But be all that as it may, the university is known colloquially – and fondly – just as Wits (pronounced as though the W were a V, not as in living by your...) and staff and students (past and present) as Witsies.
I worked at Wits for twenty-five years before I left to join the geophysics and remote sensing section of a multinational mining company with the rather pretentious name of Anglo American. There was a variety of reasons for this move, but that’s another story. When I retired from Anglo American, Wits asked me to come back and continue some of the research activities we had pursued in the corporate environment. I was happy to do so. So I’m a retired university professor, but the “retired” doesn’t qualify “university professor”. English is an interesting language.
Wits: A city university
The university owes its existence – as does the city itself – to the gold mines. Johannesburg is a mining town. It sits on what was one of the richest gold ore bodies in the world. There is still a lot of gold in the Wits Basin (there’s that name again) but a lot of it is very deep, too deep. In 1896 it was decided to start a “school of mines” and the original location was in Kimberley – the town made famous by its diamond mines. The project was moved to Johannesburg in 1904 and it became a fully fledged university in 1922. A sore point is that a bequest from Cecil Rhodes was transferred to the University of Cape Town (UCT) on the grounds that “the school of mines will never amount to anything”. Wits and UCT have been rivals in a more or less friendly way ever since. But they stood together in the years when the National Party ruled South Africa. Both are English medium universities, and they saw their language and their values under threat with the change of government in 1947.
It’s important to realize that the National Party wasn’t responsible for racial discrimination. That was here already, inherited from colonial times. What they did was to institutionalize it. There was much to do, but eventually they got around to the universities. By that time there were a number of Afrikaans medium universities, four English Universities – Wits, UCT, Natal and Rhodes – and a black university – Fort Hare, which graduated some of South Africa’s great future leaders. In 1959 the government introduced the “Extension of University Education Act”. An attractive sounding name, and an apparently reasonable goal: to build new universities throughout the country to serve different groups. But the new universities were shams; low quality institutions with one major purpose: to segregate students into racial groups as with the rest of the country. The English language universities were appalled. They had already seen government money flood to new Afrikaans medium institutions – including one in Johannesburg deliberately designed to weaken Wits’ position there. Now there was to be a university for “colored” people (people of mixed race) in Cape Town, a university for Zulus in Natal, a university for the Batswana near what was then Mafeking, a university in the north for the Sotho people and so on. And, of course, with their needs met in this way, none of these students were to be allowed at the “white” universities.
A recent protest against xenophobia. Phillip Tobias leads with the Vice Chancellor, Loyiso Nongxa. For Phillip, it must have been like old times.
Wits and UCT in particular had been foci of student protest – white students on the whole protesting against the government’s policies – for many years. But the segregation of universities raised the stakes and added to the anger. Student demonstrations became more aggressive often leading to confrontations with the police. Demonstrations were only legal if an appropriate permit had been issued. Often such permits were withheld. Even more often the protesters refused to apply claiming this as just another instance of the government removing what they regarded as a right. The smell of tear gas permeated the campus on many afternoons. The new black universities were in a state of almost constant turmoil. In the nineties the segregation of universities was relaxed, and the influx of black students into the historically white universities intensified the protests. Perhaps it was here that the government started to see the huge letters on the wall.
Certainly the University made mistakes, perhaps should have done more to oppose the apartheid laws, perhaps compromised less. But in the face of what at the time seemed overwhelming odds, it held to its principles and its standards.
I guess I’ll always be a Witsie.
Michael – Thursday.