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Sunday, August 23, 2009


For some years, I was content to focus my efforts solely on UDW, where Prem was doing so good a job of managing things, but eventually, during one of the periodic budget crises, he decided to take an early retirement package [as they call it in SA]. By this time, Mala and he had separated [for reasons that I have never been able to fathom], and she had moved on to an important post in the national education ministry working on Quality Assurance. [This is an enormous subject all its own, too complicated to go into here. Suffice it to say that it is a sort of bureaucratic institutional and programmatic certification process, very big around the world but not particularly important in the United States]. Prem, who despite his much less impressive educational credentials was always the more intellectual and thoughtful of the two, had made himself knowledgeable aboiut the subject, and secured a post at UNISA to work on Quality Assurance. Following him, I took my money to UNISA, and for a year or two tried rather unsuccessfully to integrate my efforts with their own rather lacksadaisical financial aid office.

During this time, Mala and Prem made the acquaintance of the newly appointed Rector of the QwaQwa campus of the University of the North, and after some long distance consultation, we decided to bring USSAS to QwaQwa in support of the new Rector's rather dramatic plans to transform that sleepy rural campus.

Olusegun Dipeolu, or Segun, as he was known, was a very curious man indeed. A Nigerian parisitologist with seemingly hundreds of publications, he hit the backwater QwaQwa campus like a tornado, immediately stirring up enormous controversy and hostility. QwaQwa was about as far from UWC or UDW as it was possible to get, academically, and still have any claim at all to the honorific "university." The campus sits in the shadow of the western slopes of the Drakensberg [QwaQwa, in Sotho, means "white white," and refers to the snow that sometimes gathers on the peaks of the mountains in the dead of winter -- an unusual enough occurrence in South Africa to warrant immortalizing in the campus name]. Although it was then officially a campus of the University of the North, hundreds of miles away, it actually lies in the middle of the Orange Free State, not far from Harrismith, and closer still to the Homelands community of Phuthaditjhaba [and you had better believe it took me a while to master that spelling!] At about the time we left QwaQwa, Kader Asmal rearranged things so that QwaQwa became a satellite campus of the University of the Orange Free State, a considerably more rational organizational plan. [The Orange Free State was perhaps the most obdurately segregated and repressive region of the old South Africa. Prem and Mala both remarked that prior to liberation, they would not have been allowed to stay over night in the province while driving from Johannesburg to Durban.]

The small campus was presided over, prior to Segun's arrival, by an old boy network of Boers who had scheduled the classes in the evening so that they could devote the daylight hours to their farms. Nothing remotely resembling research took place on the campus, and the students, drawn almost entirely from the Sotho and Zulu population of the area, were, to put it mildly, ill-served. Segun proposed to transform all of that, with a series of dictates and mandates designed to get the faculty teaching, crank up their research output, and put QwaQwa on the map.

For two years, Prem and I were enraptured by Segun's energy and ambition, but little by little, we concluded that his dreams for the campus were simply incompatible with the facts on the ground. A grandiose plan for a program in urban development and planning was undertaken, but nothing ever came of it. We grew increasingly uneasy about whether our money was being well used, and finally we pulled out of the campus, shortly before it joined the University of the Orange Free State. I did get something from the experience, however. Segun's wife, who was a very talented fabric designer, made two beutiful dashikis for me as gifts, and I wear them still on formal occasions.

We moved USSAS next to two campuses -- MEDUNSA and Cape Technikon. MEDUNSA is located in a rural section of Bophuthatswana, more or less northwest of Pretoria. We chose to bring some of our funds there as part of our first attempt to respond to the terrible HIV/AIDS epidemic then beginning its devastation of South Africa. The shocking, shameful, incomprehensible response of Mandela's successor, Thabo Mbeki, to the AIDS crisis had demoralized medical personnel and progressives generally in the country. For a long time, the White medical schools had been producing superbly trained White doctors who then took their skills abroad, leaving their countrymen and women unserved. We thought it made sense to offer support to Black medical students who could be counted on to stay in South Africa. For three years, we provided bursaries to five students each year, and by now, I trust, they are practicing as doctors somewhere in South Africa.

Cape Technikon was an historically White institution, extremely well endowed, that had for many years served the mostly Afrikaaner student body of the Western Cape province. However, an old friend from UDW, Marcus Balintulo, had been appointed the new Rector, and I hoped that my personal relationship with him would make it possible to gain entry to the campus and do some good work there. The experience, which was in many ways very disappointing, was an extraordinary window into the thinking of the entrenched Afrikaaner academic community -- the people I had called, in my commencement address at UDW, the "old crocodiles." The Deputy Vice Chancellor Academic -- roughly what we would call a provost on an American campus -- was a Boer named Koch who resisted every proposal put forward by Marcus to transform the campus. Because of the entrenched job security not only of the tenured faculty but also of the administrative officers, Marcus was able to do surprisingly little to change the place, despite being nominally the chief administrative officer. For several years I did my usual thing, offering bursaries and meeting with the students. But the deeply rooted problems of the campus only became clear to me during one visit, when by chance the administrator who accompanied me to the meeting with the students was called away, and I had a chance to talk with them privately. After a bit of hesitation, they opened up, and I learned some things about classroom practices that truly horrified me. These were African students, many from the Eastern Cape though some from other parts of South Africa. Their first languages were Zulu, Sotho, or Xhosa, and the language in which they had done their secondary school work was English. For the most part, they did not speak Afrikaans. The instructors were all Afrikaaners. Apparently, it often happened in a class session that a White or Coloured student would ask a question in Afrikaans. The instructor would reply in Afrikaans, and then proceed to teach the remainder of the class in that language, completely shutting out the African students. Came exam time, they were examined on materials that had been covered in a language they did not speak. When I told Marcus about this, he was astonished [but did nothing to rectify the situation].

During this time, Prem died suddenly of a heart attack. I was stunned and saddened, and totally at a loss to know what to do about USSAS. The organization was saved by an extraordinary woman, Sheila Tyeku, who stepped forward to fill Prem's shoes.

Tomorrw: UWC, DUT, and the Final Part of the Story

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