African universities need to redefine themselves and with greater urgency pursue a more vigorous democratization mission of their societies, given the spectacular failure of political leadership in the region to build quality democracies.

The challenge for African countries is how to mold democratically based models of citizenships in countries and regions where the political cultures are markedly undemocratic, even if governing parties, leaders and individual citizens may often profess embracing democracy.

Education is not only a vehicle for the transmission of democratic cultures, values and beliefs, but also reproduces them. At places of higher education citizens interact, socialise and learn together. This should make African universities ideal places to foster new common democratic cultures, values and beliefs — and to actively defend them.

1. Making African universities more autonomous

A basic requirement for African higher education institutions to play their democratization role is for these institutions to become more autonomous. A very powerful argument for African university autonomy is that “the active presence of various autonomous bodies enhances democracy in society and the level of citizens’ participation, thus reducing the risk of authoritarian tendencies”[1].

While being autonomous, African universities must at the same time strike mutually beneficial relationships with governments, societies, civil society and other stakeholders.

To use sociologist Peter Evans’s concept of “embedded autonomy”[2], universities must be autonomous and have close ties with society, the state, civil society and their key stakeholders, in order to be in tune with the problems of society, and responsive enough to deal with the problems.

This approach will ensure higher education institutions become more relevant to their societies. In such “embedded autonomy,” universities can agree with social partners on common objectives, but can also question the purpose and actions of partners. Higher education institutions in Africa must propose — and agitate for — laws to be introduced in all countries that entrench the institutional independence of higher education institutions.

Often universities in the region have either docilely followed what politicians said their resource output should be or, to prove their independence, have stayed aloof (often not only from governments, but also from society itself).

When universities start to question undemocratic societal routines, leadership behaviours and values, it is likely that they will come under attack from politicians and entrenched interests. But by adopting the notion of “embedded autonomy” — independent, yet deeply embedded in society — institutions will be better insulated from such attacks.

2. Questioning values

In most African countries, democracy is viewed very narrowly (as only elections), or has been dismissed as “un-African,” or has been embraced only in public rhetoric. Citizenship, further, in many African countries is often not only narrowly defined on the basis of ethnic, class, ideological, religious and gender considerations; but citizenship rights have been heavily circumscribed beyond voting every five years.

It should be the role of universities to shift this limited discourse on democracy towards one that interrogates how to foster democratic citizenship.

Higher education institutions train many of the decision-makers who determine the social behaviour of citizens. African universities are crucial in nurturing informed citizens who can play more active roles in civil life.

African higher education institutions will have to produce graduates who are more socially conscious, with a greater sense of public duty, empathy and solidarity with society’s vulnerable and disadvantaged.

This will mean that African higher education institutions must proactively transmit democratic values, rather than just producing individuals with degrees of competency. They will have to produce critical minds, graduates who have the ability to self-reflect and self-criticise.

Higher education can be “a catalyst of changed individual and collective self-understandings” (as philosopher and educationist Josef Jarab has argued) [3], and can take the lead in questioning “received values”[4] that are undemocratic, in Amartya Sen’s phrasing.

To change undemocratic political cultures across the continent, universities will have to play a pivotal “social learning” role [5], helping reassess dominant beliefs and values, which are undemocratic.

For example, African universities will, for example, have to change the received values by which women are discriminated against, often under the aegis of “culture”[6].

Gender inequality in Africa is high, with “culture” often used to legitimise the subjugation of women. Higher education institutions will have to change the received values that perpetuate gender inequality.

Higher education institutions will have to educate not only their own immediate constituency, but also broader society.

Higher education institutions must lead the debate on culture in the region, where elites often hide behind “culture” to dehumanise citizens and oppress women.

Our universities must reject what the American scholar of race, Cornel West, has termed “authenticity” politics, whereby every issue is reduced to “racial reasoning”[7]. In this discourse there is a demand for black or African solidarity behind leaders and causes at all costs, no matter how dubious and corrupt, no matter how much deadly harm they cause other blacks.

Undemocratic and corrupt African leaders often appeal to black “authenticity,” which demands a closing of ranks behind black leaders only because they are black. West argues rightly that we must “replace racial reasoning with moral reasoning, to understand the black-freedom struggle not as an affair of skin pigmentation and racial phenotype but rather as a matter of ethical principles and wise politics”.

