What secrets does a city hold within its bosom? In Johannesburg, one of them is an intriguing
labyrinth of tunnels that once served as a postal delivery system. Could such relics of the past be the subterranean realms of the future? Urban planning points to what is now called ‘hypogeal cities’.
Johannesburg’s central business district (CBD) holds a secret within its deep, dark belly.
On the surface are the citadels of power housing some of Africa’s oldest and biggest corporate institutions.
Beneath this morass of steel and concrete, is a labyrinth of tunnels few know of.
We search for them, walking miles in the sun, scouring the grimy innards and alleys of a business district that was once seen and filmed by Hollywood producers as a Manhattan ‘lookalike’.
These streets have been witness to searing political upheaval and mass unrest, and bear the scars of a brutal apartheid past.
But every city needs daily witnesses in its account of the here and now, and you find them on the streets – the shopkeepers, traders, commuters and the security guards who watch the CBD change color and character from morning to night.
And sometimes, the best leads come from these purveyors of change, the ordinary people who witness the city up close every day.
And luckily, we find ours – the security guard who will indirectly lead us to the tunnels.
“Yes, I have been inside these underground tunnels,” he says, reluctant to reveal his name or tell us more. He relents, however, and gives us a number we can call, that of the site manager of what he calls “the Post Office tunnels”.
With his help, on a sultry October morning, we arrive at the Old Johannesburg Post Office on Jeppe Street, a street lined with shops and informal traders selling everything from cell phones to socks.
Business here has a life and rhythm of its own, oblivious to what lies beneath.
“I have been living and working here for 30 years and I have never heard of what you are talking about,” shrugs Givemore Sithole, a worker in the area, when we ask if he knows about them.
But history and fact co-exist.
According to an 80-year-old report simply known as “the heritage report”, the tunnels were built in October 1935, at the height of apartheid, for the effective delivery of mail between the Post Office and Park Station, about 2km apart.
The tunnels also connect to Gandhi Square at its other end, and in total, are 3kms-long.
“This tunnel was built at a time when more and more people were coming to Johannesburg to look for work in the City of Gold. There was a lot of congestion on the roads and they created this big ‘machine’, which I hear even connects to Gandhi Square, which is about another 1.2 kilometers away,” says Johan Visser, a site manager at the
Africa Housing Company, which is redeveloping the Old Johannesburg Post Office.
Before we meet him, we run into a real estate agent, who is currently leasing space at the site of the old post office. We ask if she knows about the history of the building – how was she pitching the property to prospective clients? Did she know about the tunnels?
“I can’t believe there are tunnels here. I have never even heard of them but I think people would appreciate this place more if they did,” she tells us, not wanting to be named.
Even the construction laborers working on the post office site are unaware.
Visser takes us to the tunnels. We find the entrance, with the help of his colleagues, and it’s wide enough to fit a small car.
It has a large red metal door, with access temporarily blocked by bulky construction material.
The workers manage to clear the entry and open the door. Inside the tunnel, it’s like a big black hole – it’s pitch-black but holding within its bowels an old secret.
“Beware of rodents and snakes in there,” warns Visser, as we gingerly step in.
Through this tunnel, according to the heritage report, estimates are that 900 bags of mail were conveyed on wheelbarrows and sifted per hour at each end. They also had rudimentary versions of the conveyor belts of today.
The tunnels were shut down in 1956 for reasons not known, abandoned and forgotten, until about two years ago when they were rediscovered by Ray Harli, an architect and Director at UrbanSoup Architects and Urban Designers.
We meet him at the post office end of the tunnel, but he recounts how he stumbled upon the Park Station side of it – and the intriguing network he discovered under the surface.
“We are constructing a very large transport hub in Newtown [part of Johannesburg’s inner city]. While we were excavating, we came across an opening. We weren’t sure what it was and when we went inside, we discovered the tunnel, and realized it goes deep. Finding the tunnels felt like a treasure hunt. It was also partially scary because it was very dark inside. We didn’t go in deep that day and went back a few weeks later with a full team. We walked inside for over a kilometer. There was water inside and we had to turn back when the water was too high,” says Harli.
