Friday, December 05, 2008

The wrecking of a university

When Ernest Malherbe, then chief of Military Intelligence, was offered the Principalship of Natal University College in March 1945, he was still at the battle front in Italy.

He flew back home to consult his dearest friend and mentor, Jan Smuts.

As one of South Africa's leading intellectuals and also one of the prime minister's most trusted lieutenants, Malherbe had the choice of many plum jobs. NUC, with only 836 students was not a promising prospect.

It had no money, was merely a branch of Unisa and all the key decisions about it were taken in Pretoria. In any case, Malherbe pointed out, of all the provinces, he knew Natal least, having merely holidayed there a few times. Smuts too had no connections with Natal but he was in no doubt:

"Malherbe, I think you must go to Natal. Natal is still fallow land as far as university education is concerned." Durban was, he pointed out, a rich and growing city. Not only did it need a good university but South Africa needed Durban to have such a university. For Malherbe that was enough. Smuts was, after all, not only Chancellor of UCT but of Cambridge University too.

In March 1949 the university gained its full independent status - Smuts walked in full academic dress through the streets of Durban to the inauguration ceremony in the City Hall in the full summer heat that day, flanked by Malherbe and the mayor of Durban. Malherbe devoted the rest of his working life to the university, retiring only in 1965, aged 70, having tirelessly fund-raised and overseen the enormous expansion of the university, including a six-fold increase in students.

He also successfully fought the Nationalist government to keep the university multi-racial, including the only black medical school in Africa, an even more important institution to the formation of a black elite than Fort Hare.

The university had many ups and downs but there is no doubt
that it grew in both size and quality until well into the 1980s and in research output it had risen to a steady third place, with only Wits and UCT ahead of it.

But if you ask the older generation of academics, they all say that is when the university peaked. For the 1980s also saw increasing intolerance on campus: in effect it became a UDF-only zone, with all other schools of thought marginalised or bullied into silence.

This was a grave failing for, if it is to fulfil its mission the University of KwaZulu-Natal must be open to all the province's people and all schools of thought.

Nonetheless, by then the university had not only produced many fine scholars and become the province's major cultural centre but its graduates had achieved distinction around the world - and provided the province with
the bulk of its teachers, musicians, academics, lawyers, architects, engineers, chemists, life scientists of every kind, and many of its businessmen, accountants and doctors.

With the addition of the former UDW, other strengths were added in such fields as optometry and dentistry, and many others were reinforced. All this is now not only under threat but is being actively dismantled and at great speed. Many of the professional courses are near the point of collapse where they risk having their certification withdrawn.

There has been a vendetta against many distinguished medical academics which has gravely weakened the medical school.

On the campus at large freedom of speech is under threat, faculty meetings have been forbidden, academics are being threatened and intimidated, normal academic procedures are being ignored and the university is wasting enormous sums of money in employing lawyers to bully and pursue members of the academic staff.


Such things are incompatible with the very idea of a university. Inevitably, many academic staff have left, the university's traditional clientele has already deserted it and the complete destruction of the university is now in sight. The work and achievement of generations is being reversed.

Distress signals of every kind come pouring out of the campus. Its alumni around the world are conscious of the drama and are deeply concerned. The failure of universities in Africa is not uncommon but this is the first time that one of South Africa's leading liberal universities is on the casualty list.

This should be of grave and urgent concern to the province's political and civic leaders and, indeed, to all who live in the province, for you cannot run a modern society without a steady flow of well educated professionals.

Beyond that, it should be of urgent concern to the national government for the reasons which caused Smuts to send Malherbe to build up the university in 1945 are far stronger and more cogent now in the immensely more developed and more densely populated KwaZulu-Natal of today.

The Minister of Education, Naledi Pandor, has instituted a commission of inquiry into North West University but such a step is far more urgently needed at UKZN which is, after all, the country's third largest university after only to Unisa and the University of Pretoria.

For, as Smuts pointed out, it is not just that the province and its biggest city need a good university but South Africa as a whole needs them to have it too.

The time to act is already very late.

2 Opinion(s):

WHITEADDER said...

Time to urgently rename the university !!
Could think of many fitting names !
How about a competition ?

ThisIsAfrica said...

Why am I not surprised at this?

The black man, in general, is a cancer that will suck the goodness and life out of everything he touches.
Like a parasite he is unable to generate wealth and civilization and so attaches himself to those places where he can sustain himself until a point is reached where he has drained the value out of them and there is nothing left, and then everything dies including him.