Apartheid is over but the battle to control South Africa's institutions is just beginning. Sophie Pedder reports on the succession crisis dividing the liberal English-speaking University of the Witwatersrandby Sophie Pedder / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Every time south Africa swells with its remarkable spirit of racial forgiveness, something comes along to puncture it. When President Nelson Mandela wore the springbok captain’s jersey at the rugby world cup final last July, he reached out to the Afrikaners, the minority which felt most threatened by majority rule. He then gave dignity to the black majority when he did the same for the national soccer team, which became African champions in February. But South Africa’s racial divisions cannot be waved away with generous gestures. Far from the sports field, a row has been raging at the grand old liberal University of the Witwatersrand, exposing the fragility of the country’s racial reconciliation.
Wits, as South Africans call it, is a decent, upright sort of place. Its neo-classical fa?ades overlook sweeping lawns in Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburbs. During apartheid it earned a reputation as a liberal institution, determined not to let segregation thwart its enrollment of black students. It retains an English feel. Its graduates are said to head more British companies than any other university after Oxford and Cambridge.
Dropped into this rather tweedy institution, back in October 1994, was one William Malegapuru Makgoba. Raised as a herdboy in the small South African village of Sekhukhune, Makgoba had made it to the University of Natal medical school, and from there to Oxford. He returned after many years in Britain to take up the job of deputy vice-chancellor at Wits-the first black South African to hold such a position at the university. But Professor Makgoba had been in the job for only a year when he stepped into the fiercest controversy the university has known.
The trouble began last October when a group of 13 academics at Wits lodged a series of complaints about him. Makgoba, they claimed, had tripped up on three counts: he had neglected his administrative duties; he had made false claims on his curriculum vitae; and he had given the university a bad name through statements he had made to the press. Makgoba denied the allegations and, in turn, publicly accused members of the “gang of 13” of tax avoidance and of operating a slush fund-claims that were later refuted following an inquiry. Makgoba had made his claims on the basis of information contained in their personal files. He was promptly suspended, pending the proceedings of an outside tribunal, though later he was reinstated.
The row might have resolved itself internally had not Makgoba happened to be black and 12 of his 13 accusers white. No sooner had each side pitched itself against the other than the row began to reverberate beyond the campus walls. Claim and counterclaim were splashed across the newspapers. Black South Africans swung behind Makgoba: “the newest victim of the spontaneous white conspiracy against the black intelligentsia,” wrote Thami Mazwai, editor of Enterprise, a black business magazine. White liberals, indignant at black accusations of racism, dismissed black support for Makgoba as uncritical African nationalism.
Who was right became beside the point. The claims on each side ranged from the trivial to the absurd. Makgoba was alleged to have said on his curriculum vitae that he wrote the “most-quoted” article in a scientific journal in a certain year. His accusers claimed this was false: he had written only “one of the most-quoted.” And so on. What nobody disputes is that Makgoba is a respected medical scientist, with a doctorate in immunology from Oxford. He was recruited from a senior job at London’s Hammersmith hospital. But the controversy has touched a raw nerve in the new South Africa. Why?
Under apartheid, universities were segregated. The best, such as Wits or Cape Town, were supposed to be for whites, but admitted blacks by applying for a special permit. The universities still broke apartheid laws: for example, Wits refused to segregate halls of residence as it was supposed to, and regularly withstood police raids. These institutions were designed to churn out graduates of the first world, with degrees in law or literature comparable with the best universities in Europe and America.
Should the universities aspire to the same goals in the new South Africa? There are currently 21 universities even though South Africa is a middle income country-a little poorer than Malaysia, a little richer than Belorussia. Multilateral institutions such as the World Bank say that African countries should be spending less on universities and more on primary schooling. Some educationalists argue that South Africa should preserve just two or three universities as centres of excellence which compete internationally; the rest should be turned into more economically relevant technical institutes.