About 6,000 kilometers away in Egypt, almost a century ago, one can almost imagine the euphoria that must have accompanied Howard Carter’s discovery of the chambers that led to King Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
But Harli was pragmatic; soon after the discovery, he went straight to his office and contacted the Department of Heritage to learn more about the subterranean discovery.
While the tunnels were operated by the post office, they were constructed by the workers who built the railroads of the time. It’s a fact revealed by Anne Benson, whose grandfather, William Pryce-Rosser, she says, designed the tunnels.
“We have a whole album of photos of the tunnels being built. My grandfather used to tell us the tunnels were there and he had worked on them. He was involved in a lot of work at the time and he was very proud of them,” says Benson. The pictures she has of the tunnel being constructed are indeed rare.
She also shares with us the typed-out ‘thank you letter’ her grandfather received in 1934 from the ‘Town Clerk’s Department’.
The tunnels cost a fortune in their day. For example, according to the yellowing heritage report referred to earlier, it cost a whopping £170,000 at the time and used 15,750 tons of concrete. There was also a section of the tunnel called ‘parcels and baggage’, which was 914 metres long and cost £71,000 to build; and then a section called ‘signals’, which was 640 meters long.
“The city didn’t know about the tunnels, but the Department of Heritage did,” says Harli.
Since learning about them, Harli has been looking into how these tunnels can be best put to use.
“Now, people call me ‘Mr Tunnels’,” he laughs.
“A year before we found these tunnels, I was in New York and they have an underground tunnel that they have converted into what they call the world’s first underground park. They cut holes on the pavement up above to let light inside. They even have trees underground,” says Harli.
Inspired, he hopes the Johannesburg tunnels could be commercialized too.
“The world is moving in very interesting directions and we can use places like this that already exist for underground developments. For example, the idea is to link Park Station with our transport facility in Newtown so that there is a direct pedestrian link underground. Having this direct link will bring connectivity between different transport hubs. A more ambitious plan would be to build a commercial retail space with coffee shops and art exhibitions,” Harli says of his plans.
According to him, with the right type of management, this could become a destination space. He offers the example of the city’s stylish Maboneng Precinct, which had been abandoned but was revamped and turned into a key tourist destination featuring food markets and art galleries.
“People desperately want [options]. Changing this up can be a very good opportunity which will also preserve the heritage,” says Harli, calling the potential development “a sub city”.
Harli adds that the problem with the Johannesburg tunnels is that there is no agreement on who owns them.
He says he would need about R30 million ($2 million) to turn them into “a heritage shrine” where people can enjoy them as green, public spaces.
“It is also hard to convince government to spend on this type of development because there are some major problems in the inner city. Some people could argue a space like this is a ‘nice to have’ but our argument is that it is something that could be commercialized,” says Harli, who is considering a few rounds of crowdfunding to kick-start the project.
“I have told the city about what we would like to do but we need to find out who definitively owns the tunnels.”
The ownership is unclear, and this is a fact reiterated by a contact we meet at the Johannesburg Development Agency, which is the city’s real estate developer.
Harli wants to get down to business at the tunnels, but Africa Housing Company, which owns the Old Johannesburg Post Office, has plans to fix the building and turn it into apartments and commercial shops.
“There is a lot of history here. We are turning the place into shops and apartments while keeping its history. We restore and repair, but most of the things are still here. The only problem is that when the building was abandoned, there were dwellers living here who took some of the things, like all the brass and copper wires,” says Visser, showing us the granite table at the reception that is still in the same spot as it was at the old post office.
Africa Housing Company has retained the windows, murals, the clock, telegram booths, doors, ceilings and stairs, adhering to the old look and feel.
“This is a historic building, so we have to keep as much as we can as is,” says Visser, showing us some of the over 200 apartments now built where the old post office was.
At Gandhi Square, which is said to have yet another entrance into the tunnels, there is already some commercial activity underground.
