/ 4 October 2011

Views from the top floor

Views From The Top Floor

There was another graduation-day surprise apart from President Jacob Zuma: I was a VIP invited to a special lunch on the rarefied 11th floor of Senate House.

When I asked why I was a VIP, a professor at our table said it happened when you had notched up an award or some achievement during the course of your study.

So I realised I’d been invited because I won a R6 000 prize in a cross-faculty symposium competition on — yes — Zapiro and Zuma (again).

The 11th floor was impressive. It had beautiful paintings and everything was polished and dust-free. A lightly humorous speech by Professor Mamokgethi Setati, head of Wits’s convocation, suggested the university was keen to get its competitive edge back.

Deputy vice-chancellor Yunus Ballim made an impression too, giving me the sense that Wits was on the up, keen to recapture its former glory when it was regarded as one of the top universities in the world — as it still is in some areas, such as engineering.

Ballim proudly mentioned the new art gallery Wits was building. I was impressed: despite rumours I’d heard that some academics were unhappy about funding going into investments when their salaries had not increased, Wits was investing in its art collection.

After about half an hour in this private dining room, with friendly waiters pouring fairly good wine and a huge glass window overlooking the splendid Nelson Mandela Bridge in Braamfontein, I turned to my sister, Desiree Daniels. She was one of my four guests and, as a lecturer at Wits, has management lunches from time to time on the 11th floor.

“This place has a weird feeling, a sense of déjà vu,” I said to her. “I feel like I’ve been here before but I couldn’t have been a VIP —”

She started laughing: “Yes, you have. We were both here as part of the whole Black Students Society [BSS] executive for a disciplinary hearing. It was 1988, I think.”

In a flash it came back. I was an undergraduate at Wits in the mid to late 1980s. Some of us tried to foil a BSS plan to kidnap “the enemy”, then Democratic Party leader Zac de Beer, who was due to talk in the Great Hall. In another incident, we tried to put out a burning effigy of another “enemy”, Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi.

So we were summoned to the 11th floor for a disciplinary hearing because of the mayhem caused by some of our members. Our “prosecutors” were the then vice-chancellor Robert Charlton and deputy vice-chancellor Mervyn Shear.

Now we were sipping the university establishment’s wine and enjoying its art collection.