Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande this week expressed confidence that the new vice-chancellor-elect of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Albert van Jaarsveld, would continue the institution’s transformation agenda.
Some academics and student leaders expressed similar support for the appointment, but Nzimande’s own political allies in the province are downright sceptical about Van Jaarsveld.
The selection process included “wide consultation, including on issues relating to transformation”, Nzimande told the Mail & Guardian. And, even though universities are not compelled to update him on such appointments, he was briefed on the process followed for Van Jaarsveld.
“My hope is that, given the fact that the person was agreed upon by the entire selection team, they would have considered that he will take the institution’s whole transformation project forward. I was made to believe that the selection process was also very intensive.”
Chief executive of the National Research Foundation since 2009, Van Jaarsveld will succeed Malegapuru Makgoba in January.
But Themba Mthembu, secretary of the South African Communist Party in KwaZulu-Natal, said: “We don’t know and are not sure whether his appointment will actually move transformation forward. We have our doubts.”
Nzimande is national general secretary of the party.
“It’s not only that he’s white,” Mthembu said. “What we’re saying is that we now have experience of the so-called progressive whites – that when they pursue transformation, it’s not what we want.
“It’s transformation on their own terms. I think any revolutionary, Blade Nzimande included, would be concerned about this appointment.”
Yet Van Jaarsveld’s appointment has received support from the Higher Education Transformation Network, a vocal lobby group currently embroiled in transformation battles with North-West University and the University of Pretoria.
The group’s cause “is not about one’s race”, said its chairperson, Lucky Thekisho, “it’s about people who subscribe to the Constitution and who understand the need for transformation”.
A welcomed appointment
Political analyst and physics educationist Sipho Seepe welcomed the appointment. “[The university’s council] decided to be true [to the principle] that they need a scholar. They were trying to model a person around Makgoba, someone who could match Makgoba.
“Remember, Makgoba was president of the Medical Research Council” before his appointment to the top job at the university.
Seepe said the fact that Van Jaarsveld has “overseen the National Research Foundation” was a major point in his favour: “He has more of a systemic insight, as opposed to institutional insight.”
“You do want to see black people [appointed as vice-chancellors], but it is wrong to appoint people who are weaker compared to other candidates.”
Sithabiso Mthethwa, president of the university’s student representative council, said Van Jaarsveld’s appointment sends a resounding message to black academics that they need to up their game.
“I would have loved to see a black person appointed. But we should take this as a lesson or as a challenge in our democratic dispensation that we need to produce our own black academics.”
Van Jaarsveld told the M&G he aims to “actively pursue transformation and excellence simultaneously. That’s the agenda that we’re going to drive as hard as we possibly can.”
Rejecting claims he might short-change transformation because he is white, he urged critics to look at the National Research Foundation’s track record “since I joined, how actively and aggressively we’ve been driving the transformation agenda across all institutions”.
“At the end of the day, I don’t think your biology determines who you are as a person. It’s what you do that you need to be judged by.”