Adopting a holistic, equity-focused approach to community vitality.

Ephraim Mahlanga

Like in previous years, the South African Siyaphumelela delegation participated in the 2022 Achieving the Dream (ATD) Conference that took place from 15 – 18 February. As usual, the conference experience was both insightful and inspiring. Given the ongoing uncertainty regarding Covid, the ATD organizers opted to have the conference online. Unfortunately, the time difference, between the USA and South Africa meant that many of the sessions took place in, what for SA was the middle of the night or the early hours before dawn!

To mitigate this challenge, a mini conference programme was designed for the South African delegates. A selection of keynote and other presentations were recorded. These were presented to the SA audience with each session including a reflective discussion led by two of Siyaphumelela project coaches.

Adopting a holistic, equity-focused approach to community vitality.

A capturing description statement on the programme for this theme was: “Equity work must be systemic, intentional, and the responsibility of all”. The aim of the session was to challenge and inspire the participants to identify, disrupt, and dismantle systemic barriers to student achievement. Given the inequity challenges in the South African society in general and in the higher education system in particular, the importance of this session cannot be overemphasised.

Key messages

Dr Karen Stout and Heather McGhee were the main speakers in this session, while the Reverend Dr. Delysia Timm and Professor Bala Pillay led the reflective discussion on the plenary topic, “Building Anti-racist, Equitable, and Economically Vibrant Communities”.

In her presentation, Karen Stout underscored the importance of putting equity at the centre of all ATD work. She acknowledged that America has a violent history which still poses immense social challenges in the country. For this reason, she stated that ATD needs a new vision – a vision that acknowledges the truth of a racially fuelled nation. To address this problem, she advocated that ATD colleges need to carefully analyse student data and come up with strategies that are culturally responsive and that narrow gaps in student access and success. She reflected that ATD should have an equity statement that explicitly addresses racism. She also highlighted that policies that seek to eradicate inequalities are good, not only for disenfranchised communities, but for all Americans, irrespective of race, gender or socio-economic background. In her concluding remarks, she emphasised the importance of the concept of a ‘solidarity dividend’ in addressing the social ills of the American society, a point that Heather McGhee also expanded on in her talk.

Author of ‘The Sum of Us’ and distinguished senior fellow of Demos, a non-profit progressive U.S. think tank, Heather McGhee, talked about the fascinating findings of her research on race and racial tensions in America. Her studies showed that progress in American society is held back by the fallacious zero-sum idea. At the core of the zero-sum idea is the selfishness that makes people think that sharing equitably means having less (for themselves). This view, stems from the idea that human beings are not all equal, some are more superior and therefore more deserving than others. She used the very powerful ‘drained-pool’ analogy to explain this fallacy within the American context. In this analogy, swimming pools, which were a facility used by few people with access to school education, are drained once the majority of people have access. In essence, this means withdrawing good facilities from educational institutions once the majority of people have access to school education. She elucidated the concept of solidarity dividend that Karen Stout mentioned. (See one of her popular publications[1]). In her view, solidarity dividend is about the gains people can make when they come together across all divides, be they race, class or ethnic origin, etc. She underscored the point that it is only when we come together that can we make progress as a society. She reinforced this idea by stating that a country built not from a tribe, but from an idea, is stronger and more progressive. She further advocated that there is a need to change the perception that racism is a Black-White issue. She also urged that, as societies, we should also get away from the fallacious idea that there is one culture and one way of being.

Relevance to South African context

Listening to the two speakers, one could not miss the strong similarities that exist between the USA and South Africa, in terms of the challenges that are endemic in the two societies and in the higher education systems. They emphasised how a violent history has caused racial strife that still bedevils higher education institutions and the wider society in both countries. Also, how racial tensions have caused a lack of racial and social solidarity resulting in the lack of a common purpose and a sense of oneness and united in our respective societies. Thus, like in the American context, addressing inequalities in the South African higher education system requires the concerted effort of policy makers and a range of key stakeholders. It also requires resources, commitment, and new ways of doing business. Above all, it requires new insights that are generated through the use of data. Institutions and planners need to have a clear understanding of the factors that cause inequality of access and success in higher education, and implement strategies that are culturally responsive. Adopting a raft of affirmative action policies without eradicating excellence already achieved in the system; supporting collection and use of data to inform decision making; sharing good practice; and building a strongly networked community committed to improvement at a systemic level, are some of the strategies that have potential to alleviate the challenges that bedevil the South African higher education system.

The topic, “Building Anti-racist, Equitable, and Economically Vibrant Communities” is well aligned with the purpose of the Siyaphumelela Student Success initiative and serves to highlight that inequality in higher education, should continue to be a key concern of all higher education stakeholders.

Having started with only five institutions, the Siyaphumelela project has since expanded to seventeen public universities in the country and through this network, further services are also provided to the rest of the public higher education institutions in the country. Thus, the principle of intentionally driving success and equity at a systemic level underpins Siyaphumelela work.

In conclusion, the questions posed by Dr Delysia Tim in her reflection session, namely, ”What is the cost of inequality to our society”? “How can we eliminate the Zero Sum paradigm”? “How do we undo “drained pool politics”? should continue to motivate everyone to invest in addressing inequalities in the South African higher education system.


[1] McGhee, H. (2021) The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.