An entrepreneur, Gerald Garner, owns Zwipi, an underground bar here, which was once an old bank vault with safety boxes. He also owns JoburgPlaces, which offers walking tours. Garner has been offering inner-city walking tours since 2011.
“Since it is such a historic building, it made sense to open a restaurant-bar in the old bank vault. We also do most of our walking tours through this space and host safaris and secret underground dinners here.”
It just points to the fact that such areas can be re-conceptualized and commissioned back to life.
WILL UNDERGROUND RESIDENCES WORK?
According to Namibia-based architect Gerald Mandevhana, many countries like Finland and China have even gone further, with concepts like underground homes.
According to Mandevhana, Mexico City even proposed an ‘earthscraper concept’, a 75-storey pyramid going 300 meters into the ground to accommodate about 100,000 people, and Singapore built a subterranean oil storage facility that goes down 100 meters.
Mandevhana says the idea of underground living is not as far-fetched as we may think.
African people have lived underground for centuries, he says.
“Two hundred thousand years back, some of the homosapiens led troglodyte lives in caves in South Africa.”
However, Mandevhana acknowledges a lot has changed in the last 200 millennia and today, the prospect of underground living has to come with readjustments to suit modern lives.
“On an infrastructure level, I believe we can actually implement the move. The architecture, engineering and construction industry in Africa is quite advanced now and several avant-garde practices and technologies are already being implemented,” he says.
However, at a systems level, he says the world has a long way to go because cities are complex organisms.
“Many concepts have been pushed up to define and idealize cities; central place theory, garden city movement, radiant city, city beautiful movement, broadacre city, right up to today’s smart cities with artificial intelligence and deep learning systems at the heart of things. As complex socio-technical organisms, all systems will need to be reviewed to ensure they optimize interactions between people, technology and the new hypogeal environment. Our systems are not yet ready for urban scale shifts towards subterranean life,” he says.
Harli and Mandevhana both see the potential of commercial spaces underground.
But Harli too is of the opinion that, in Africa, underground housing may be difficult to implement.
“You cannot justify building accommodation underground right now in Johannesburg when there are many abandoned buildings. I understand in China, where space is a problem. I don’t see residences underground but rather underground public space with commercial spaces,” says Harli, adding that building underground will always be a more expensive proposition than construction above the ground.
“For example, building an underground parking structure is five times the cost of building one above the ground,’ he says.
Deon Du Plessis, Function Manager, Urban Development, at SMEC, a multi-disciplinary engineering and infrastructure solutions company, agrees.
“It costs more to drill down the ground. We also still have a lot of land that we can build on in Africa. From a health and safety point of view, it will also be a challenge because you need ventilation and fire protection down there, for instance,” says Du Plessis.
Mandevhana says that building underground has higher initial costs but says there are anticipated lower-running costs as well, which implies “a less-costly lifecycle” compared to surface developments.
“The negative is that, currently, the resale value of these homes is quite low, as prospective buyers avoid them due to their unconventional nature. At an urban scale, the amount of earth that will need to be removed to create volumes for the developments will be something to think about,” says Mandevhana.
There are ups and downs to several of these hypotheses.
Science informs us that underground developments will not need costly heating and cooling systems due to the thermophysical properties of the earth; they could be used as shelter from adverse weather; and would require little, if any, exterior maintenance.
Another big question or concern is that of food supply underground. Would we be able to grow food underground?
Mandevhana has some answers.
“Due to similar conditions between underground spaces and greenhouses, it’s possible to grow the same types of food that we grow on the surface, but again, there is an opportunity to use the surface for agricultural purposes, afforestation and reforestation to reverse global warming, for instance,” he says.
Based on questions that have arisen from the recently-unearthed ancient Turkish city of Nevşehir, perhaps an even bigger concern is if humans will be able to physically and psychologically adapt to life underground.
“The generalizations about these factors affect the applicability of hypogeal cities. Sensory deprivation is one such factor, people are stimulated by their surrounding environment, and this becomes critical in small, enclosed spaces. On the physiological side, the challenges are associated with lack of natural light, indoor air quality, high humidity levels underground, and even lack of noise,” says Mandevhana.
