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An ongoing process of discovery

The book Becoming UWC: Reflections, Pathways and the Unmaking of Apartheid’s Legacy is published as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the establishment of the University of the Western Cape.

Many, in fact, I suspect most, institutions faced with such an occasion would have called in the public relations department to produce a glossy coffee-table book, titled something like UWC: An African University for an International Future, with ­pictures of student computer laboratories, the new life sciences building, well-dressed corporate graduates, victorious sports teams and so on.

What the university did instead was to give two of its scholars from the Centre for Humanities Research the task of producing a book that reflected on its history. These two, centre director Premesh Lalu and Noëleen Murray, assembled a team of independent-minded, some might even say often downright otherwise-minded, ­academics to think about what such a volume might entail.

Lalu and Murray were clear about what they did not want to do. As they say in the preface, they did not want to “reproduce an account in a ­triumphalist narrative of the ­shedding of the yoke of oppression, or simply cast aside the [University of the Western Cape’s] history of struggle and distress by naming its many and substantial achievements against all odds”. Their concern was more ­ambitious and far-reaching, but also more nuanced.

They wanted to use this moment to reflect, in substantive ways, on the very grounds of what it meant, and means, to be a university in this ­context; indeed, to rethink the notion of the university in South Africa.

Something our rector, Professor Brian O’Connell, constantly stresses is the importance of “sense-making” — careful consideration of implications, consequences and the bases for questions or assumptions.
As he says, it is fundamental to our survival as a species.

Sense-making means not just asking the difficult questions; it means, especially, the prior phase of considering what questions we should be asking of whom and how they should be framed.

Let us start with the title. Becoming UWC is in the present continuous tense. It does not suggest a point of arrival or a point of departure, but an ongoing process. What else can a university be, considering that know-ledge is always in motion or flow and our contexts change with astonishing speed?

One of the things that the book charts with candour about the university’s failures, as well as pride in its successes, is the nimbleness with which it has had to adapt to new challenges.

Universities are always caught in the tension between tradition, rule and stasis, which allows them to be statutory degree-conferring institutions recognised within and beyond their borders, and change, innovation and a healthy disrespect for convention, tradition and established ways of doing and thinking, which are pretty much what makes them institutions of research.

Becoming UWC is a title that foregrounds this but also many other concerns, including that our university’s own political history may inadvertently have led it into assumptions about knowledge, power and academic work that can be disabling or conservative. Lalu and Murray argue that this was because the struggle against apartheid education at the university “failed to come to terms with the ­subtle ways in which ideas of race permeated the apparatus of knowledge”.

Taking the debate beyond the University of the Western Cape, the book points out — cogently at this time when we are debating the status of the humanities and social sciences at a national level — that “advances in technological developments at the institutional site of the university were given prominence — with the demands of the developmental state, without consideration of what kind of social subject was being revealed in these developments.

“To fall prey to the either/or choices of the humanities and sciences,” Lalu and Murray continue, “a feature that in our view has impacted detrimentally on the North American academy, is to ­forfeit the opportunity to assess the way in which the pervasive logic of race buoys the knowledge apparatus.”

The subtitle of the book, Reflections, Pathways and Unmaking Apartheid’s Legacy, hints that its modalities are going to be rather different from those of much writing on higher education, which can be by turns turgid, fanciful or self-congratulatory. In this book we are led into the realms of the unexpected, speculative, textual and textural, as well as the hard-nosedly analytical, as various colleagues past and present — Julia Martin, Ciraj Rassool, Neil Myburgh, Leslie Witz, Patrick Cullinan, Keith Gottschalk and Maurits van Bever Donker — reflect on the past, present and future of the university. The result is a book that is serious, though not solemn, and has significant implications for all of us who are engaged with university work, whether in the subcontinent, the continent, the global South, or anywhere else.

The cover of the book shows the university’s entrance, which is highly suggestive — a gateway giving access to who knows what, as the editors note. The structure of the gate may be regarded as fanciful or menacing, possibly both, and the mist may be that of dreams, tear gas or smog. The apartheid state had clear ideas about what the “place” of the university was and was for: it was part of the official strategy of its grand schema.

But as the theorist Michael de Certeau has shown us in his book The Practice of Everyday Life, human inventiveness, agency, cunning or simple bloody-mindedness often employs the mobility of the tactic against the immovability of the strategy and so transforms the bureaucratic, legislated space into the living, breathing place — in the case of the University of the Western Cape a place of knowledge, hope and growth.

The university’s space, place and its textures and textualities are the subject of Martin’s essay in the book. There is an extraordinary photographic essay by Ingrid Masondo featuring a reflective piece by Van Bever Donker. Some articles combine autobiographical reflection with rigorous academic analysis — those by Lalu and Rassool, for instance.

There is engagement with the architecture, planning and design of the campus in Murray’s essay. Myburgh reflects on three decades of the dental school offering care at the university and to the surrounding communities; his essay interweaves historical roots and root canals.

There is an essay on memory and memorialisation by Witz and poems by Gottschalk, Wendy Woodward, Arthur Nortje and Cullinan, all interspersed with photographs and reproductions of historical documents.

The book reflects the complexities of the human story of the University of the Western Cape. I commend it as a fine set of historical engagements, a visual treat and a read that will delight and provoke.

Duncan Brown is dean of the ­faculty of arts at the University of the Western Cape. This is an edited ­version of his speech at last month’s launch of the book Becoming UWC: Reflections, Pathways and Unmaking Apartheid’s Legacy, edited by Premesh Lalu and Noëleen ­Murray and published by the university’s Centre for ­Humanities Research

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