The embattled Centre for Civil Society at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) will not go down without a fight. So vowed its director, Professor Patrick Bond, after a university announcement that the centre is to be closed.
However, the university has back-pedalled and now says no final decision has been taken.
“We will fight for survival and the centre will emerge strengthened and hopefully more autonomous within this institution, as recommended in a university research review,” Bond told the Mail & Guardian. “Since it opened in 2002, the centre has become important to Durban.”
The announcement that the centre will close has sparked local and international condemnation.
The South Durban Community Environmental Alliance, representing schools, women’s groups and subsistence farmers, said that if the “devastating” closure went ahead “you will see us at the homes of these decision-makers, challenging them”.
The centre gives advice and has been a home for learning by impoverished people, the alliance said.
Immanuel Wallerstein, a senior sociologist at the United States’s prestigious Yale University and a former president of the International Sociological Association, told UKZN head of corporate relations, Professor Dasarath Chetty, in an email that he is “appalled” to learn of the centre’s imminent demise.
Wallerstein said the centre is UKZN’s “single most prestigious activity” and “the jewel in its crown”.
“Those of us who try to follow what is going on in South Africa have come to rely upon [it] as the best single source of wide information. Closing it down would not only damage severely UKZN’s reputation but would set back research worldwide on contemporary South Africa.”
The centre draws hundreds of low-income community residents to campus each month through its Harold Wolpe lecture series and other events.
Dean of humanities Professor Donal McCracken informed staff that the centre would close at the end of December, according to a report in Durban’s Mercury newspaper. Bond would resume his tenured chair in the school of development studies, which hosts the centre, McCracken said, and all other staff contracts would be terminated.
McCracken is said to have read out a letter signed by deputy vicechancellor Fikile Mazibuko.
However, Chetty told the Mercury: “This is incorrect information.” Only the university council could close the centre and Mazibuko knew nothing about the decision, he said.
On the contrary, Bond said, 30 people had heard the letter being read to them. The reason he and his colleagues were given for the closure was that “the long-term financial viability of the centre was not secure, that we do not have permanent funding in perpetuity”.
But he said: “We witnessed an unusual degree of hostility earlier, such as vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba’s 2005 banning of Ashwin Desai from doing even voluntary research work at the centre.”
Bond said the centre was one of the most productive units in UKZN, with 50 refereed publications a year since 2005.
The university research review, released in February, was not altogether flattering to the centre, however. It points out that until 2006 there was tension over research priorities and output between staff of the centre and of the school of development studies.
The review recommends the centre be made a more independent entity within its host school or that the school of sociology and social studies be a potential host. Another option is that the centre could become autonomous, with the director answerable to a faculty board and keeping channels open to the school of development studies.
Bond said: “We have half a dozen donors who say they will continue to fund us. Ideally we would like to stay where we are, in Howard College. But if the authorities intend to evict us we think we might readily find another institutional base.”
He said that local and international support has been pouring in and that the job losses after closure would affect the university’s employment equity goals.
A source who did not want to be named said the centre, through its advocacy and human rights work, has been a thorn in the flesh of KwaZulu-Natal and national government and is viewed by some of UKZN’s management as being too left-wing.
Bond had, for example, provided expert testimony in the recent case in which the Johannesburg High Court ruled Johannesburg Water had violated the constitutional right of access to free water by installing prepaid meters in Soweto.
The university responds
Chetty told the M&G that on the basis of the review and of discussions between senior academics, it was recommended that the centre “will cease to exist in its current form at the end of 2008 due to questions surrounding the sustained financial viability of the centre and the appropriateness of the way in which it is currently structured as an academic unit.
“It was recommended that a refocused civil society programme be established and integrated into the school of development studies. All programmes within the university are located in schools and are led by a programme coordinator.
“It was further recommended that contracts of all the staff at the centre — are to be honoured until they expire at the end of this year. They may then apply for other positions within the university should they choose to do this.
“These recommendations are presently being discussed in university structures, notably, the Centre for Civil Society, the faculty board, the academic affairs board and council. After following these internal processes, council will take the final decision on the centre. Only council has the power to establish and dissolve centres of the university.”