It means the fundamental principles of urban design and urban planning will need to be redefined, the role of the urbanist and the architect will need to be clarified and the engineering field will need to establish relevant innovations to provide appropriate solutions if we are to go the underground mass residential route in Africa.
Du Plessis thinks the first priority is to fix the infrastructure problems we have now, before exploring underground options. “Our cities are growing at such a rapid rate that we can’t keep doing what we are doing. It is not sustainable. Our biggest opportunity is to revitalize Hillbrow and the central business district,” he says.
His first call is to build more compact cities that are taller.
“The trick is to provide urban spaces that actually work. You don’t just need a roof over your head but you need to be safe, be able to work, for children to be able to play in the park and having attractive spaces. It is a much bigger social construct that needs to be addressed. We need to build much closer to where we work,” he says.
Du Plessis thinks underground developments, like the Johannesburg tunnels, can best be used to provide better transport routes for people to get to work faster.
Be it for commercial space, housing or transportation, it seems these old tunnels have triggered a new debate that may change the way we live. Forever.
Climate Explained: How Much Of Climate Change Is Natural? How Much Is Man-made?
How much climate change is natural? How much is man made?
As someone who has been working on climate change detection and its causes for over 20 years I was both surprised and not surprised that I was asked to write on this topic by The Conversation. For nearly all climate scientists, the case is proven that humans are the overwhelming cause of the long-term changes in the climate that we are observing. And that this case should be closed.
Despite this, climate denialists continue to receive prominence in some media which can lead people into thinking that man-made climate change is still in question. So it’s worth going back over the science to remind ourselves just how much has already been established.
Successive reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – mandated by the United Nations to assess scientific evidence on climate change – have evaluated the causes of climate change. The most recent special report on global warming of 1.5 degrees confirms that the observed changes in global and regional climate over the last 50 or so years are almost entirely due to human influence on the climate system and not due to natural causes.
What is climate change?
First we should perhaps ask what we mean by climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defines climate change as:
a change in the state of the climate that can be identified by changes in the mean and/or the variability of its properties and that persists for an extended period, typically decades or longer.
The causes of climate change can be any combination of:
- Internal variability in the climate system, when various components of the climate system – like the atmosphere and ocean – vary on their own to cause fluctuations in climatic conditions, such as temperature or rainfall. These internally-driven changes generally happen over decades or longer; shorter variations such as those related to El Niño fall in the bracket of climate variability, not climate change.
- Natural external causes such as increases or decreases in volcanic activity or solar radiation. For example, every 11 years or so, the Sun’s magnetic field completely flips and this can cause small fluctuations in global temperature, up to about 0.2 degrees. On longer time scales – tens to hundreds of millions of years – geological processes can drive changes in the climate, due to shifting continents and mountain building.
- Human influence through greenhouse gases (gases that trap heat in the atmosphere such as carbon dioxide and methane), other particles released into the air (which absorb or reflect sunlight such as soot and aerosols) and land-use change (which affects how much sunlight is absorbed on land surfaces and also how much carbon dioxide and methane is absorbed and released by vegetation and soils).
What changes have been detected?
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recent report showed that, on average, the global surface air temperature has risen by 1°C since the beginning of significant industrialisation (which roughly started in the 1850s). And it is increasing at ever faster rates, currently 0.2°C per decade, because the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have themselves been increasing ever faster.
The oceans are warming as well. In fact, about 90% of the extra heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases is being absorbed by the oceans.
A warmer atmosphere and oceans are causing dramatic changes, including steep decreases in Arctic summer sea ice which is profoundly impacting arctic marine ecosystems, increasing sea level rise which is inundating low lying coastal areas such as Pacific island atolls, and an increasing frequency of many climate extremes such as drought and heavy rain, as well as disasters where climate is an important driver, such as wildfire, flooding and landslides.
Multiple lines of evidence, using different methods, show that human influence is the only plausible explanation for the patterns and magnitude of changes that have been detected.
