/ 14 October 2011

An institution that was almost stillborn

Walter Sisulu University’s struggles to survive financially and otherwise have a long history. But the merged university very nearly failed to be born at all, a recently published political memoir reveals.

Shortly after vice-chancellor Marcus Balintulo’s appointment in 2007 he spoke to the Mail & Guardian — and money was at the top of his mind. Born in the Eastern Cape himself, he spoke “feelingly about the layers of deprivation that afflict the region and, inevitably, the institution”, the M&G reported (Walter Sisulu University fights for survival”, March 23 2007).

“Walter Sisulu University services an extremely poor community and the need is so vast,” Balintulo said.

The merger nearly failed to get out of the starting blocks. As education minister from 1999 to 2004, Kader Asmal drove the lengthy process of tertiary mergers — from drawing board in 2000, through extensive negotiations with affected institutions and periods of public comment, to Cabinet approval in October 2003.

Asmal considered closing University of Transkei
In his recent memoir Politics in My Blood, published after his death earlier this year, Asmal reveals that he considered closing down the University of Transkei, the largest of the three institutions that came to form Walter Sisulu University.

“I was certainly thinking about it,” he writes, “or rather about using its infrastructure for other educational purposes, but Trevor Manuel, the finance minister, said to me: ‘You can’t close University of Transkei.’

“This became evident when Nelson Mandela called me on Christmas morning in 2001. ‘Kader,’ he said, ‘what are you doing with the University of Transkei? Why are you closing it down?'”

Asmal makes it clear this was one of many political interventions his merger plans across the country elicited — if not always as successfully as Mandela’s.

He refers to the “political hot potato” of “institutional rationalisation”, the early bureaucratic term for what would more bluntly become known as mergers. There would be “high stakes involved and [a] political minefield that would have to be navigated”, Asmal ­accurately prophesised.

Asmal consulted with ANC and alliance structures nationally and provincially on these plans. “It was in the Eastern Cape that the mood was antagonistic and it was clear that daggers had been drawn,” he writes. A harbinger of things to come?