A defining aspect of Africa’s post-independence history is that most ruling parties, leaders and citizens have been highly intolerant of differences. Tolerance for differences (whether ethnic, cultural, or of opinion) is crucial in diverse societies — in fact it may be the glue that holds such societies together.

Higher education institutions must challenge Africa’s often narrow version of nationalism to more inclusive ones that use equal rights and shared democratic culture, values and institutions, as the glue that holds diverse communities together[8].

Advancement in public life in many African countries is often based on political connections, closeness to the ruling elites, ethnic group or region, rather than on merit — which has been one of the key reasons for stagnation in many African societies. African universities must vigorously promote the idea of meritocratic, fair and socially just societies.

3. Playing a bigger public role

An expanded public role for African universities will mean they will have to be active in broader societal and political discourses, and be actively involved in the non-formal learning of democratic values as well as everyday life learning.

Higher education institutions — many of which were highly critical of the human rights abuses under colonial and apartheid rule — have in the post-independence dispensation been silent in the face of autocratic, corrupt and incompetent ruling parties and leaders.

In fact, higher education institutions in Africa have tended not to get involved in politics, although during the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, some universities, such as the University of the Western Cape, actively and formally participated in the public realm, promoting democratic values and opposing the apartheid governments.

In the post-apartheid (and post-colonial) period, higher education institutions in Africa will have to stand more firmly, clearly and publicly for the values of democracy.

This does not mean aligning themselves with political parties, but they must clearly oppose undemocratic practices by ruling parties, opposition forces and civil society. Higher education institutions will have to challenge (and provide platforms for others to challenge) outdated undemocratic practices in individual African countries.

They will have to vigorously defend freedom of expression on the continent. It is crucial for higher education institutions in Africa have the autonomy to dissent. Autonomous higher education institutions that can and do express dissent when they perceive wrongdoing will deepen democracy all-round by opening the spaces for others to do so also.

4. Universities as democratic spaces

Higher education institutions in Africa must offer platforms where democratic values, the inclusivity of development and diversity, and the quality of freedom, are constantly reassessed, evaluated and debated.

Universities must play the role of transmitting democratic values in their own immediate communities, in the societies of which they are a part, and across the region.

Higher education must be the place where democratic values are lived, practiced and promoted — it must be a vehicle for the transmission of values. Higher education institutions play a critical role in building tolerant societies.

In order to build tolerant societies, universities must themselves be tolerant communities. But in South Africa and Africa they have unfortunately often mirrored the intolerance of their societies, rather than being exporters of tolerance to the rest of society.

To respond effectively to the challenges of democratization, universities will need stronger internal governance systems.

They will not be able to play their full roles in democratization in the region unless academic freedom at individual and institutional levels becomes a reality.

The internal governance systems of higher education institutions must highlight key values, including a real commitment to promoting democracy, the value systems of research and teaching (through, for example, quality assurance and control systems), and commitment to good corporate governance, accountability and efficient management.

Throughout Africa, women are generally worse off than men, including in terms of higher education. More women must obviously be appointed to critical positions in higher education institutions, but (as importantly) critical subjects that are in most cases inaccessible to women must be opened up.

Effective internal governance of universities is crucial to establish trust between higher education institutions and society — a prerequisite to secure and maintain societies’ buy-in to regulation and the autonomy for these institutions.


[1] Berlinguer L (2006) European views on the political future of universities: The Politics of European University Identity — Political and Academic Perspectives. In: Aviksoo J et al. (eds) Proceedings of the Seminar of the Magna Charta Observatory, Bologna Sept. 14

[2] Evans, Peter (1995) Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation. Princeton, Princeton University Press

[3] Jarab, Josef (2006) “The Politics of European University Identity — Political and Academic Perspectives.” In: J Aviksoo et al. (eds) Proceedings of the Seminar of the Magna Charta Observatory, Bologna, Sept.14

[4] Sen, Amartya. (1999) Development as freedom. Oxford, University Press

[5] Aggestam Lisbeth (1999) “Role Conceptions and the Politics of Identity in Foreign Policy.” ARENA Working Papers 8

[6] Gumede, William (2014) “Fostering a common SADC regional identity through higher education institutions.” African Journal of Public Affairs, 7 (4): 156-176

[7] West, Cornel. 1993. Race Matters. NY: Beacon Press

[8] Ignatieff, Michael (1995) Blood and belonging: Journeys into the new nationalism. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux