Five Western Cape institutions which never used to speak are collaborating frantically. Nelson Mandela personifies the remarkable spirit of reconciliation abroad in South Africa. How does it feel? It feels good. It feels as if a great, perverse burden has been lifted from the country's collective shoulders. It feels hopeful and constructive.
On a very practical level, in the Western Cape it means that tertiary institutions which five years ago could hardly bring themselves to speak to each other are now collaborating eagerly, initiating joint ventures and sharing resources.
Of course the Western Cape Tertiary Institutions Trust, set up to organise collaboration between three universities and two technikons in the province, is not only about reconciliation.
Tertiary collaboration is a new and sensible national higher education policy expounded in last September's education White Paper. It is aimed at extracting maximum use out of the sector's limited resources during a time of rapid expansion, and at eliminating duplication of activities, developing institutions and creating opportunities.
However, it is no coincidence that similar efforts to get institutions to work together - including a major rationalisation plan drawn up by the Committee of University Principals - largely failed in the past.
The new South African feeling is that if old enemies like the National Party and African National Congress could get together, anything is possible. Aside from the Western Cape, cooperative ventures are under way in KwaZulu-Natal and in the Orange Free State.
The five institutions collaborating in the Western Cape are the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape, and the Cape and Peninsula technikons. They are geographically close, all within a 20-kilometre radius.
"But we came together from very far apart," admits Wieland Gevers, a deputy vice chancellor at the University of Cape Town. "We didn't speak to Stellenbosch for years, and when Western Cape was conceived we considered it a bush college for coloureds. There was a great deal of hostility between us."
Once the first steps were taken, said Professor Gevers, leaders of all five institutions quickly came to recognise the potential benefits. "We realised we had a unique opportunity to cooperate and that it was in all of our interests to do so."
Together the five institutions offer educational opportunities that outweigh the requirements of the regional population, although resources are somewhat skewed in favour of the historically white institutions - Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Cape Technikon. At the same time, all are feeling the funding pinch.
The collaborative reasoning, said University of Stellenbosch vice rector Christo Viljoen, was that by rationalising areas of duplication, institutions would free funds which could be used for other purposes, for example providing academic development programmes for the increasing stream of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It is certainly also true that private funders like programmes which involve collaboration and which are directed at developing historically disadvantaged institutions. It has been important to ensure that all institutions have participated as equal partners, and that none have been seen to be forcing the process.
With the financial crisis being faced, institutions have been forced to look at ways and means of making savings and raising private funds. Collaboration is one of the most effective ways. "It is a win-win situation. We are very pleased with the way we are progressing," Professor Viljoen added.
Five collaborative projects are currently under way - sharing library resources, rationalisation, extending computer capabilities, a school of community health, and a science and technology exploration - with each project being led by one of the five institutions.
Concern that collaboration would be resisted at some levels persuaded the institutions' leadership to initiate programmes that would slowly bring people together. "We removed the imperative for enforced rationalisation and avoided sensational issues," Professor Gevers said.
One of the most advanced initiatives is the library programme. "Although the libraries remain separate, over three years they are being converted into a single library system in which students will gain access to all catalogues in all five libraries," he said.
This particularly benefits technikon students: while Cape Town has a collection of 800,000, Stellenbosch 700,000 and the Western Cape 200,000, each of the technikons has around 50,000 publications.
A bus which runs daily between campuses ensures a 24-hour book delivery service, and the library directors are currently creating a joint computerised library catalogue and access network. Future buying will also be done on a collaborative basis to avoid unnecessary duplication.
The joint school for community health is situated at the University of the Western Cape but spread over all five campuses. Parts of the school's courses will be held on other campuses, and summer and winter schools attended by hundreds of health workers have already been held.
Some degree courses have been rationalised under the collaborative rationalisation programme, with institutions selected to retain courses on the basis of existing and potential strengths. Plans are afoot for the sharing of some courses between campuses.
A joint agreements has been reached with the IBM affiliate Reach and Teach for a donation of computer equipment worth R2 million (around Pounds 380,000), which will have high-speed data networks linking all campuses.
And the five institutions have launched a Science and Technology Exploratorium in Cape Town, working jointly with the city council, aimed at stimulating the interest of school-children in science, engineering and technology through fixed and mobile exhibitions.
An informal committee of vice principals currently co-ordinates all collaborative ventures under the Western Cape Tertiary Institutions Trust. "There is a huge understanding of the advantages of what we are doing at the leadership level of all of our institutions," said Professor Viljoen.
"Now it is beginning to filter down to other levels."