at a top White institution in the United States; really top tier scholars trained me. I had colleagues I thought I was better than who would go to an interview and get jobs to teach international relations. I wanted to teach international relations, which was not difficult for me to get here in South Africa. But over there in the United States, they wanted to push you as an African to go and teach African studies or African politics. For me, it was a sort of getting harassed. There was a perception that an African trained in the United States cannot teach American politics even though I was qualified to do that because of my training from the undergraduate to postgraduate levels. (White) Colleagues I felt I was better than were getting those kinds of jobs, but I was being subjected to focus only on teaching Africa. Of course, I did not mind teaching Africa, but it was supposed to be a choice. But, I wanted a job in international relations with an opportunity to teach Africa. So, I was irritated by that. I thought the South African option was a good idea. So over time, I warmed up to the idea and I am here.
How has the journey been so far?
Mixed! This is the only place ( the University of Natal which became the University of KwaZulu Natal in the recent past) that I have had a professional job. I have been here for a very long time, going to two decades. It has been a very useful experience. Part of it was problematic because when I came here, it was with the view that I was coming to meet a people that would be completely enthralled by the idea of the opportunity to study; a free South Africa, which would give me the opportunity to meet enthusiastic Black students. If it was a White country totally, there would have been no need for me to come. But it was a country that was coming out of a difficult stage; tough experience. I felt as though, having been part of the anti-apartheid struggle in the United States, that I would meet hungry students. I am afraid, I did not. It has been one of the lower points for me in the sense that here is an opportunity to study. I find that many of the students – not all – that we run into at the institution who are from South Africa have not always been as eager as we expected.
I have come to appreciate the reason for this. When you have someone caged for so long, the urge to self-actualise is not as profound as one would want. I have come then to be unhappy with the system within which they operate more than the students themselves. For instance, when I worked as Deputy Dean on the idea of enabling students who we call “At Risk Students” to improve on their work, the struggle to try and do that was partially because of my own frustrations before then. I will say within a few weeks of actually being in class, I met with the Dean at the time over the issue of students that needed a bit more assistance. Many of the students I encountered initially could not even read properly. If you cannot read a language used to communicate in class, then how can you follow what is happening in the class? I raised the issue with the Dean who just dismissed me by sending me to the English Studies Department. There, I met the Head of Department at that time who just told me: “well, we are doing what we can” and showed me what is being taught and identified a number of courses made available to the students. Two of them were designed to assist students whose first language is not English to get up to speed. My query to him at the time was that they were taking the courses like other courses that required English. Then, how can they actually learn other courses [being taken simultaneously] because I did not see how that helps. This is because I was seeing third year students who were not able to read properly. My first classes here, were third year and honours students. A handful of the third year students were Blacks, while all the honours students were Whites.
But also, I discovered that it was not only the Black students that were having that particular problem; there were White students too who were finding it difficult to do what they were supposed to do. The level was very low and many of them had not been subjected to read at the level that we expected. Many did not understand what was happening in the class and some were not even motivated to read. They found my class very burdening. What they did not know was that the HOD of Political Studies, Prof Ralph Lawrence, had already seen my syllabus which was what I brought from my previous institution in the U.S. and I reworked it to suit their system. Prof Lawrence saw it and said: “they can’t cope, what you are doing is reasonable but I can assure you, they cannot cope.” So, we had to water it down and the students were still shocked. And most of those complaining were White students because most of the Black students were just happy to see a black face in the class (I was the first black person to teach them in the department of political studies. There were very few blacks in the faculty as a whole). At a point, the students took the matter up with the HOD with the complaint that my expectations were unrealistic and I was there to stifle their opportunity for postgraduate studies. The HOD tried to explain to them that these were not necessarily unusual. Perhaps, it is unusual that they were ill-prepared for what they were expected to do in their studies. Eventually, I came to understand what was going on. There was another third year course they were taking simultaneously with mine. The lecturer explained to me that his readings were as thick as mine, the only difference was that he chose particular things. He did not cover everything in the readings, he left some for tutorials. For the exam, he would direct them on what to read specifically from the readings. That’s one of the problems they had with me because I was unwilling to tell them where the examination questions would come from. My exam questions cover all the readings and lectures. Sometimes, we touched on some things in the class which were not in the readings. The expectation was that all of those things were open for examination.