This human influence is largely due to our activities that release greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane, as well sunlight absorbing soot. The main sources of these warming gases and particles are fossil fuel burning, cement production, land cover change (especially deforestation) and agriculture.
Most of us will struggle to pick up slow changes in the climate. We feel climate change largely through how it affects weather from day-to-day, season-to-season and year-to-year.
The weather we experience arises from dynamic processes in the atmosphere, and interactions between the atmosphere, the oceans and the land surface. Human influence on the broader climate system acts on these processes so that the weather today is different in many ways from how it would have been.
One way we can more clearly see climate change is by looking at severe weather events. A branch of climate science, called extreme event or weather attribution, looks at memorable weather events and estimates the extent of human influence on the severity of these events. It uses weather models run with and without measured greenhouse gases to estimate how individual weather events would have been different in a world without climate change.
As of early 2019, nearly 70% of weather events that have been assessed in this way were shown to have had their likelihood and/or magnitude increased by human influence on climate. In a world without global warming, these events would have been less severe. Some 10% of the studies showed a reduction in likelihood, while for the remaining 20% global warming has not had a discernible effect. For example, one study showed that human influence on climate had increased the likelihood of the 2015-2018 drought that afflicted Cape Town in South Africa by a factor of three.
Adapting to a changing climate
Weather extremes underlie many of the hazards that damage society and the natural environment we depend upon. As global warming has progressed, so have the frequency and intensity of these hazards, and the damage they cause.
Minimising the impacts of these hazards, and having mechanisms in place to recover quickly from the impacts, is the aim of climate adaptation, as recently reported by the Global Commission on Adaptation.
As the Commission explains, investing in adaptation makes sense from economic, social and ethical perspectives. And as we know that climate change is caused by humans, society cannot use “lack of evidence” on its cause as an excuse for inaction any more.
The Rage And Tears That Tore A Nation
Snapshots of the outrage against foreign nationals and protests against sexual offenders in South Africa in recent weeks, captured by FORBES AFRICA photojournalist Motlabana Monnakgotla.
As the continent’s second-biggest economy, South Africa attracts migrants from the rest of Africa. But mired in its own problems of unemployment and political instability, September saw a serious outbreak of attacks by South Africans on foreign nationals and foreign-owned businesses. And they have been ugly.
The spark that fueled the raging fire was in Pretoria, the country’s capital, when a taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national who was selling drugs to a youngster in the central business district (CBD).
The altercation caused a riot and the taxi industry brought the CBD to a standstill, blocking intersections. It did not stop there; a week later, about 60 kilometers from the capital in Malvern, a suburb east of the Johannesburg CBD, a hijacked building caught fire, leaving three dead. As emergency services were putting out the fire, the residents took advantage and looted foreign-owned shops and burned car dealerships overnight on Jules Street.
The lootings extended to the CBD and other parts of Johannesburg.
To capture this embarrassing moment in South African history, I visited Katlehong, a township 35 kilometers east of Johannesburg, where the residents blocked roads leading to Sontonga Mall on a mission to loot the mall and the foreign-owned shops therein overnight.
Shop-owners and workers were shocked to wake up to no business.
Mfundo Maljingolo, a worker at Fish And Chips, was among the distressed.
“This thing started last night, people started looting and broke into the mall and did what they wanted to do. I couldn’t go to work today because there’s nothing to do; now, we are not going to get paid. The shop will be losing close to R10,000 ($677) today. It’s messed up,” said Maljingolo.
But South African businesses were affected too.
Among the shops at the mall is Webbers, a clothing and footwear store. Looters could not enter the shop and it was one of the few that escaped the vandalism.
Dineo Nyembe, the store’s manager, said she was in disbelief when she saw people could not enter the mall.
“We got here this morning and the ceiling was wrecked but there was no sign that the shop was entered, everything was just as we left it. Now, we are packing stock back to the warehouse, because we don’t know if they are coming back tonight,” lamented Nyembe, unsure if they would make their daily target or if they would be trading again.
