The goings-on at the University of Durban-Westville have all the ingredients of a spy novel, reports Philippa Garson
The plot twists and turns in a most confusing way, the players are not what they appear to be, and power struggles and mysterious attacks and subterfuge are the order of the day at the University of Durban-Westville.
Members of staff have received death threats, had their offices and homes burgled, been at the receiving end of vicious smear campaigns and have effectively been chased off campus. The conflict is polarising the university along racial lines and bringing the campus to a halt.
UDW rector Marcus Balintulo, who has taken steps to ensure his own safety after receiving threats, said unless a commission of inquiry exposed the root cause of the conflict, which is polarising the campus along racial lines—with African students (now a majority on campus) and Asian administrative staff seemingly pitted against each other—the viability of the campus was endangered.
Now local press reports are pointing fingers at renegade intelligence agents from the former regime as the culprits behind the campus’ destabilisation.
The central protagonists involved in the most recent conflict are the head of the sociology department, Argentinian Ronaldo Munck (who has the support of the outgoing SRC and many students and academics) and a lecturer in the department, Ashwin Desai. Desai has the support of the Combined Staff Association (Comsa), which represents the interests of the mainly Asian and non-academic university employees.
The conflict between Munck and Desai feeds into existing tensions between African students eager to transform the university from an apartheid-based institution for Asians to one more reflective of the country’s demography, on the one hand, and a section of predominantly Asian, non-academic staff members anxious to retain their jobs, on the other.
The Mail & Guardian has been reliably informed that the National Intelligence Agency—which openly came on to the campus to investigate the cause of the conflict—has pinpointed Desai as the central destabilising agent on the campus. The NIA report is currently in the hands of the education ministry.
Conflict developed between the two men when Munck arrived on campus last year and—along with five other academics—openly criticised the workings of Comsa. Then came the intimidation and threats and mobilisation of students against him, and Munck stepped down as head of department. Students and staff have since come out in support of him and he has been reinstated.
But, after being threatened, burgled, having his car tyres slashed repeatedly and being forced into hiding, Munck is in no mood to stay around. He is leaving UDW to take up a post in the United Kingdom.
Desai, beaten up by unknown people in August after he came out in support of the Asian catering staff, against student demands to bring in a private catering company to cook traditional African food, is also in and out of hiding. He has been accused by several sources of being intent on destabilising the university to keep it out of the ANC’s control and to stall its path towards transformation.
These sources allege that the attacks on Munck are simply the latest in a series of attacks orchestrated by Desai and his supporters in Comsa on a string of academics who have since left the campus—including Mala Singh, Mike Sutcliffe and S’bu Ndebele.
Desai himself has been the victim of racist slanders for defending the interests of the mainly Asian workforce on campus. Desai admits to being “a stirrer”, but categorically denies playing a destabilising role on campus and believes he is being targeted for supporting the workers on campus.
Meanwhile, Munck has been branded by other, anonymous sources, as working for the existing National Intelligence Agency to marginalise left-wing, “Trotskyite” opponents of the Government of National Unity associated with Comsa. Munck scoffs at this, but admits to co-operating with the NIA agents who openly came onto campus to investigate the problems.
* Garson has received a number of intimidating phone calls while researching this story.
A confidential internal commission of inquiry into the events on campus over the past few months, leaked to the Mail & Guardian, recommends that Desai be “subject to disciplinary proceedings” for gaining access to and misusing confidential university records and for allegedly inciting students and defaming, among others, former UDW rector Jairam Reddy. It also recommends that disciplinary action be taken against Desai’s ally, Evan Mantzaris (Comsa’s general secretary), for threatening to fail students for siding with Munck, and against Munck himself, for breaching the university’s rules against speaking to the press.