Another issue had to do with the tutorials. I was very surprised that students (these are third year students about to finish their first degree) would come to me just a few days before their tutorial essay was due [to inform me] that they were looking for tutorial materials in the library — in the short-loan — and there was none. My response was always like: “I told you from the first day of the class that you should go to the library and look for materials and you don’t expect to find materials on short-loan because you are doing research. The library should be your short-loan.” I was very surprised that most of them had never done this before. From their first year to third year, they had never gone to look for materials in the library. The standard here was that materials would be complied for students and placed in short-loan for students to go and access. I told them that I would not do that. I discovered that for many of them it was tragic; it was like a disaster. Eventually, we had to arrange for them to learn how to use the library.
I should also tell you that I had a Master’s student in that semester (when I came) who did not know how to use the library either. I remember he was doing something on the Iran-Iraq war and he would go to the library and tell me that he could not find materials. I was shocked. “How can it be that you would go to the library and not find relevant materials on that topic? Go and check for journals.” I discovered later that he would go to the ground floor level in the library where they have encyclopaedias and dictionaries searching through them. Our building was next to the library. So, one day after another “I cannot find anything” encounter, I decided to go with him to the library. He was going in the direction of the reference section and I was going towards the serials section on the first floor. He was baffled that I was going there. He had never been to the level where there are journals. This guy did his Bachelors and Honours in the same university, which means he had spent four good years in the university without ever going there. I asked him, “how did you do your honours paper.” He was baffled, this was a White person.
This negative culture has continued in the system, although not at the same level but it continued more or less.
You have mentioned the negative aspects, what about the positive sides?
The positive side is that I was able to link up with students who are South Africans, which was the reason why I chose to come in the first place. I was expecting to find students who were hungry for education because they have been starved of opportunities to study and suddenly found it. I have not found that. That has been disappointing. But I must say that I have met a number of eager beavers although nowhere near the number I was expecting. Even in my first class, I was amazed and pleased that there were some brilliant Black students. There was one particular one who would come to me just before holidays because of his eagerness to ask me to give him something to read before we for the semester. I would give him some materials in my personal library or ask him to go to the library to find books in a particular section. This guy never spoke in class. I only discovered him after one of the first tests we had in the class. I was so surprised that a Black student would have that kind of marks. He had the top marks of any student in the class. I announced the name of the student and most of them were shocked. There was one Black student who had come to me to complain that all the Black students failed because of my marking and not their ability, so I informed him that he would be surprised to know that it was not as bad for all of them as he had suggested. When I announced the outcome in the class, he came back to my office to apologise.
In this way, yes there were positives, and one of the positives certainly is that one was able to make a little bit of difference because they saw a different pattern. Initially, it was not comfortable for them. But over time, they began getting used to it — the expectations. I am particularly pleased that I was seen as that Black role model they never had. Many of them, certainly at the third year level, I remember coming to me to tell me they were pleased. One of them, who is in touch to this day, is now very highly placed in government, in the judiciary though. So actually there were some good sides to it.
You have had appreciable experience teaching and supervising a number of Nigerian students who come to South Africa for their studies, especially at the postgraduate level. What has been your experience with them in terms of their quality?
It has been mixed. I think I have had some really excellent students but I am sorry to say that I have also had some really awful students that have come from Nigeria. Sometimes, I have been shocked both positively and negatively by the quality I have seen from Nigeria. Quite a few really excellent students have come for both Masters and Doctoral programmes. The point of problem in those I have run into is especially in the area of language. Some of them are not able to write, although the ideas may be there. Sometimes, the quality of the writing does not reflect the quality of their ideas. The quality used to be in Nigeria; it is still there [in a way], but not at the level I thought it ought to be. Sometimes, the quality is just simply bad across the board. I think some of the people that have come out of Nigeria — not just here at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, because I have run into some students elsewhere and have had discussions with colleagues in other universities — have had some quality issues. I will give you an example from the Mathematics Department here at UKZN. There was this Nigerian student who came for a PhD and found himself in dire straits because the quality he represented was an absolute disgrace to Nigerian students and institutions. The worst part of it was that he was lecturing at a fairly top level university in Nigeria (It is not healthy to mention the name). He was very poor intellectually. For me, the fact that he was actually lecturing at a Nigerian university was a problem. I could not see what he could teach students; and while he was here, he got promotion (in the university where he worked).