Across the now-wrecked mall are small businesses that were not as fortunate as Webbers, and it was not only the shop-owners that were affected.
Emmanuel Nhlane’s home was robbed even as attackers were looting the shop outside.
“They broke into my house, I was threatened with a petrol bomb and I had to stand outside to give them a chance; they took my fridge, bed, cash and my VHS,” said Nhlane.
Nhlane had rented out his yard to foreign nationals to operate a shop. He does not comprehend why his belongings were taken because he doesn’t own a shop. Now, it means that the unemployed Nhlane will not be getting his monthly rental fee of R3,700 ($250).
Far away, the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, was also affected as trucks burned and a driver was killed because of his nationality. This was part of a logistics and transport industry national strike.
Back in Johannesburg, I visited the car dealerships that were a part of the burning spree on Jules Street.
The streets were still ashy and the air still smoky, two days after the unfortunate turn of events.
Muhamed Haffejee, one of the distraught businessmen there, said: “Currently, we are still not trading.”
Cape Town, in the Western Cape province of South Africa, which hosted the World Economic Forum (WEF) on Africa from September 4 to 6, was also witness to protests by women and girls from all walks of life outside the Cape Town International Convention Centre, demanding that the leadership take action to end the spate of gender-based violence (GBV) in the country.
There were protests also outside Parliament. What set off the nationwide outcry was the shocking rape and murder of Uyinene Mrwetyana, a 19-year-old film and media student at the University of Cape Town, inside a post office by a 42-year-old employee at the post office.
There was anger against the ghastly crimes and wave of GBV in the country that continues unabated. According to Stats SA, there has been a drastic increase of women-based violence in South Africa; sexual offences are up by 4.6%, from 50,108 in 2018 to 52,420 in 2019.
A week later, on a Friday, Sandton, Africa’s richest square mile and one of the biggest economic hubs, was shut down by hundreds of angry women and members of advocacy groups from across Johannesburg. They congregated by the Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), the cynosure of business, singing and chanting, to demand “a 2% levy on profits of all listed entities to help fund the fight against GBV and femicide”.
Among the protesters was Cebi Ngqinanbi, holding a placard that read: “I’m not your punching bag.”
“We came here to disrupt Sandton as the heart of Johannesburg’s economic hub. We want to make everyone aware that women and children are being killed every day in South Africa and they [Sandton] continue with business as usual, sitting in their offices with air-conditioners and the stock exchange whilst people on the ground making them rich are dying. That is why we are here, to speak to those that have economic power,” said Ngqinanbi.
She added that if women can be given economic power, they will be able to fend for themselves and won’t fall prey to abusive men, since most women stay in abusive relationships because men are more financially stable.
Amid the chanting and singing of struggle songs, Nobuhle Ajiti addressed the crowd and shared her own haunting experience as a migrant in South Africa and survivor of GBV. She spoke in isiZulu, a South African language.
“I survived a gang rape; I was thrown out of a moving car and stabbed several times. I survived it, but am I going to survive xenophobia that is looming around in South Africa? Will I able to share my xenophobia story like I can share my GBV story?” questioned Ajiti.
She said as migrants, they did not wake up in the morning and decide to come to South Africa, but because of the hardships faced in their home countries, they were forced to come to what they perceived as the city of opportunities. And as a foreign national, she had to deal with both xenophobia and GBV.
“We experience institutionalized xenophobia in hospitals; we are forced to pay huge amounts for consultation. I am raped and I need medical attention and I am told I need to pay R5,000 ($250).
“As a mere migrant, where am I going to get R5,000? I get abused at home and the police officer would ask me where I’m from because of my accent, I sound Zimbabwean. What does my nationality have to do with my husband beating me at home or with the man that just raped me?” she asked.
Addressing the resolute women outside was the JSE CEO Nicky Newton-King who received the memorandum demanding business take their plight seriously, from a civil society group representing over 70 civil society organizations and individuals.
The list of demands include that at all JSE-listed companies contribute to a fund to resource the National Strategy Plan on GBV and femicide, to be launched in November; transport for employees who work night shifts or work after hours; establish workplace mechanisms to provide support to GBV survivors as part of employee wellness, and prevention programs that help make workplaces safe spaces for all women.
