SAR, Vol 13 No 2, March 1998
WIT'S GOING ON?
REVISITING THE MAKGOBA AFFAIR
BY EDDIE WEBSTER
Eddie Webster is Professor of Industrial Sociology at the University of the Witwatersrand.
From late 1995 until April 1996 - a period of more than six months - the University of the Witwatersrand was engulfed in a crisis. The immediate source of the conflict was the credentials and conduct of the newly appointed Deputy Vice-chancellor, Malegapuru William Makgoba. A group of thirteen senior academics, led by social historian, Charles van Onselen, accused Makgoba of administrative incompetence, disloyalty to the university and embellishing his curriculum vitae.
The conflict was eventually "resolved" when Makgoba resigned as Deputy Vice-chancellor but stayed on as a research professor in the medical school. But the events took a high toll - one of the signatories, Etienne Mureinik, a brilliant young law professor, committed suicide at the height of the conflict, others resigned. Most of the signatories have since withdrawn from involvement in university governance.
The conflict - what became known as the Makgoba Affair - polarized the university along racial lines. Makgoba's supporters, drawn largely from the black staff and students, saw the allegations as concrete evidence of institutional racism. The first black person to be appointed to a senior administrative position, his supporters argued, was being publicly vilified and his character assassinated, his undoubted academic reputation rubbished and his plans to "Africanize" Wits dismissed. How, black staff asked, can a black person advance at Wits if this is the way a distinguished scholar is treated? Wits, they concluded, will never be transformed into a genuinely African university.
Makgoba's critics, drawn largely from white staff and students, argued the opposite. Many whites felt that far from lagging behind, "transformation" at Wits had gone too far and standards were dropping. Makgoba, through his attacks on Eurocentric education, was himself a racist who was not committed to the university's long standing non-racial principles. Many were disgusted by Makgoba's public attacks on Wits and felt that he showed a lack of appreciation of its history of liberal opposition to apartheid. Above all, it was felt that he was not doing his job properly; he missed meetings, was indiscreet and was siding with student and worker militants.
This latter concern gets to the heart of the matter. The demographic composition of Wits had profoundly altered over the preceding decade as classrooms changed from white middle class to increasingly black and working class. Led by the South African Students Congress (SASCO) and National Educational and Health Workers Union (NEHAWU), a variety of forms of mass action - hostage taking, trashing of the campus and vandalism - had become common in the early nineties. At the core of these conflicts were a set of legitimate demands for financial assistance, greater attention to teaching and learning, and the need for institutions of higher learning to become more representative of the population of South Africa.
In order to meet this latter demand, Wits had begun searching for a black person to fill the vacant post of deputy vice-chancellor. Two candidates had been interviewed - Sam Nolutshungu, who turned down the offer, and Mala Singh, who came up against strong opposition because of her past presidency of the left leaning staff association, the Union of Democratic University Staff Association (UDUSA).
In 1993, it was decided to appoint a search committee to ensure that a suitable candidate was appointed. It was rumoured in the corridors that Wits had found in Makgoba a "black Charlton" - a reference to the Vice-chancellor, Robert Charlton, also a medical man.
Makgoba seemed ideal for the job. He had grown up in the Northern Transvaal. He earned his medical degree at the University of Natal where he had performed brilliantly, topping the class in some of his courses. He had completed his PhD at Oxford and proceeded to establish an international reputation as an immunologist. What the university establishment found especially attractive was that he had not been active politically while a student or while he lived abroad.
Why did things go so horribly and tragically wrong? Mokoko: The Makgoba Affair, A Reflection on Transformation (Vivlia, 1997) is William Makgoba's explanation of what happened at Wits. The university, he argues, is an inherently racist institution and, in setting forth this case, the book does provide an invaluable insight into the obstacles facing institutional transformation in South Africa. But Makgoba also links such concerns to a telling of his own life story that is worth noting in its own right.
Thus the book begins with an intriguing account of his upbringing in Sekhukhuneland, his ancestry as a direct descendent of the famous Chief Makgoba, who defended his people against the Boers a hundred years ago. Makgoba discusses, with refreshing frankness, the customs and rituals of rural African life; practices that continue to shape his behaviour today and of which he is very proud. He writes warmly of his experiences at Oxford, Birmingham and London where he was accepted as a scholar and a colleague.
The tone of the book changes dramatically after his arrival at Wits in October 1994. Within weeks, just before he was to chair his first selection committee, the Vice-chancellor summoned him to resolve a hostage taking incident. However, when he wisely suggested mediation, his advice was ignored, the police were summoned, the door kicked down, and the students and workers were arrested.
Lacking proper support and thrown in at the deep end of a racially polarized campus, Makgoba began to publicly criticize the university. This made him an identifiable target for what he calls "the conservative liberals." A secret and systematic investigation on the accuracy of his CV was unofficially embarked upon by Van Onselen. Unable to establish any significant inaccuracies, he widened his search to include Makgoba's job performance and mobilized senior members of the university to support his claims.
