A tale of life between two varsities

The cold concrete façade of an inter-reticulated, self-contained building at the University of Johannesburg contrasts with the University of KwaZulu-Natal's heritage buildings. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

The cold concrete façade of an inter-reticulated, self-contained building at the University of Johannesburg contrasts with the University of KwaZulu-Natal's heritage buildings. (Delwyn Verasamy, MG)

I now know what it’s like to have a split personality. Working at the University of Johannesburg but spending time at the University of KwaZulu-Natal splits me between dryness and humidity,  high and low elevations, a single cold concrete building versus architectural diversity, different boiling temperatures, Johannesburg minibus taxis that ignore traffic lights and stop anywhere and Durban taxis that stop on red and on the side of the road, e-tolls that people don’t pay and N2 and N3 booth tolls where there’s no option, biting cold versus warm winters, platteland versus sea and jungles, family and bachelorhood – and completely different institutional management styles.

Special leave at UJ, for example, relates to staff representing UJ while playing sports. There is no leave category for field trips, research or conference attendance – one is simply assumed to be doing one’s job in different places.
UJ staff elect their deans; UKZN selects them. UJ has no departmental kitchens; Howard College’s Memorial Tower Building, where the centre for communication, media and technology is housed, initially lacked toilets. Not sure which is worse, especially on a winter’s day when one’s bum freezes to the seat – at UJ the toilets are off unheated, draughty corridors.

These binaries got me thinking about UKZN. At UJ, academic staff who are sequestered down off-foyer corridors are protected by phalanxes of secretaries, graduate assistants and receptionists. Microchipped card keys and electronic fingerprints get one in and out of the parking lot (when the system is working), through electronically controlled doors, into the library and the humanities common room.

At UJ, tea, filter coffee and bottled water come off departmental budgets. New appointments are warmly welcomed in a 100-minute gathering by the whole executive from the vice-chancellor to deputy deans and heads of support divisions, before lunch. One dean issues a weekly newsletter updating his citizens on policy, practice and peer activity.

The attractions of UKZN (with the exception of parts of the medical school and the Westville campus), are the subtropical trees and grass, the unique architecture and heritage buildings and the lack of faded civil service linoleum floors, though stressed (and plumbing) staff are everywhere and angry students deface things and occasionally chase their peers and lecturers from classrooms. UKZN has monkeys messing with the bins and mongooses and feral cats that have trained some voluntary minders. UKZN students smoke everywhere, not so at UJ.

Once in the UJ self-contained cold concrete building, it’s difficult to get out of the massive, bewildering, inter-reticulated multileveled labyrinth in which even UJ veterans still get lost, though my Durban office in the TB Davis building was a floor above the dope-smoking mob that huddled under the stilts. No wonder I got so creative. UKZN has a certain charm and, most of all, air conditioning, though this was not always the case. I remember the Memorial Tower Building lecture theatres and 40° temperatures, which is why students wear so little in summer – much to the astonishment of some of our august visiting professors.

UKZN still delivers hard-copy mail and its gate guards check car boots; the UJ guards, microchips and fingerprints notwithstanding, still check the ignitions.

Some colleagues and I received a notice telling us we were biometrically mismatched and had to be retagged. Some years ago, an overseas UKZN postdoctoral candidate expressed astonishment at the need for his personal information to be “captured” at registration. Lose your card, you lose your access; expect congestion at the exit gates. 

At Howard College, we have some really “artisanal” food kiosks; at UJ they have a large student food court, quirkily named restaurants, banks, a doctor and a physiotherapist and lots of places for students to meet in clubs, to eat, talk and fool around.

It’s a case of informal subtropical colonial charm and ancient buildings at UKZN compared with long, cold, windswept glass-enclosed corridors. It’s quite weird working in one U-shaped seven-storey building where everything is inside and within walking distance, much like the snake-like Unisa building in Pretoria, that other 1970s concrete civil service hangover. I get lost in both buildings, yearning for the familiar confusion of Memorial Tower Building. No civil service residues here. 

Perhaps I just got used to the mouldy TB Davis Ext suite with its dripping air-cons that regularly result in floods, rotting carpets, peeling paint and the men’s toilet seat that remained unfixed for months.

Man, this place – UKZN – has character. Some years back a visiting Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University professor got agitated as he was led from Memorial Tower Building into what he called a dungeon; he forgot this description when he got to interact with its many lively and enthusiastic inmates – our graduate students.

Drama in the street and corridors with toyi-toyiing students protesting something or other; squawking hadedas making noises like Jurassic Park; screaming students who seem to be deaf thanks to hearing damage caused by iPods; and the concrete lifelessness of Westville and Edgewood’s industrial surroundings stand out. Pietermaritzburg, a toll road away, has the most convivial campus – a calming experience for us stressed Howard Collegers.

Back to my split, or dual personality, separated by 600km, multiple toll booths and the world’s smallest church on Van Reenen’s Pass: like UKZN, UJ is 11 years old and one of few successful university mergers.

Having started my urban geo-graphy career as a positivist at Wits University, I am now a poststructuralist with some residual positivist tendencies. My conceptual free floating has emerged through the freedom of being a distinguished professor at one institution, a professor emeritus at another, and I am a now a tale between two cities. I have homes, but not wives, in both.

Keyan Tomaselli is a distinguished professor at the University of Johannesburg and professor emeritus at the University of KwaZulu-NatalHaving started my urban geography career as a positivist at Wits, I am now a poststructuralist with some residual positivist tendencies

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