But even if South Africa decided to keep its universities as they are, could it widen access to the black majority without compromising standards? This question enrages black South Africans, who claim that universities are using the preservation of standards to mask a reluctance to admit more blacks: they want the student roll and academic staff to reflect the country’s population, 76 per cent of which is black. And they want this change to take place fast.
In 1995, 40 per cent of the total student roll at Wits was black; among first year students the figure was 52 per cent. This is a dramatic shift from a decade ago, when Wits began actively to seek out black students. (The university had started to admit black students in the 1940s, but in small numbers: Nelson Mandela was the only black student in the law faculty in 1943.)
Wits insists that standards are being maintained. It has set up support classes designed to help first year students make up for an abysmal “Bantu” education in black schools. The aim is to spot potential in high school, then make up for lost time at university: the end product, Wits argues, is no different. But it will take time to make up for years of education deliberately designed to ensure, in the words of Hendrik Verwoerd, that “natives will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them.” Last year the pass rate among blacks who took the national school leaving examination was an alarming 43.4 per cent, the pass rate for whites was 98 per cent.
Had the row at Wits been about enrollment of black students only, it might have subsided. But those who are pressing for a radical transformation of the university want more than balanced racial arithmetic: they want to shed the Englishness of Wits and replant it, culturally, back in Africa.
Under apartheid, Afrikaner culture seized all institutions of authority: the army, the government, the railways, the national broadcasting corporation. These were the targets of the liberation struggle. The English-speaking institutions, by and large, stood against apartheid. But now the target of black discontent has begun to shift: the English-speaking institutions-the universities and the English language press in particular-have found themselves the objects of anger from the very people in whose name they had once opposed apartheid.
Dismay at the feeling of victimisation is palpable. Criticism of the pace of change at Wits “hasn’t been fair by any objective measure,” says Professor Robert Charlton, the university’s vice-chancellor. An earnest gentleman in the “old English” mould, he is personally wounded by the attacks. “The only area we could perhaps have done better is in the appointment of black academic staff.”
More than this, some senior academics feel that the very soul of Wits is under assault from an Africanist movement which they regard as personified by Makgoba. The real struggle seems to be less about the need for “transformation” (code for darkening the university’s complexion) than about what it is to be “transformed” into.
Makgoba, a cheerful 43-year-old with a taste for loose embroidered African shirts, says he wants to “Africanise” the university. Pushed about what this means, he becomes elusive. He talks about the need for South Africa to define a new culture which borrows from both the African and European traditions. “I’m an African and I grew up in a very traditional environment in the countryside,” he explains. “English-speaking institutions have retained the Anglo-Saxon prototype and want to impose it on us. As South Africa evolves as a multicultural nation, a bit more of what is African will appear and a bit more of what is English will disappear: perhaps what will emerge will be South African.”
What this means for a university is unclear. It is partly about shifting the emphasis of the syllabus in certain courses: “You get into a class and you hear about Bismarck and Queen Elizabeth,” says Makgoba, “but you hardly hear even about the people who got us our independence.” He would want this shift to take place not only in history and literature, but in medicine and engineering: to gear students more directly for work in a developing African country. Above all, it seems to be about discarding any image that smacks of England: “The time for whites to articulate what they presume are the wishes and destiny of blacks is over,” he wrote last year in the Star, a Johannesburg daily.
Such statements infuriate many English-speaking whites. Some see the crusading professor as a black reincarnation of the Afrikaner nationalists of the 1940s and 1950s, who entrenched apartheid. One of the “gang of 13” recently accused the alliance of black students and unions, who have adopted Makgoba as an emblem of a wider struggle for black advancement, of thinking in terms of “ethnic cleansing.” These whites accept the need for course work to be made more relevant, but vigorously resent any attempt to dilute what they regard as a basic and universal theoretical knowledge, or to alter the western canon for reasons of political correctness.
