Thursday, May 6, 2010

The University of the Witwatersrand

Stan and I are described in the book blurbs as “retired university professors” (which we are). In my case the university is the University of the Witwatersrand. This is likely to elicit the response: Wit what? The name means “ridge of white water” which is odd because water doesn’t run on ridges that much. The ridge in question runs east to west through the province of Gauteng which contains the major cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. It is important geologically and geographically. The white water running off the ridge to the north ends up in the Indian Ocean while the water running south ends up in the Atlantic. The “rand” part is celebrated in the name of South Africa’s currency.

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.

The universities protested to the government, made public demonstrations, spoke out. A few small concessions were squeezed out. Where appropriate courses were not offered at “black” universities, permits could be issued for non-white students to study at the white universities. Often they were admitted and then changed to other courses. Similar restrictions applied to staff. Some loopholes were found to allow them to continue their work.

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.

During this period, those academics and administrators who stayed at Wits had to walk a narrow line between support for the students and the principles of freedom the university espoused and having the university descend into chaos and collapse as an academic institution. Very often called upon to mediate between the student protesters and the police, the university leadership had little peace. Sometimes the student protesters would try to force others to join by disrupting classes and intimidating lecturers. The goal was clear, but the methods far removed from the sort of values which the university was trying to defend. Yet through this, Wits developed and maintained an international reputation in many areas. Paleoanthropology is just one example. The university survived intact, and today the student body pretty well reflects the demographics of the province of Gauteng.
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.


  1. I, too, am a Witsie - received my B.Sc. there in 1970 in Statistics.


  2. It is interesting that students, trying to maintain the principles they are developing as they mature,are so often the victims of the violent overreaction of those opposing their point of view.

    One of the iconic images of the Vietnam War is a picture of a girl kneeling next to the body of a young man who had just been shot by the Ohio National Guard. There had been demonstrations at Kent State University in Ohio for a few days. On April 30,1970, Nixon had announced that the US invasion of Cambodia. On Monday, May 4, a large demonstration of over 5000 students protested the invasion. The Ohio National Guard was called in to break up the demonstration. They fired tear gas but the wind was blowing in the wrong direction so it had no effect. Although no one was ever identified as having given the order, the guard then began firing on the protesters, killing four and wounding nine.

    The incident sparked riots, demonstrations and marches at colleges all over the United States. Five days after the shooting, 100,000 people arrived in Washington, DC to protest the killings at Kent State.

    The young woman in the picture was actually a 14 year-old runaway from Florida. The picture was taken by a photojournalism student, John Filo. He was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. He has worked for the Associated Press and Newsweek and is now employed by CBS.

    It is hard to believe that it happened 40 years ago this week. I was just out of college so missed the demonstrations but there were few campuses that didn't have some sort of memorial or protest over students, armed with rocks and empty tear-gas canisters, being shot at by well-armed military units. It seems rock-throwing young people are still fair game in some parts of the world.


  3. I’m moved deeply by Michael’s brief history of Wits. By upholding the principles of academic and personal freedom, Wits led the way in a country racked by transgressions. As the major university in Johannesburg, it was important that Wits played an exemplary role in upholding academic freedom and minimising disruption of learning through those difficult and volatile Apartheid years. And as Wits academics, we faced daily the difficulties Michael describes. Common purpose and determination gave us all the strength to keep working through angry chanting and toi-toing in our corridors and classrooms, police encircling and invading our campus, and helicopters circling our buildings...

    Wits is a lively open place now, thanks to those leaders of vision, Michael among them. And having helped lead Wits through those difficult years, it is to his credit that a “retired” Michael has returned to give more service there - as both a dedicated teacher and top level research grant winner.

    I too will always be a Witsie...

    But my choice has been different. The simple fact is that I have daughters whom I want to be safe in the street and in their homes. That’s a tall ask for Johannesburg. Our friends and their homes in Jhb attacked by burglars with machine guns, this (cowardly?) third generation African felt driven out. I left for the safety of another country.

    But I visit often.

    Alan Paton’s great novel, “Cry, the Beloved Country” , was published by Scribners in New York, and Jonathan Cape in London on the eve of the darkest architecture of Apartheid. Its strong cries of social protest were penned while he was head of the Diepkloof Penitentiary for delinquent African boys. It’s a compelling read... an argument for grace and forgiveness as the only way to peace and forgiveness. Mandela and Tutu were not alone in that.

    The themes and title haunt my soul daily, as does my homesickness for the Beloved Country. And my soul cries out still for grace and forgiveness still.

    But every bone in my body aches for the time when the South African system has the strength and resources to find and bring before the Law criminals who prey on the innocent.

    I know Wits fights for that.