Sorry tale of a post-merger university mess

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann

THE STRUGGLE FOR THE SOUL OF A SOUTH AFRICAN UNIVERSITY: THE UNIVERSITY OF KWAZULU-NATAL – ACADEMIC FREEDOM, CORPORATISATION AND TRANSFORMATION by Nithaya Chetty and Christopher Merrett


In February, the government finally gazetted the (underwhelming) report of the ministerial committee for the review of funding of universities, headed by (now) Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Its most interesting finding is hidden on page 49, in a table reporting the weighted (correcting for number of academic staff) research output of South Africa’s universities.

The top cluster includes five usual suspects – Stellenbosch University, the University of Cape Town (UCT), Rhodes University, the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – but no longer the University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN). Notably, now included in this top cluster are two historically disadvantaged institutions, the universities of the Western Cape (UWC) and Fort Hare.

The remarkable thing about this top cluster of seven is what separates it from the Ramaphosa report’s bottom two clusters: the top seven were largely untouched by the merger plans implemented a decade ago by then education minister Kader Asmal during the Thabo Mbeki government. UWC and Fort Hare, together with Rhodes, were earmarked for mergers in Asmal’s original proposals and escaped only after intense lobbying by their respective vice-chancellors, Brian O’Connell, Derrick Swartz and David Woods.
Their prescience appears to have paid off. But this review is not a chronicle of these two remarkable success stories.

Rather, it reviews Nithaya Chetty and Christopher Merrett’s volume,  which is the more depressing tale of the post-merger history of UKZN.

The authors are not disinterested parties. Physicist Chetty, now a vice-president of the National Research Foundation, resigned from the university in 2009 rather than face disciplinary charges its vice-chancellor, Malegapuru Makgoba, initiated. His “crime” was (as a last resort) to leak to the media information related to Makgoba’s refusal on two separate occasions to table an official science and agriculture faculty submission on academic freedom at the institution, despite senate resolutions requiring it to be tabled.

Merrett, a former librarian and administrator on UKZN’s Pieter-maritzburg campus, resigned from UKZN to work on the Witness in 2007, after his job “mysteriously disappeared” (as the book puts it).

Interesting counterpoint
I baulked initially at the prospect of reviewing an entire volume with such a melodramatic title. But I thought it might be an interesting counterpoint to John Higgins’s recent book, Academic Freedom in a Democratic South Africa: Essays and Interviews on Higher Education and the Humanities, which covers many of the same issues in more theoretical terms. And it proved to be so, as well as – somewhat surprisingly – quite a page-turner.

The story is an important one, because UKZN, the result of a merger between the former universities of Natal and Durban-Westville (UDW), is now one of the three largest residential universities in the country, with about 44?000 students, 1?400 academics and more than 2?000 administrative staff.

Too large to be collegial, the authors argue, but few would dispute its importance in the future development of KwaZulu-Natal. The University of Natal’s (black) medical school had produced a number of eminent alumni, most notably Steve Biko, murdered by the security police in 1977, and his associate Rick Turner, a senior lecturer in political science who was active in the nascent trade union movement and who suffered a similar fate in January 1978. During the early 1970s, Durban was an important centre of resistance, famously referred to by Tony Morphet as the “Durban moment”: its wildcat strikes of 1973 heralded the legalisation of black trade unions, which played a pivotal role in the ultimate success of the struggle.

Importantly, the book includes a discussion of both the Higher Education Act of 1997, which the authors view as being pernicious in having enabled the corporatisation of South African universities, and of the context in which the ill-fated mergers took place. On assuming office in 1999, Asmal commissioned the Council for Higher Education (CHE), then still a creditable body, to report on the “size and shape” of the universities and technikons. Its 2000 report – which then UCT vice-chancellor Mamphela Ramphele (another alumnus of the University of Natal’s medical school) chaired – made the eminently sensible recommendation that the sector be differentiated into three categories of institutions: those offering the full gamut of under- and postgraduate degrees up to PhD level, those offering only up to master’s degrees in certain fields in which they had expertise, and those offering only undergraduate degrees.

Rather than act on this, Asmal chose to follow a time-honoured tradition of 46 years of National Party rule by binning the report.

Instead, he commissioned Saki Macozoma to put together a merger plan for universities. One of the members of the Macozoma commission was the then president of the Medical Research Council (MRC), Makgoba, yet another eminent alumnus of the University of Natal’s medical school. He had returned to South Africa in 1994 after 15 years abroad, initially to a controversial tenure as a deputy vice-chancellor at Wits.

Vehicle for transformation
His term at the MRC had proved far more successful, but had not been renewed because he had fallen foul of Mbeki, by opposing publicly his Aids denialism. When Makgoba was appointed vice-chancellor of the University of Natal in September 2002, the merger with UDW was already on the cards. He articulated the view that the merger could be a vehicle for transformation, but was in an unenviable position as neither the merger nor his appointment had the support of the university’s senate.

Since the merger in 2004, UKZN has been the subject of serial controversies, which are meticulously chronicled in this volume. By 2008, the university was looking to the CHE’s (routine) audit of UKZN for salvation. The audit panel, under the chairmanship of Martin Hall, then deputy vice-chancellor of UCT, visited in October that year.

In November, Makgoba took disciplinary action against Chetty and mathematician John van den Berg for the incident described above. Hall responded in a confidential letter to the council, which was leaked to the Mercury, expressing his concern that Makgoba’s action was “a direct affront” to the panel, which had identified his authoritarian style as problematic.

Makgoba’s response was to claim that Hall’s letter had compromised the audit process. Interestingly, the CHE chose to ignore Hall’s concern and to investigate Makgoba’s – by setting up a review panel to consider his claim, comprising Thoko Mayekiso, now vice-chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga, Australian Mark Hay, now an employee of the CHE, and Mashupye Kgaphola, now vice-chancellor of the Mangosuthu University of Technology in Durban. (Serving on this panel does not appear to have harmed any of their careers.) This panel’s findings were made public only almost two years later, in December 2010, together with an announcement that the CHE had decided to rescind the audit report.

The review affirmed that the audit report “meets international standards of quality assurance practice”, but claimed to be unable to establish whether Hall’s letter had affected its contents. However, it concluded that its leak had “substantially compromised the audit process”, and, inanely, that the value of the “report may be limited given the long time lapse since the audit visit in October 2008”. The fact that no one other than the CHE itself could be held responsible for taking a full 18 months to decide to suppress it appears to have escaped its chairperson, Chabani Manganyi.

On account of the CHE being prevailed upon by Makgoba to withdraw the report, no one in the academic community has taken it seriously since. Its chief executive officer, Ahmed Essop, on being hauled before the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education, added that he did not find the fact that the review panel was appointed in consultation with Makgoba at all questionable. Moreover, he stated that the original audit panel had also been selected in consultation with the vice-chancellor (who appeared to have made a bad call in this instance), and that he did not believe that Makgoba’s involvement compromised the independence of these entities. Quod erat demonstrandum.

There, for now, ends the tale of perhaps the most unsuccessful of the mergers. Some would argue corporatisation is an inevitable consequence of universities becoming too large to be run as collegial institutions. Merged universities are not necessarily more corporatised than others; but they are all larger than their antecedents. Given its urban setting and inspired leadership, could UDW have had a similar path to UWC and Fort Hare? And, left in charge only of the University of Natal, could Makgoba have been successful in inflicting upon it the unpleasant blend of corporate authoritarianism, peppered with racial rhetoric, that has characterised UKZN’s first decade? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.

Michael Cherry is a professor of zoology at Stellenbosch University, and was editor-in-chief of the South African Journal of Science from 2009 to 2012

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