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
Published in May 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.