Newton-King assured the protestors she would address their demands in seven days. But a lot can happen in seven days. Will there be more crimes in the meantime? How many more will be raped and killed in South Africa by then?
Quality Higher Education Means More Than Learning How To Work
When people talk about quality education, they’re often referring to the kind of education that gives students the knowledge and skills they need for the job market. But there’s a view that quality education has wider benefits: it develops individuals in ways that help develop society more broadly.
In Zimbabwe, for example, the higher education policy emphasises student employability and the alleviation of labour shortages. But, as my research found, this isn’t happening in practice.
University education needs to do more than produce a graduate who can get a job. It should also give graduates a sense of right and wrong. And it should instil graduates with an appreciation for other people’s development.
Tertiary education should also give students opportunities, choices and a voice when it comes to work safety, job satisfaction, security, growth and dignity. Higher education is a space where they can learn to be critical. It must prepare them for participating in the economy and broader society.
This isn’t happening in Zimbabwe. Graduate unemployment is high and employers and policy makers are blaming this largely on the mismatch between graduate skills and market requirements.
Investigating Zimbabwe’s universities
My research sought to examine how a human development lens could add to what was valued as higher education, and the kind of graduate outcomes produced in Zimbabwe. I investigated 10 of the universities in Zimbabwe (there were 15 at the time of the research). Four were private and six public.
I reviewed policy documents, interviewed representatives of institutions and held discussions with students. Members of Zimbabwe’s higher education quality assurance body and university teaching staff were also included.
I found that in practice, higher education in Zimbabwe was influenced by the country’s socio-political and economic climate. Decisions and appointments of key university administrators in public universities and the minister of higher education were largely political.
In addition, resources were limited and staff turnover was high. Universities just couldn’t finance themselves through tuition fees.
Different players in the higher education system – employers, the government, academics, students and their families – have different ideas about what “quality” means in higher education. The Zimbabwe Council for Higher Education understands quality as meeting set standards and benchmarks that emphasise the graduates’ knowledge and skills.
To some extent, academics and university administrators see quality as teaching and learning that gives students a mixture of skills and values such as social responsibility.
But lecturers must comply with the largely top-down approach to quality. They tend to do whatever will enhance students’ prospects of getting employment in a particular market.
The educators and students I interviewed acknowledged that developing the ability to work and to think critically were both central to higher education. But they admitted that these goals were hard to attain. This was because of the country’s constrained socio-political and economic environment. Academics and students felt that they couldn’t express themselves freely and critical thinking was suppressed.
Stuck on a road to nowhere
The study illustrates how an over-emphasis on creating human capital – skilled and knowledgeable graduates – limits higher education’s potential to foster broader human and social development.
University education should do more, especially in developing countries such as Zimbabwe that face not just economic, but also socio-political challenges. Before building more universities and enrolling more students, authorities and citizens should consider what quality education means in relation to the kind of society they want.
It’s possible to take a broader view of development, quality and the role of higher education. This broader approach – one that appreciates social justice – can equip graduates to address the country’s problems.
The road ahead
Universities can’t change a society on their own. But their teaching and learning practices can make an important difference.
Because quality teaching and learning means different things to different people, people need to talk about it democratically. Institutional and national policies must be informed by broad consultations to identify the knowledge, skills and values they want graduates to have.
University teaching and learning should emphasise freedom of expression and participation so that students can think and act critically beyond university.
Also, academics don’t automatically know how to teach just because they have a PhD. Universities should therefore ensure that academics learn how to teach and communicate their knowledge. Curriculum design, student assessment and feedback, as well as training of lecturers should all support this goal of human development.
When universities see quality in terms of human development, their role becomes more than production of workers in an economy. It gives them a mandate to nurture ethically responsible graduates. These more rounded graduates are better equipped to imagine an alternative future in pursuit of a better society, economically, politically and socially.
–Patience Mukwambo: Researcher, University of the Free State
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