‘In South Africa, lecturers who ignore students’ emails risk discipline’

Dr. Mitt Okorie
Dr. Mitt Okorie

“Okorie, who lectured in a Nigerian university for three years, was sponsored by the South African government. From his classroom experiences as a student and teacher in both countries, Nigeria is far behind, he laments.”

Getting a PhD is a headache. In North America, dropout rate is around 50%. In Europe, it’s 34%. In South Africa where Nigerian writer Mitterand Okorie recently graduated with a PhD in Conflict Transformation & Peace Studies, 20% of candidates never complete their studies. Even that rate is “significant,” Okorie tells Nigeria Abroad, noting that
government subsidies go to waste when doctorate candidates abandon their programs.

Okorie, who lectured in a Nigerian university for three years, was sponsored by the South African government though he catered to his upkeep and accommodation. From his classroom experiences as a student and teacher in both countries, Nigeria is far behind, he laments.

“There is absolutely no basis for comparison. Funding. Facilities. Services. Responsiveness. South Africa towers above Nigeria in every sense. Let me give you an example. If you do not respond to a student’s email in 72 hours, they have a right to escalate the message to the Head of Department and even up to the Vice-Chancellor if they are not satisfied.”

“So as an academic here, the first thing you learn is to put the interest of the student first. In Nigerian public institutions (I taught in one for three years), most students never get to even see their exam answer sheets. They can’t query their marks; they can’t question the poor attitude meted on them by both academic and non-academic staff. It’s a crying shame.”

Okorie’s supervisor obtained her PhD from the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE), a testament to South Africa’s willingness to attract quality academic talent. “So, not only was I able to study for a doctorate in South Africa without paying tuition, I was supervised by a highly qualified expert, whom the government also pays a considerable sum to do so. Clearly, South Africa attaches enormous value on knowledge more than Nigeria without a doubt.”

Amid worsening xenophobia, with Nigerians as major targets, South Africa remains “a place of unrivalled natural beauty, fantastic climate, and a real colourful mix of people and energy,” the young academic says. Indeed, the country is as industrialized as the most industrialized western nation and should have been a beacon of pride for the continent. While not discounting xenophobia in the country, Okorie acknowledges having a warm stay.

“In this country, I have had opportunities which I didn’t think I could get in my own country. But I have also been denied opportunities due to where I come from. The thing is that if you internalize the idea that you’re a target of hate, it may paralyze you. I pay my taxes, I obey the law, and I have it in my head that I would compete for opportunities when they arise. “Secondly, I understand the country to be a product of a long and complex political evolution. I just finished reading a very excellent book by Allister Sparks, Tomorrow is Another Country, an inside account of South Africa’s negotiated revolution. You could see the country came from a very difficult and bloody past, so there is an exceptionally high expectation for the good life. The Black elites of South Africa haven’t exactly delivered on this for their people, and so many of them explain away this failure by blaming immigrants. It is the same failure of leadership which is common in post-colonial Africa, the avarice and dishonesty of Black elites.”

The inescapable conundrum is that once the economic pie begins to shrink in any society, people become more provincial, they begin to think in ‘in-group v out-group’ frames, Okorie adds. “Populism and bigotry swell. People begin to look for scapegoats. Local politicians play on these fears and widen these fault lines. They say to their people: ‘There aren’t enough jobs because the foreigners have taken them. There aren’t enough health facilities because the foreigners are taking up all the spaces there.’ So, resentment builds at the bottom and soon manifests as matters of life and death. South Africa is a good place, but it needs more honest politicians.”

Starting a PhD was straightforward for the writer, who always fancied himself a scholar and teacher. “Teaching makes me feel alive in ways not many things do. And to be able to compete favourably in academia, you need to earn a doctorate. It is the ultimate launchpad for you. Of course, there are exceptions, but usually earning a PhD helps you to compete with the necessary tools. It helps you to conduct research and seek knowledge with the required level of rigor. It also prepares you to assist others to walk the same path.”

He hopes to use his new academic station to “focus on the problems that arise from democratization in post-colonial Africa, and how technology is implicated in it.” His doctoral thesis examined how electronic voting has helped Nigeria, with Rivers State as a case study, and what the experience was in other African states. “You see how Twitter and Bitcoin played a crucial role in circumvented state control in Nigeria during the #EndSARS protest in 2020. These issues, amongst a few others fascinate me.” But getting his PhD wasn’t an easy journey, he admits.

“Two weeks ago, a Zimbabwean PhD student at the University of Witwatersrand here in Johannesburg committed suicide because his visa could not be processed on time for him to register for what would have been his final semester. As a former PhD student now, I can tell you there is too much to contend with emotionally that you don’t need this sort of additional mental burden. I am not saying that the visa issue was responsible for his death, but it must have worsened whatever psychological burden he was nursing and pushed him to the brink.

“It can take a toll, that’s for sure. Some are luckier than others in that respect. There are a lot of gloomy days for the average PhD student. I had three supervisors in 3.5 years. Two left the university for different reasons. These things can break you, because each time a new supervisor arrives, they come with a new philosophy of how they intend to help you. So, if you’re not sufficiently self-motivated, if you don’t have a highly supportive environment, not just family but also friends, then it gets harder. I was lucky in this regard. I had a lot of support, not just from my young family but from my parents and siblings, and even friends.”

Before his sojourn at the South Africa’s University of KwaZulu Natal, the writer had studied or lived in Cyprus and the United Kingdom. On how his beautiful wife celebrated his recent achievement, the good man laughs. “Thank goodness, she isn’t among the #WifeNotCook gang, she would have arrested you for this question. Actually, I took everyone out for dinner at a Greek restaurant. We do not live in Durban anymore and came in for the graduation from Johannesburg where we’ve lived since 2019. Mediterranean cuisine is very close to ours.”

This article was previously published on Nigeria Abroad

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