As underlined by recent student activism, Higher Education in South Africa faces a range of challenges.  The systemic legacies of our apartheid and colonial past, alongside global challenges of health, food and water security, environmental degradation and so on shape the futures of our students just as they continue to shape institutions of higher education. Addressing these challenges requires questions of social justice to be central to curricula. South Africa might be recognised for offering a world class education in accounting for example, but what purpose does this serve unless it also involves a critical reflection on ways in which accounting and auditing systems have contributed to and are implicated in the deepening political and economic inequalities we confront today? Rather than simply inducting students into a deeply problematic status quo we need to find ways of challenging students to make a better world, a more socially just world.

But if social justice has to be a concern of the curriculum, it must also be central to how we teach. We need, in other words to teach for social justice in socially just ways. Privileging English in the academy, for example, involves marginalising the languages, cultures and prior knowledges of those who do not have English as a mother tongue.  Can we teach in English without becoming implicated in reproducing the inequalities and hierarchies of the past? And if so how?

Given the context and challenges outlined above, questions about what constitutes excellent teaching in diverse contexts are central to the prestigious National Excellence in Teaching and Learning Awards hosted by the Higher Education Learning and Teaching Association of Southern Africa (HELTASA) and the Council on Higher Education (CHE).South African universities are invited to submit up to 3 nominations for these national awards each year. Up to five awards can be made, and this year teachers at Western Cape institutions won 3 of the 5 awards. One went to Mr Siddique Motala of the Faculty of Engineering at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. Another went to Dr Bradley Rink and a third team award to Profs Bassey Antia and Charlyn Dyers, all of the Faculty of Arts at the University of the Western Cape.

Rather than a decontextualized generic ‘best practice’, these awards recognize as excellent teaching that involves the development of curricula and teaching practices that engage with who, where, why and what. An excellent teacher, in other words, is one who is acutely aware of who she or he is teaching, a teacher who uses the prior knowledges students bring to class as resources, a teacher who is acutely aware of where their institution is located in terms of its own history as well as the broader context.

At CPUT Siddique Motala exemplifies this through his teaching of Geomatics, a subject that is regulated by the South African Geomatics Council. Despite constraints placed on innovative curricula by professional bodies, Mr Motala  finds ways of blurring the disciplinary boundaries (inherited from the British higher education model) between Arts and Science by telling African history stories, and mapping the journeys of people like Ibn Battuta, a medieval Moroccan traveller who travelled much further than his contemporary Marco Polo. Mr Motala gets students to demonstrate their mastery of the spatial analysis techniques and mapping skills that are central to his discipline by requiring them to make digital stories in which they use these skills to map stories about their own or their family’s lives.

Across the road at UWC, Dr Bradley Rink of the Department of Geography, Environmental Studies and Tourism, focuses on the movement and circulation of humans, non-human animals, objects, capital and information – on what he calls ‘mobilities’.  Positioned between the disciplines of geography and tourism, the concept of mobilities provides a unifying and rigorous theoretical terrain where these two disciplines meet.  Dr Rink’s teaching thus focuses on relational geographies, on bodies and how they “relate to each other in domestic versus public realms; why space matters; the role of memory and place”.  He uses emerging technologies to elicit information about the daily realities of his students’ journeys between their homes and their classroom. These journeys become a central focus of the course requiring students to think about how our apartheid history of race and class has (and continues) to shape where they live, the ways they get to campus, how long the jhourney takes, and the kinds of social, economic, political and gendered challenges they confront on their journeys. Instead of starting with theory, Dr Rink starts with the lived realities of the students in his class as the lens with which to critically evaluate the theory.

Another award, for team teaching, has been made to Profs Bassey Antia and Charlyn Dyers of the Department of Language and Communication Studies at UWC for their teaching on multilingualism. Reflecting, several years ago, on why so few students chose to specialise in multilingualism at the post graduate level, Profs Antia and Dyers confronted the uncomfortable knowledge that their teaching – through the medium of English – was “reinscribing and reinforcing the very values and ideology we sought to deconstruct”.  In reorganising their module and curricula, Kaaps and Afrikaans now jostle alongside formal and informal isiXhosa and English to make multilingualism – and the material lived realities these languages embody – integral to their teaching.

It is these teachers insistence that their teaching must engage critically with history, context and power and that it must start with the lives of their students that is acknowledged through the National Excellence in Teaching and Learning Awards.