What Wits old-timers seem to resent most is that Makgoba’s Africanist zeal took them by surprise. “Nothing he said in his interview prepared us for the stance he has taken since,” says Charlton. It is unclear who is at fault for this misunderstanding. Makgoba did not appear to be a political animal. He had spent many years in London, yet had little to do with the ANC officials based there. He relishes the irony: “They thought I was a black English gentleman and a conservative,” he chuckles, “I’m not an activist, but I am aligned to the ANC. The liberals are uncomfortable because they expect blacks to say thank you, not turn round and attack them.”
The collision of cultures could scarcely have been more striking. Here was a proud old university, run in a rather clubby way by genial, besuited academics. They had a certain way of doing things; they knew where they stood. Into the middle of this came Makgoba, with his Africanist vision and refusal to play by the old rules. He felt shut out by the clubbiness-which only stiffened his resolve to transform the place.
Perhaps the most comical example of the gulf between the two sides was a row which Etienne Mureinik, a law professor and one of the “gang of 13,” had with a group of black students and workers in January. They accused him of insulting them by calling them “gardeners.” During a debate about making the university more democratic, Mureinik had said: “If, on a committee to choose the leader of an institution, you have as many gardeners as professors, you are as likely to end up with a park as a university.” To correct the misunderstanding, Mureinik said that he was disturbed by the belief “that it is an insult to be called a gardener.” It does not imply “the slightest disrespect for students, support staff, junior lecturers, or gardeners, any more than it implies animosity towards parks.”
Who’s on top?
The conflict at Wits illuminates a broader struggle: the bid by black South Africans to secure increased control of the chief institutions of white South Africa, in proportion to black demographic strength. Most economic and intellectual power remains white. Since President Mandela took office in 1994, no legislation has been passed to enforce affirmative action in favour of blacks. None the less, in the public and private sectors, across the country, there has been a trend towards self-imposed affirmative action.
This has led to staff changes at the top of some of the former centres of Afrikaner power. A black South African, Dikgang Moseneke, is now chairman of Telkom, the state telecommunications utility; Zwelakhe Sisulu, son of Walter, the veteran ANC leader, is chief executive of the South African Broadcasting Corporation; Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri, a black woman, is its chairman. The point about control is that those institutions now headed by blacks are more generally regarded as “belonging” to black South Africa-or at least to the new South Africa -than those still run by whites.
For blacks, the figurehead of an organisation matters enormously; it can partly compensate for a lack of real progress in altering the culture and staff complexion further down the ladder. The University of Cape Town, for example, has largely escaped attack by black South Africans, despite having a ratio of black students and staff to whites similar to Wits, because it appointed Mamphela Ramphele, a black doctor and anthropologist, as vice-chancellor elect. She is working with the current white vice-chancellor, and will take over from him when he retires next year.
Makgoba feels that it is only a matter of time before Wits, too, will fall into black hands. But the white administrators are convinced that they can transform the place and cling on at the top. On 13th March, the two sides agreed on a truce: nine of the accusers would withdraw their allegations; and, to the consternation of many black intellectuals, Makgoba, instead of taking over from Professor Charlton as originally planned, would give up the deputy vice-chancellorship for a well funded research professorship at the university. But the conflict will not go away. Charlton retires at the end of 1997; his successor will have to be appointed soon.
The row at Wits reveals how readily South Africans slip back into seeing things through racial eyes. Twelve of the “gang of 13” accusers were indeed white; but one of them was black (and American). Another, Charles van Onselen, has been painted as a white reactionary; yet he has spent the past decade writing a sympathetic portrait of a black South African sharecropper.
The rage expressed by some of South Africa’s leading black writers-such as Aggrey Klaaste, editor of the Sowetan, the country’s biggest daily, and the writer Thami Mazwai -seems to reflect the relative impotence of the black intelligentsia. Most of the time, South Africa keeps the lid on these frustrations; sometimes it dissolves them in bursts of togetherness. But the rage remains.