The current DVC of Agriculture and Science — at the time, he was the Dean who directly dealt with that problem — was particularly concerned. When the Nigerian student reported the matter to me, I spoke to the Science Dean and asked him to look into it. He informed me that he was already aware of it and had seen some documents pertaining to the issue. He told me authoritatively that the problem was not with the department but with the student himself. Initially, with what the student was telling me, I felt as though he was being badly treated because he came to study for a PhD; then he was pushed out of his office into the one used by Master’s students. From there, he was again asked to go and join the Honours students; and then he was forced to sit with the Honours students in classes and asked to do the same assignments as they were doing. Yet, they had difficulty keeping him there. That’s how bad it was. So, the Dean told me there was a problem with him but he should come so that he could look more closely into the problem, and that the student should write something about his experience.
So, I asked him to write something, but he should show me before submitting it. Honesty, I could not believe the quality. I know Mathematics is not English but I think he should be able to communicate basic things. His syntax was poor; spelling was completely bad. Simple words, he was struggling to spell them. I can tell you that you will not find many first year students who would not write better than that. This is someone from one of the top universities in Nigeria. How did that happen? It appears that there are ways that some students can get attached to some particular people who can move them forward. But the net effect of this is that the quality is really mixed. Our quality assurance system in Nigeria needs a bit more attention; it should be more effectively managed. In spite of the hassles our people are going through, in spite of the years when it was difficult to maintain an academic year unaffected by protests and strikes, and having to make up for a year’s work or a semester’s work in a few weeks, I think we are doing okay. Plenty of room for improvement, but we are doing okay!
Do you have any sort of collaboration with the Nigerian academics back home?
You know that I never studied in Nigeria at the level of the university. So, I don’t really have that — Nigerian tertiary level — experience. Obviously, I have interacted over the years with some Nigerian academics but, unfortunately, I have not been the type who builds on those relationships. One of the regrets I have had is not being able to link this institution (University of KwaZulu-Natal) with some of the Nigerian institutions. There were efforts to do so. Sometimes the problem has been that some of the Nigerian universities are not particularly dynamic enough. We have thrown some of the opportunities out for people to take on. Most recently, under Professor Joseph Ayee as the DVC, we sent dozens of letters to a lot of Nigerian universities. Only one came back and that is the University of Port Harcourt. Prof Ayee knew quite a number of people in Nigeria such as at the University of Ibadan. He made direct contacts to inform them that such and such letter had been sent to the VC. They would try to follow up but they did not yield results.
Previously, we had also planned to visit Nigeria. The former Director of the International Office (at UKZN), Roshen Kishun, and myself had gone to Kenya and Botswana. We had difficulty in the case of Nigeria. When I became Dean, I planned to do so but unfortunately I did not have enough time to do so. So at the institutional level, it did not happen. But at the personal level, I have a few friends in some institutions. But collaborations, not really! I think I have done just one with a Nigeria-based scholar.
Do you have any immediate of future plans to explore the Nigerian university system?
Well, I am interested in going back to Nigeria but the problem with Nigeria is that the institutions are not sufficiently robust in their interactions. Notionally, there are opportunities. But the truth is that they are not sufficiently interested in bringing in new blood or perspectives. This practice of having a network of people who must intervene on your behalf, for me it’s problematic. They don’t respond to letters readily, if at all, unless someone really needs something from you. They do not follow up because their expectation is that you must follow up because you are the one that wants something. You have to write and write! At some point, writing is not even enough. The culture is largely unprofessional. Even when they are telling you they are interested in you and that they need you, if you should stop pursuing it, then it dies. My own particular interactions with them have not been endearing; it really has not. My experience with South Africa was much simpler; a world apart really. I applied for a job not knowing a particular person here. The person who gave me the tip about here did not know anybody here (the University of Natal). He just showed me the advert and I applied blindly. I was called for an interview, I got the job and they made arrangements for me to come. This is a country in Africa! In Nigeria, I must go and see a local chief and have to go and see an uncle or another relative who happens to be connected. That is not right. Even people in the same institution will tell you that you need someone who is well-placed to assist you. They will ask: “do you know such and such people at the higher level?” It is wrong. On the one hand, we are told that some of us in the Diaspora should come back and assist to develop the country but the system itself, on the other hand, stifles those kinds of initiatives. If we are going to tap into the experience people from outside are ready to bring to the country, we need to do better than that. Many of the young people who are looking for jobs in Nigeria after completing their degrees, I really feel for them.