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Strategic competence and agency: individuals overcoming barriers to change in South African higher education


Social relations, institutional arrangements and cultures bequeathed by South Africa’s system of apartheid continue be felt in the present despite the country’s formal transition to democracy 25 years ago. Race, class and gender inequities continue to structure South African society in ways that have proven intransigent to change, leading to growing frustration and widespread public dissatisfaction expressed in multiple arenas including worker strikes, service delivery and university student protests. While it is clear that social structures inherited from the past are difficult to change, it is also the case that change does happen. In this paper, we discuss the findings of a hermeneutic phenomenological study with 10 academics at one historically White university in South Africa, who have been agents of change within their particular context. We show how participants engaged in struggles to counter resistance to their efforts. In doing so they demonstrate what we call ‘strategic competence’ – the ability to act in ways that not only draw on personal resources but recognise the resources, contradictions and opportunities offered within the existing limitations of the social structure. Strategic competence thus emerges as a central feature of agency, enabling individuals to stretch the boundaries of what is possible.

Keywords: Agency, resistance, transformation, strategic competence, higher education, South Africa


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