Asmal’s biography sheds light on lessons that go unlearned

Day One
After a blueberry muffin and a cup of tea, my regular practice in the departure lounge of Cape Town airport, I hesitate before buying a copy of the late Kader Asmal’s autobiography, Politics in My Blood.

This is a quick read for an extraordinary life: the “grandson of India”, the impoverished childhood in Stanger, the student teacher, the rural schoolmaster, the lonely journey to the London School of Economics, the (obviously) happy marriage to Louise, the Trinity College years, home again, University of the Western Cape (UWC), successively minister of water (a great success), then education (less so), the private citizen, Louise’s conclusion and their son, Adam’s, afterglow.

Given this rich life, it’s not surprising that Asmal’s politics was filled with rhetorical devices: sometimes it was Kader the schoolteacher; then Kader the self-deprecating Irishman and whisky connoisseur; then Kader, the human-rights lawyer; and, most famously, the Kader who made the nation understand that water should matter most.

We’d often lunched together at UWC at a raucous table where left-leaning academics and soon-to-be-Cabinet members broke bread, told jokes and prepared to govern. We were all (in Dylan Thomas’s phrase) as innocent as strawberries. Asmal was a fierce debater and, interestingly, took on many bizarre causes. His best (at UWC, at least) was that he, an inveterate smoker, moved the motion in the university senate to ban smoking on campus.

Apart from the antipathy towards Thabo Mbeki — “his quiet authoritarianism — overawed the executive branch” — there are a few juicy bits in the book, the Virodene scandal included, until he gets to higher education. And then things get seriously depressing.

For one thing, it seems that Mbeki was “not opposed to the idea of a solely teaching university”. For another, the decision on the infamous institutional mergers was taken in Asmal’s Rosebank house, with his senior officials. The minister was ill, but fortified himself with a stiff whisky that was strictly against doctor’s orders before they decided it was all systems go. And for the coup de grâce, the Cabinet decision on the mergers was made without a discussion, let alone a vote.

Mbeki, Asmal reports, was out of the room and Jacob Zuma was in the chair. Then, “(w)ith a twinkle in his eye”, Trevor Manuel said: “Excuse me, chair, but I think we have heard Minister Asmal speak on these proposals at length. I suggest we accept them.” They did.

It beggars all belief that the most important decision on higher education in South Africa since the nominal founding of the University of Cape Town in 1829 was made without a debate in Cabinet.

Over insipid tea in the routine South African Airways’ paper cup and Johannesburg’s lights twinkling below, I wonder how seriously, beyond the usual oratorical stuff that Asmal did so well, the political class takes higher education.

Day Two
In Bloemfontein’s beautiful morning light, I struggle to get into the Bakeresque main building of the University of the Free State. The large wooden doors behind the Anton von Wouw statue of President Steyn are bolted. I knock. A polite man opens. Seems I’m early. Fifteen minutes later a rush fills the once cavernous passages. Quickly I’m drawn towards the smell of coffee, which is my cue for a cup of tea.

The vice-chancellor arrives to run one of his pet projects. There’s an excited hush. We all move into a room with a long oval table. Jonathan Jansen asks me to join him. His kind introduction unsettles me. But it is what follows that takes my breath away.

Gathered around the table are this institution’s young, best and brightest, its “prestige scholars”, as they’re called. They’re on the first rungs of the academic ladder, in the last stages of the PhD or post-doctorates or lecturers at the lift-off stage.

Experience suggests this is the most vulnerable moment in any academic career, that space where, so very often, the most talented get lured away because the irresistible purse persuades them to cross to the proverbial dark side. So, they need institutional nurturing, the nurturing that often fails to come from seniors in their own fields or indeed, their own departments.

Each in this room will briefly present their respective research — literally from Afrikaans to zoology — and the group, under the personal tutelage of their vice-chancellor, asks and answers questions on the research and, more importantly, discusses ­hiccups in the securing of their ­professional lives.

After an hour with these bright young things — I hear only two of 20 conversations — it becomes plain that it is in a session like this where the future of the university (and, indeed, higher education) is secured.

Day Three
Place names are always revealing: “Victory Park” in Johannesburg must surely have been proclaimed (and named) in the aftermath of World War II. But I think this only because the very next suburb is called “Roosevelt Park”, named, I presume, for America’s 32nd president, who died as that war ended.

My destination is St Augustine’s College, Victory Park, to give a talk on the humanities. Unlike so many others in the country, this campus is no industrial site — the buildings are dominated by a chapel. No surprise, really, as this place was built, probably in the mid-1960s, as a convent for the Holy Family Sisters.

Some old friends, who happen to be non-Catholics, are on the staff. Raph de Kadt, the political theorist and a truly gifted teacher of politics, and Charles Simpkins, the celebrated South African economist and demographer, who is considered one of the country’s finest minds. These two and other members of St Augustine’s staff have abandoned the mainstream for an entirely different — let’s call it, revisionist — way of delivering higher education. This turns on intimate contact and individual attention between teacher and student. The key lies in small classes; the average size at St Augustine’s is 20 students.

The talk goes well. Interesting questions are asked, with one student putting in a strong word for the importance of history. Who can disagree with him? Asmal didn’t. As minister of education, he launched a short-lived series of lectures on the importance of the humanities that was opened by the celebrated South African-born historian Shula Marx.

Over quiche for lunch, we briefly turn to Asmal who, it seems, wasn’t keen on St Augustine’s at the time of its founding and his successors don’t seem particularly interested, either. The institution gets no government subsidy on the back of the success of its students, the staff of St Augustine’s has no access to National Research Foundation funding and its students have no right to money from the state’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

But every degree — indeed, every course — it offers has to be accredited with the Council on Higher Education.

As Simpkins wryly comments: “We have the right to exist and the government has the right not to give us money.” So, funding is a continuous jostle.

Yet it has an excellent throughput rate and the accredited publications per head of staff are among the best in South Africa. What is it in this country that fails to recognise that in higher education, what really matters is not politics, the economy or bureaucratic power, but quality graduates and top-class research? St Augustine’s produces both in spades.

Peter Vale is professor of humanities at the University of Johannesburg. His new book, Keeping a Sharp Eye: A Century of Cartoons on South Africa’s International Relations, was published recently.

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