The rest of the book is a convincing defense of Makgoba's academic credentials, but not of his response to this attack. Deeply wounded by the questioning of his academic credentials and offended by the secret way it was conducted, Makgoba delved into the confidential files of his accusers and made them public. Put simply, two wrongs do not make a right and Makgoba lost the moral high ground. Instead of accepting an impartial commission of inquiry where he could have openly cleared his academic reputation, Makgoba inexplicably agreed to a privately brokered settlement.
Underlying the Makgoba affair was another, more simple agenda. Robert Charlton was due to retire at the end of 1997 and Makgoba's opponents were afraid that he might succeed him. They were keen to promote their own slate of candidates with June Sinclair, Deputy Vice-chancellor at the time and a major opponent of SASCO and NEHAWU, as Vice-chancellor. They failed badly. Instead, in reaction to the Makgoba affair, a strong progressive caucus developed in the selection committee between students, workers and academics that led to the appointment of first Nolutshungu, and, after his tragic withdrawal, Colin Bundy, as Vice-chancellor.
In his conclusion to the book, Makgoba claims that the power of the conservative liberals at Wits has been broken. While it is true that Sinclair was not appointed Vice-Chancellor and a new University Council has been appointed, Senate - the centre of academic power in the university - remains in large part unchanged. The number of black professors in the Senate has hardly changed since I became a member of Senate ten years ago. A lot of work lies ahead if Wits is to regain the ground lost over the last few years of divisive politics. The lesson I draw from the Makgoba affair is that institutions such as Wits remain deeply entrenched in the ways of the old South Africa and institutional change will take a long time.
William Makgoba has written a moving book that is deeply troubling in its implications for transformation in South Africa. But it is also an incomplete book as it portrays the conflict as one between conservative liberals and Africanists. Although the progressive academics at Wits were marginalized during this period, the University has a long and proud progressive tradition going back to the forties when Joe Slovo, Ruth First and Nelson Mandela were students and Harold Wolpe was SRC president. Indeed student politics has tended to be dominated by an alliance between the left and liberals. In the seventies and eighties, this was strengthened by the emergence of a group of progressive academics such as David Webster and the formation of UDUSA in 1986.
Transformation in the late eighties and nineties was led by SASCO, but SASCO failed to reestablish an alliance with progressive academics thus clearing the way for the conservative liberals. The undisciplined behaviour of SASCO allowed the conservatives to demonize the students. This led to the transformation discourse being dominated by a thinly disguised racism. The result was fatal for Makgoba. When he arrived at Wits in 1994, he not only entered a racially polarized campus: there was also no coherent progressive presence and, lacking direct experience of the collective nature of the democratic struggle, he failed to rebuild the left/liberal alliance.
In the end, Makgoba's vision for Wits - and for higher education more generally - does not differ all that much from the conservative liberals. They both hold on to a notion of the university as an autonomous institution, somewhat divorced from the pressing socioeconomic issues that surround it. Of course the difference lies in their attitude towards race. Conservative liberals do not believe that Wits was one of the beneficiaries of the apartheid system and they reject the notion of institutional racism. Makgoba, on the other hand, sees Wits as a central institution designed to maintain and perpetuate the privileges of the white minority. For him race is not irrelevant to an understanding of Wits: it is, in fact, his only explanatory category.
This race reductionism is problematic in as much as it is unable to account for those - admittedly small numbers - of staff and students who were actively engaged in resistance to apartheid and retain a commitment to an egalitarian South Africa. It thus offers an incomplete understanding of Wits as an institution. At the same time, Makgoba's failure to recognize the contradictory nature of Wits is not itself racist. In the concluding chapters of the book, Makgoba argues for the Africanization of Wits, an approach endorsed by Deputy-president Thabo Mbeki in his preface to the book. However, in doing so - and we must assume Makgoba does not disagree - Mbeki cleverly appropriates the discourse of "Africanism" while also expanding its definitions: he supports the idea of pan-africanism but locates it in the context of the African National Congress' commitment to non-racialism and cultural pluralism.
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The Makgoba affair provides a deep and tragic insight into the South African transition. As with the rest of South Africa, black and white are struggling to find a common project. Many, of all races, see a way forward but have not yet found the most effective way to realize it. In the case of Wits, 1998 begins with a new Vice-chancellor, Colin Bundy, who has an established reputation as a progressive scholar with a commitment to transformation. While the Makgoba affair revealed the dark side of Wits, there is also an alternative legacy of genuine non-racialism grounded in an active and scholarly commitment to the creation of a more participatory and egalitarian society. Fortunately Wits has been given a second chance to reclaim this legacy and to take its rightful place in the new South Africa.
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