North-West University (NWU) vice-chancellor Dan Kgwadi told journalists on Wednesday in Johannesburg that all he seeks to achieve is a racially inclusive campus. Kgwadi spoke at a time he was facing a torrent of criticism from advocates of the Afrikaans language inside and outside the university.
Kgwadi said he has been subjected to “concerted attempts at disinformation and vilification” in recent weeks. He is spearheading an executive management team that will present a new strategic plan for the institution on August 21.
“I have great empathy for those who fear a loss of culture or language when campuses become more inclusive,” Kgwadi said.
“However, I urge all concerned to accept that we, as a university, have an obligation, an ethical obligation, to provide an environment in which students as young adults can learn to live with people from other cultures, races, languages and religions.
“What my vision does not support is that tuition in Afrikaans at the Potchefstroom campus should be curtailed, or that Afrikaans-speaking students should feel less welcome on the Potchefstroom campus. This is not my view or intention.
“Those who insist on painting a gloomy picture of the future of the Potchefstroom campus as such and the NWU as a whole are simply misguided. I want all students to feel welcome on all campuses.”
Slow on transformation
NWU was formed in 2004 from a merger of the historically white Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education and two black institutions, the University of the North-West in Mafikeng and the Vaal campus of Vista University.
Kgwadi, who in 2014 became NWU’s first black vice-chancellor, inherited an institution that was accused of moving slow on transformation.
Higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande late last year labelled Potchefstroom campus of NWU “fundamentally an apartheid institution, if not an enclave”. Nzimande was peeved that Afrikaans remained dominant at the campus, “designed mainly for white Afrikaners”.
The university was still grappling to implement transformation recommendations made to it by the Council on Higher Education (CHE) in 2010.
The statutory body’s preliminary institutional audit urged management to “develop measures to deal with the slow pace of transformation at the Potchefstroom campus, in particular, in terms of student and staff composition, institutional culture and curriculum in order to increase access to all sectors of the population”.
“The fact that Afrikaans remains the predominant medium of instruction at Potchefstroom may be a further obstacle to achieving greater demographic transformation,” the audit pointed out.
But five years down the line, the CHE was yet to finalise the audit because of a lack of implementation of recommendations. “The CHE is working with Kgwadi and his team to support the university in bringing its audit to a close,” acting chief executive of the body, Denyse Webbstock told the Mail & Guardian.
“Widely separate campuses with very different institutional cultures, history and staff and student demographics have made the formation of a single institutional identity and university-wide transformation very challenging. The need to address these challenges was identified when the CHE conducted an institutional audit of NWU in 2010,” Webbstock said.
Kgwadi said there are greater expectations on him to transform NWU, a task to which he is committed. “In fact, my appointment was predicated on the assumption that I had to lead, develop and transform the university. The university council, who appointed me, expects this of me. I am totally committed to performing these tasks.
“My appointment as vice-chancellor last year presented us with an opportunity to continue with incisive strategic evaluation and, eventually, a cohesive plan and the necessary steps to take the university to the next level.
“Notwithstanding concerted attempts at disinformation and vilification, I believe more and more members of the NWU are prepared to accept this optimistic view of the future. I am encouraged by the goodwill and support of students and staff on all campuses, alumni and other stakeholders.”
Kgwadi’s predecessor Theuns Eloff, who is now chairperson of the FW de Klerk Foundation, told the M&G he has now closed the book on the NWU transformation debate.
“I gave a long interview in the Rapport about three weeks ago. I did say after that that I have now spoken and I will not comment again on anything. You know that mostly I am open to speak and I’m not avoiding the media, but on this one I have made a decision that I will not make any comment again about the university.
“I’ve got views, you know I’ve views, but I don’t think it will add – from my point of view – to the debate. I must make the cut, and I’ve decided to make the cut.”