S. Africa's truly African university Open: South Africa's premier seat of higher education is expected to be majority black next year. The shift reflects a long liberal tradition that educated Nelson Mandela and kept apartheid at bay.

Sun Journal

September 09, 1997|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- The University of Witwatersrand, the renowned seat of white liberalism during the apartheid years, is about to take a major step toward adapting to black-majority rule here.

Next year, for the first time in the university's 75-year history, most of its students are expected to be black, many of them from communities with poor high schools, some requiring remedial education, and most of them in need of financial aid from a government short of cash.

A new leader has been chosen to confront these challenges and to complete the transformation of this nation's premier seat of higher learning into a truly African university. Surprisingly, the college, commonly known as Wits, will be led into the 21st century by a white man.

"I was amazed," said Professor Bob Charlton, who had expected to be replaced by a black academic after he steps down at the end of the year after 10 years as vice chancellor and principal, the top position. A black candidate had been chosen last year but withdrew because of poor health and has since died.

The new selection of Professor Colin Bundy, 52, a graduate of Wits and now head of the University of Western Cape, was unanimously endorsed by a selection panel that included faculty and students, both black and white.

What made the appointment so surprising was that it came just after Wits was rocked by a crisis that forced it to examine its commitment to a fully integrated, black-majority university.

"From the clash of wills, skills and politics which created fury, heat and division last year, this year we have politeness, agreement and scholarly debate over the future of the institution and indeed all university education within South Africa," the Star newspaper said in open relief.

The explanation for the change in atmosphere, according to Charlton: The university council was broadened to include more blacks, and the consideration of candidates was done openly. Bundy, despite being a white man at a time of black empowerment, was the unanimous choice. (The runner-up was another white man.)

Wits, on the outskirts of Johannesburg, has historically been on the cusp of change. The university was formed in 1922 and immediately admitted all races.

Nelson Mandela, a Wits student in the 1940s, once recalled: "Despite the university's liberal values, I never felt entirely comfortable there. Although I was to discover a core of sympathetic whites who became friends, most of the whites at Wits were not liberal or colorblind."

Next year, blacks will make up the majority of students. But racial strains remain, with blacks frequently feeling alienated.

"When some of these kids come to this university, they have never slept in a bed," Charlton said. "They come into a residence, and there is an enormous cultural switch, and to expect them to feel fully oriented, I think, is naive."

This commitment to nonracialism put Wits at odds for years with the Afrikaner-led National Party, which introduced apartheid, the policy of racial separation, after its election in 1948.

In 1959, the government extended apartheid to universities. Despite threats of closure, Wits and the University of Cape Town, which was also integrated, resisted.

In the early 1980s, the university's 1,500 black students began demonstrating. In his book "Wits: A University In An Apartheid Era," Professor Mervyn Shear recalls that during 1986 and 1987, police responded 52 times to unrest on campus. Again, Wits was threatened with closure for failing to crack down on protests.

Today, the challenges are of a different kind. Johannesburg has become a center of urban decay and violence, causing many parents to worry about sending their sons and daughters to Wits because of its location there.

There is concern over falling academic standards as admission criteria are lowered to admit disadvantaged students.

A cash crisis looms as more impoverished students require financial aid. And there is fear that pressure could force the government, which is committed to affirmative action to correct past inequities, to increase the number of entrants without increasing financial support.

Once again, Wits finds itself at the center of contention: What should an African university within the new South Africa be?

The man who helped begin and focus that debate is William Makgoba, a distinguished medical researcher who gained his doctorate in human immunogenetics at England's Oxford University and was a visiting associate at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda in the mid-1980s.

In 1994, Makgoba became one of four deputy vice chancellors at Wits, the first black and the first non-Wits graduate to hold such an elevated post at the university.

The Mandela government had just been elected. Filled with enthusiasm and vision, Makgoba took a salary cut from his position at a London medical school to come home to the land where, as a boy, he had worked as a shepherd.

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