University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba will chair the committee for its first three years, the minister said at a press briefing in Johannesburg.
"The purpose of the oversight committee is to monitor progress on transformation in public universities and to advise the minister on policy to combat racism, sexism and other forms of unfair discrimination," he said.
The committee will "advise the minister on policy to promote social cohesion and an institutional environment where every student and staff member can live, work and flourish free of … unfair discrimination".
The seven-member, permanent committee will engage with university councils and staff and student formations. It will analyse transformation frameworks at universities and their transformation indicators and targets.
The establishing of the committee is an outcome of the enquiry into racism at all universities that former education minister Naledi Pandor ordered in 2008, following the notorious so-called "Reitz affair" at the University of the Free State (UFS).
This centred on a video showing four white students in the then Reitz residence putting five black workers through humiliating "initiation" rituals. The video, which caused a national outcry when it surfaced in 2008, included footage the students filmed of a white student apparently urinating on food that the workers were then forced to eat.
Pandor appointed Crain Soudien, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, to head her ministerial committee on tertiary racism. Soudien's report included the recommendation that the minister establish a permanent oversight committee on university transformation.
At the press briefing, Nzimande referred to other initiation practices still in practice today at some universities. "[I have] been picking up on this thing called initiation. It has no place in a democratic South Africa … it is very abusive… it can take racial forms," he said.
Announcing the committee's members, Nzimande paid tribute to Makgoba's transformation credentials, adding that the UKZN vice-chancellor "has scars, by the way, like many of us …"
Makgoba later told the Mail & Guardian that these "scars" refer to battles he has had "that go to the heart of change in South Africa".
He specified "my experience at the University of the Witwatersrand" as deputy vice-chancellor in the mid-1990s. "That was about transformation at the university. It was not a pleasant experience but it was useful because those issues of racism are still current."
The University of Witwatersrand was convulsed for about two years at the time by a bitter scandal initiated when a group of white academics – "I believe they called [them] the Gang of 13", Makgoba told the M&G – accused him of falsifying his CV.
Makgoba's struggle at the time was widely interpreted as an attempt by entrenched white university powerbrokers to maintain their privilege by subduing an intellectually accomplished and outspoken black academic.
Controversy pursued Makgoba when he subsequently became vice-chancellor of UKZN. In a 2005 M&G comment piece headlined "Wrath of dethroned white males", he wrote: "Certain white males exhibit all the symptoms of the dethroned male baboon."
Referring to the article at Wednesday's briefing, he told the M&G that it highlighted the racial tensions and contradictions that exist in South African society today.
Nzimande also announced the names of the six members who will form the new committee under Makgoba's leadership. They are:
- Mvuyo Tom (vice-chancellor of the University of Fort Hare);
- Nazeema Mohamed (transformation director at Wits);
- Zingiswa Losi (second deputy president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions);
- André Keet (director of the UFS's International Institute for Studies in Race, Reconcilliation and Social Justice);
- Shirley Walters (director for the Division of Lifelong Learning at the University of the Western Cape); and
- Joe Mpisi (first vice-president of the National Education Health and Allied Workers Union).