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The soul of a university: Its past, and its future in Mandela’s Rainbow Nation

Former University of Johannesburg student and educator, Prof Chris Brink, reflects on the past and future of the institution following his recent visit.

Decades after studying at the old Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit, I returned to the campus now known as the University of Johannesburg and found a university that has dealt with its past, and is now firmly focused on the future.

I was recently invited to visit the University of Johannesburg, and I confess to a certain measure of trepidation. I am an alumnus from long ago – getting on for 50 years – of the old Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit, one of the predecessor institutions of the University of Johannesburg (referred to by all as ‘You-Jay’). I am also a career academic who became, since those distant days, a wandering scholar. I have studied or worked at eight universities on three continents, headed up two of them, and visited dozens more around the world. So I know a fair bit about universities, both what is common to them all and what makes them so delightfully diverse. In fact, I recently published a book on this topic, titled The Soul of a University, outlining what I believe to be the essence of a university within a broad spectrum of different manifestations.

I believe there is something universal about universities. That universality has to do with the search for knowledge and the pursuit of truth, to the benefit of society. Over time I have grown tolerant but never enamoured, of universities which declare their primary mission to be something other than that. And the old RAU, it must be remembered, was exactly such a university. Its mission, when I went there in 1970, was to provide Christelik-nasionale hoër onderwys to Afrikaner youth, and specifically urban Afrikaners from the Witwatersrand area. It was very much part of the grand plan of apartheid.

Clearly, a city like Johannesburg could not have only an English-language university, and so Wits University needed to be balanced by an Afrikaans university. RAU was it. And it would be, not only Afrikaans, but “Christian-nationalist”, as a proper God-fearing apartheid-government-supporting institution. The first rector, accordingly, was Professor Gerrit Viljoen, who also happened to serve at some point as leader of the Afrikaner Broederbond, and later as minister of education under PW Botha.

All of this was completely beyond my youthful self in 1970. (It is perhaps worth mentioning that I grew up in Upington in the Northern Cape – not a sophisticated political environment at that time.) I went to RAU for two reasons: to experience a city, and to study computer science. According to the limited information I had access to, RAU was at that time the only university which started teaching computer science in the first year, rather than the second year. Having heard of computers, but never having seen or experienced one, I was keen to get started, so off I went to Johannesburg.

When I look back on it now I would say that the education I received was, from a narrow academic point of view, adequate overall, and in some respects very good. Coming where I came from, and this being 1970, it did not at first strike me as odd that there were no black students at RAU. But I gradually became aware of, then sensitive to, the political environment and cultural assumptions of RAU, and I had a growing conviction that there must be more to learning than Christelik-nasionale hoër onderwys. So, after I graduated, I left to pursue further studies elsewhere.

And now, decades later, I was to visit UJ, the descendant of RAU. It is fair to say that I did not quite know what to expect. Well, it was a pleasure. The UJ driver who fetched me at the airport speaks all 11 South African languages. Not to mention Portuguese and a smattering of German. How remarkable is that? And yet he was totally matter-of-fact about it.

The university staff who conducted me on a tour of the campus were in the same mould: confident, affable, laid-back and totally professional. I say “the campus”, but it was in fact only the Auckland Park campus – very appropriate, since this was the campus that we 1970s alumni saw under construction, while we took the bus to the temporary venue in Braamfontein.

Many universities I know are saddled with really awful 1970s architecture, but this legacy at least of the old RAU seems to serve UJ well. The campus design is somewhat idiosyncratic (it was dubbed “Fort Viljoen” in my time), but it is miles better than some of the cereal-box-like abominations I have experienced elsewhere.

I went on a tour of the library. It was excellent. I had tea in the Mathematics Department, and felt at home. I attended a meeting at the Postgraduate School, and listened to ambitious plans. I had a long session at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Studies, and was impressed.

I walked around on campus, and saw black faces and white faces in about the proportions of our national census data. There was something about Nelson Mandela’s Rainbow Nation noticeable in the air, with a touch of cosmopolitan.

It was only a short visit. I am sure there will be problems at UJ I am not aware of, and tensions that did not manifest themselves in my presence. I know that in most South African universities, UJ not excepted, 2015-16 were traumatic years, and that the entire higher education system came close to breaking down.

All the same though, as first impressions go, my visit to UJ was a very positive experience. If there was trauma two years ago, what I saw speaks of remarkable resilience. I saw enough of the soul of a university to be reassured of its durability. My sense is that UJ has dealt with its past, and is now firmly focused on the future, staking its claim for a leadership role in the fourth industrial revolution.

On my way back, as I sat at the airport, I was pleased to reflect that UJ is an exemplar of a principle I firmly believe in: history does not determine destiny. Where we come from does not determine where we can go, nor what we can become. Who would have thought that the old RAU, of all places, would become a microcosm of post-apartheid South Africa?

And this, on further reflection, I would say is a metaphor for South Africa as well. I am acutely aware of our troubled history, to the same extent as I am acutely aware of our troubles at present. By and large, however, I prefer the problems of 2018 to the problems of 1970, just like I prefer the UJ of today to the RAU of my youth. Let’s not have our history determine our destiny.

This article was first published in the Daily Maverick on 8 January 2019.

Professor Brink is a former student at the University of Johannesburg and the CBE Emeritus Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University in the United Kingdom. He writes in his personal capacity.


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