Unions target ‘racist’ North West University

Speeches by alliance leaders on Friday revealed that their resolve is that transformation of the North West University's (NWU) is intertwined to transformation of Potchefstroom. They used this strategy to campaign for the ANC for the upcoming bi-elections in the town and the 2014 national election.

The march, organised by National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (Nehawu), drew hundreds, including students and staff from the university's three campuses. A wave of red T-shirt clad marchers proceeded from the local taxi rank to NWU's administration headquarters under heavy police watch. Chants of "away with racism, away", dominated the march that called for the "immediate" resignation of Theuns Eloff, the university's vice-chancellor.

In a show of political force, leaders from Cosatu and its affiliates – the South African Communist Party, ANC, the ANC Youth League task team, the Young Communist League, Congress of South African Students and the South African Students' Congress, as well as the South African National Civic Organisation – each took turns addressing the crowd and lambasting the university's management. 

The overriding accusation against Eloff was that he has failed to transform the university into a racially inclusive one. The Potchefstroom campus was alleged to be a bastion of racism, more so than the university's Vaal and Mahikeng campuses.

Part of the racial anomalies the marchers levelled against NWU is that classes in the Potchefstroom campus are conducted in Afrikaans. Students who do not understand the language are given headsets, through which lectures are translated into English.

Range of demands
Louis Jacobs, the university's spokesperson, told the Mail & Guardian this translation system was "so successful that other universities in the country want to adopt it". PhD students did the translations, he said.

Among a range of demands, Nehawu's memorandum also called for the review of the university's language and admission policies. The top demand in the memorandum is that the university should allow an independent investigation into the mysterious drowning of first-year student Thabang Makhoang at the Potchefstroom campus last year.

The university's own investigation conducted by two advocates last year concluded that the drowning was an accident for which no one was at fault. Jacobs said the university's management has never blocked any independent investigation. A probe Minister for Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande called upon the Hawks to carry out three months ago was "not happening", said Jacobs.

The memorandum also called for the banning of outsourcing of services and reinstatement of black staff and students who were recently suspended or dismissed "unfairly" by the university. NWU's management was given a month to respond.

"If you [university management] are not going to respond favourably, this [march] is nothing. Next time we won't stop at the gate. We'll go inside and we'll make the institution ungovernable," Joe Mpisi, deputy president of Nehawu, told the crowd.

Mpisi travelled from Nehawu's national office to address the marchers. "We're not here because we have nothing to do. We are here because we want transformation at the university," he said. "We must never succumb to an apartheid method. We must never succumb to a minority rule."

Political developments
But, beyond demands for the university's transformation, speeches by alliance leaders linked the university to political developments in Potchefstroom.  Potchefstroom is now the centre of a new power-struggle between the ANC and the Democratic Alliance over control of its municipality, Tlokwe.

Referring to the recent voting out of Maphetle Maphetle as mayor of Tlokwe by his fellow ANC councillors, provincial secretary of Cosatu Solly Phetoe told the marchers: "We got some of our own comrades conniving with the DA. We know some of these things are planned here [at the Potchefstroom campus]."

For his part, Mpisi said while "the movement can remove Maphetle, it's fine", the municipality cannot be governed by a white person. He urged the crowd to ensure the ANC was returned into power in the municipality.

Phetoe said racism was rife at the university. He told the crowd he was previously appointed into the university's council, the highest governing body, by Nzimande. But, he said, "I didn't attend its meetings because of the racism in those meetings". Cosatu "want[s] to see this institution led by our black leader", said Phetoe.

Jacobs rejected the racism claims of the marchers as "unsubstantiated". He argued the university was transforming and the number of black students and staff had multiplied over the years.

"I think it's unfair to come and make sweeping statements of years of racism without going into details. A lot of the statements that have been made are completely unsubstantiated. There's not really information supporting all of that. We've got formal structures within the university to make sure each and every incident of racism is properly being investigated," said Jacobs.

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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