On December 9 2002, then-minister of education Professor Kader Asmal hailed Cabinet’s decision to approve the final proposals for restructuring the institutional landscape of higher education as ‘the beginning of a new era for higher education in South Africa”.
The sector had suffered an identity crisis, the effects of poor human capital and research production, fragmentation along race lines and a structural incapacity to meet the rigorous challenges of global knowledge competition, reconstruction and development.
An assessment of the inefficiency, duplication and inequity in South Africa’s tertiary education system prompted three South African academics (J Fedderke, R de Kadt, J Luiz, 2003) to describe the system from 1910 to 1993 as a ‘dead-weight structure”, rather than a ‘capstone” to South Africa’s educational system — as it should be.
‘The university sector’s experience,” the authors contend, ‘shows that discrimination is not necessarily cheap — not only in the form of forgone development opportunities but simply in the absolute cost of running a racially segregated tertiary educational system.”
Under these circumstances, change was vital for the survival of the higher education sector.
Professor Crain Soudien’s report, Transformation and Social Cohesion and the Elimination of Discrimination in Public Higher Education Institutions (2008), confirms these findings and, taken to its brutal and logical conclusion, white male academics should take full responsibility for the racism and inefficiencies entrenched within the system.
The UKZN merger brought a new vigour and hope to Africans (who make up 80% of the 10-million population in KwaZulu-Natal) in reclaiming ourselves in the province where we often found ourselves to be second-class citizens, marginalised by the colonial and apartheid-derived dominance of whites and later by Indians.
Both merger partners were openly committed to transformation, equity and the new South Africa, but the way in which these commitments were translated at the coalface often resulted in the continued alienation and marginalisation of Africans. Hence the atrocious academic staff equity profiles, the alienation and ‘revolving door” phenomenon for African staff.
The universities’ stated commitment did not match reality on the ground. The more the talk of commitment to transformation and equity, the more appointments and promotions one noticed of Indian and white males.
As we entered the merger, UKZN inherited, in general, an African staff that was hopeful and optimistic and a white and Indian staff that was, to varying degrees, angry, fearful and even opportunistic. There existed a situation of ‘low trust” between the different race groups within and between the merger partners.
The name of the new institution became a make-or-break issue in late May 2003 when the Daily News reported that Dr Saths Cooper (vice-chancellor of Durban-Westville) had suggested that the new university should be called the Walter Sisulu University.
Six days later, The Witness reported that consensus on the name between the two universities would be delayed after UDW indicated at a meeting of the joint naming committee that it needed more time to prepare.
The Witness of June 26 reported that the two institutions would be making separate submissions on the name of the new institution to Asmal.
The question of who would lead the new institution, first raised in the Daily News of April 2 2003, nearly derailed the merger process. It noted that I had candidly indicated my intention to run for the position of vice-chancellor.
Despite growing support for the merger, there were formidable logistical difficulties.
The size of the institution — numbers of staff and students (more than 40 000 and 5 000 respectively) — as well as its location on five campuses provided challenges for the leadership.
In 2004, senate and council approved the adoption of a college model as the preferred organisational structure for UKZN.
The main feature of the model is that it provides an appropriate structure to facilitate the devolution of core academic and administrative functions.
The college model adopted by the university represents a major transformation achievement towards the creation of a single, unified institution free of past history.
A common theme underpinning the success of the merger was a decisive and cooperative form of leadership.
The relationship of the council and the executive with the national department of education proved vital in guiding the merger. The university was fortunate to have exceptional student leadership.
The appointment of a new, young and demographically diverse leadership in the deanery, heads of schools and the senate became crucial as they tackled the real work of merging faculties, realigning programmes and transforming the curriculum.
We learnt that accountable and directive leadership was more important than collegiality during the early phase in guiding the merger to success in a highly contested environment of ‘low trust” and inequity.
For UKZN to succeed in achieving its goal of creating a ‘truly South African university” and to be ‘the premier university of African scholarship”, two critical processes needed to occur.
First, we needed to identify and address a variety of racial and cultural issues and challenges.
Second, definition and form needed to be given to the concept of ‘a truly South African university” and ‘African scholarship” — and what these implied for the knowledge and organisational culture of the institution.
This conceptual elucidation needed to be accompanied by the development of clear and effective implementation strategies that, above all, addressed the closer linkage and engagement of the university with communities.
Attention to these fundamentals through, among many other initiatives, the establishment of offices for organisational culture and student governance resulted in a conflictfree and stable transition.
The real transformation challenge for building a non-racial learning environment is to confront and eliminate the current pernicious and dominant conservative, medieval, monastic and racist notions about a university and knowledge production that often masquerade as liberalism and to eliminate the protection of standards often perpetuated by mediocre and research unproductive white males from all institutions of higher learning.
Human resources remain the largest outstanding challenge of the merger. The process of populating the new structures in the support sector has proved cumbersome and fraught with difficulty.
Progress in key areas such as the harmonisation of benefits has been slow and the conditions of service agreed to earlier have to be reviewed and revisited in line with high academic performance imperatives.
The realignment of the university’s 10-year strategy with the budget is necessary to secure and deepen the gains that have so far occurred.
Cultural differences on each of the campuses tend to be compounded by race. These lingering tensions are open to exploitation by those with vested interests.
Ideally, the diversity that characterises the new institution is one of its great strengths. This diversity is being turned into a positive ingredient of our transformation.
But we still witness segregation among black and white students. There exist differing interpretations of equity and transformation.
There can be no question that UKZN has accomplished the objectives set by Asmal. There is commitment from staff and students to ensure UKZN transcends these challenges and continues towards achieving its vision of being the premier university of African scholarship.
This article draws on an article published by the Leadership Foundation’s (for Higher Education) Engage magazine Issue 14:2008