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Former NWU vice-chancellor shocked at Nzimande’s lambasting

Former North-West University (NWU) vice-chancellor Theuns Eloff says he’s shocked that Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has lambasted him and the university “like this”. 

Nzimande last week branded the university’s controversial Potchefstroom campus an “apartheid institution” and lashed out at Eloff for allegedly failing to end such a culture during his two five-year terms as vice-chancellor.

Nzimande spoke to journalists about a report he said has found that management of Potchefstroom campus “tacitly” approved the Nazi-style salute that first-year students reportedly performed earlier this year as part of their initiation. 

Speaking to the Mail & Guardian this week, Eloff said Nzimande’s dressing-down came as a complete surprise. “Firstly, I must say that I was shocked to read about his attack on the university and on the individual. 

“It almost doesn’t really matter that it’s me. I’ve never known him to attack anyone from any university like this. This is the first time, even those vice-chancellors who had managed badly or councils who have not had oversight – even where unrest is still ongoing – I’ve never heard him lash out like that.”

Eloff resigned as NWU’s vice-chancellor seven months ago, and at the time conceded his move was triggered by newspaper reports that first-year students were allegedly filmed performing “Heil Puk”, a Nazi salute. 

‘Attacking his university’
His resignation allowed Dan Kgwadi, NWU’s first black vice-chancellor, to take over the reins. Kgwadi was vice-chancellor elect at the time and was installed officially on Friday evening.

“What I find strange is that if the minister wanted to help the new vice-chancellor. You don’t help him by attacking his university, by attacking the council of that university, by calling that university morally bankrupt and by attacking management in general. That I find very disturbing,” said Eloff.

Eloff stood his ground this week that students weren’t performing a fascist salute in the clip, and neither were the banned initiations of first-year students taking place at Pukke, as the Potchefstroom campus is nicknamed. 

Nzimande had said he felt vindicated by the report, as Eloff “was less than friendly and honest with me” on the incident. “It is clear that there are deep-seated practices at the institution related to its welcoming programmes for first year students that violate human rights and dehumanise first year students,” he said.   

Eloff said: “I still dispute that” that was a Nazi salute. 

He said the song students are heard singing in the contentious cellphone clip is “voluntary”. “It’s sung by first years as a tribute to their residence leader. They use all kinds of songs, Afrikaans [and] English. They [also] use all kinds of movement, and then at the end … they end off on the floor, they don’t end in the air [as the ‘Heil Puk’ salute does].”

‘Violation of human rights
Nzimande said the “the previous vice-chancellor was not committed to addressing the violation of human rights at this institution”.

This was not true, said Eloff. “I dispute that. What I don’t dispute is every time people get together there’s bound to be some tension. There may even be some bullies. 

“But the campus has acted, even before the minister knew about it.” He listed two incidents where he said there was “verbal abuse and in one case pushing around” and the perpetrators “were suspended”.

Eloff said he wasn’t considering legal action against Nzimande “at this stage”. He added that an open letter he’s penned for publication in Beeld newspaper was his preferred response to Nzimande. 

Eloff rejected Nzimande’s outburst that NWU’s three campuses were still not integrated, a decade after the university’s merger. 

Nzimande said NWU’s three campuses, including those in the Vaal and Mafikeng, “are like islands” – an actuality that he said has kept Potchefstroom an Afrikaans campus.

Said Eloff: “The right to use Afrikaans as a language of instruction is protected by the Constitution. [The Constitution] says every South African has a right to be taught in a public institution in a language of his or her choice. I don’t believe it is discrimination.”

Homeland system
What Nzimande described as a problematic federalised management of the university’s campuses, “I’m saying the model is working”, said Eloff. 

A model some have compared to the apartheid government’s homeland system, it decentralises administrative powers to campus rectors. Kgwadi rose from the rank of Mafikeng campus rector to vice-chancellor. 

Yvonne Phosa, chairperson of the national assembly’s higher education and training portfolio committee, urged the NWU last week to do away with the model. 

“We must be honest enough to admit that the federal model of management hasn’t been in the best interests of the country. If we don’t support a move away from a federal system to a unitary university it will be a recipe for disaster,” she said.

Eloff said what made the model he presided over viable was that it’s centred on “people managing the campuses on a daily basis”. “You can’t manage Mafikeng from Potchefstroom, or the other way around, or from Vanderbijlpark.” 

Mafikeng is more than 200km away from Potchefstroom and Vanderbijlpark, a Gauteng town, is 100km from Potchefstroom. 

Eloff cited the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) as an example of an institution where centralisation isn’t working – it has just emerged from another violent student protest. 

“TUT has three [major] campuses [in and around Pretoria]. You’ve seen how the other two [Soshanguve and Ga-Rankuwa] campuses have problems. They don’t have any leadership on those campuses. Everything is centralised in Pretoria [and the two campuses] feel alienated.

“And what people often forget is that the management model of NWU is exactly a replica of the country’s management model. We have three provinces, and where the country has premiers we have campus rectors. The finance guy in Mafikeng doesn’t report to the finance guy in Potchefstroom. He reports to the campus rector.

‘Address the concerns’
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on the sidelines of his inauguration, Kgwadi said Nzimande’s utterances should be “engaged critically” to “see what do we do to address the concerns”.

“You don’t smash a mirror because it shows you have one big pack, when you think you’ve got six packs. We’ve got to go find out what do we do to turn the situation around. 

“It is indeed true that the South African community is impatient about the pace of our transformation. I’m not sure they are saying we’re not transforming, they are saying the pace is too slow. 

“We then need to go and accelerate that, and there are soft issues that we need to start to look at to make sure that we move the university community, both staff and students, towards a social cohesion direction.”

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

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