The British Empire came to Natal last week, or at least that is what it may have seemed like to observers. The "last outpost", as Natal was once known, was host to vice chancellors on the Council of the Association of Commonwealth Universities. With the other two universities in the province, the University of Durban-Westville and the University of Zululand, the University of Natal was host to a meeting worth remarking on for a number of reasons.
I and my co-hosts, Marcus Balintulo and Charles Dlamini, had felt ourselves beleaguered by the cutbacks in our Government funding, and the distressing predicament of having to turn away students who met all the required academic criteria. There has been student protest here. Throughout South Africa, campuses have been disrupted. We reasoned that our lot was hard, that the ACU meeting represented undue stress, even frivolity.
We were soon chastened. The stories of those representing poorer Commonwealth countries reminded us of our good fortune. Those from the richer countries reminded us that we were all living through uncertainty - about the nature of universities and the entire future of higher education.
Are we to become servants of our country's economies or nurturers of rounded, civically responsible citizens? Will we continue to worry about what makes someone educated or will we lapse into higher education profiteering? What will make us viable economically? Is profitability an appropriate question for educators to ponder?
I need the sense of having experienced what is authentically, if stereotypically, different, as much as I want the comfort of what is familiar and shared. This leads me to contemplate the bigger issue of our gathering, the obligations and responsibilities, of being a member of the ACU, indeed the very meaning of Commonwealth. What do we have in common and what do we share?
For South Africa, the time when the Commonwealth conjured a sense of belonging to a world order is long gone. Some may still be beguiled by the ceremony, history and royalty of London, the Commonwealth metropole. But that the metropole should be London, rather than some other place, or some intangible unifier, is both the problem and the charm of the Commonwealth. For years it was tradition and power that charmed and ensured fealty. But Britain's Eurocentrism became alienating. Of late, the UK has been more preoccupied with Europe than its disparate empire of old, yet this is the UK Year of the Commonwealth.
It is, perhaps, the time to see that the carapace of hardened indifference must constantly be chipped away to show what is vulnerable and good beneath. And what has remained very good at the heart of the Commonwealth is the dedication of its educators. They have sloughed away the harder surfaces of colonialism and imperialism to ensure an exchange of scholarship within the Commonwealth. They have been torch-bearers of an ideal of educational parity that crosses economic, cultural and political divides.
In this age of globalisation, the Commonwealth, for all that it carries the taint of neo-colonialism, also bears the weight of a valuable edifice of experience and tradition that does not seem easily undermined by Royal Family shenanigans or a more intellectual deconstruction of tradition. A privilege of Commonwealth membership is the belonging to one of the few international relationships that aims for and even delivers a kind of parity of nations, despite the manifest disparities of wealth and power among its members. It is an intangible equanimity born of colonising and liberating forces, of diversity and commonality. It is an international voice that cannot easily be replicated through geographic alliances and expediencies. The Commonwealth has been the kinder, softer face of an imperial intention. More recently it has been a moral front, side-stepping harder ideological, political and economic contests - a platform and voice for the least free and most poor.
As chair of the ACU, I felt obliged to find a framework, perhaps even a moral template, for our meeting as representatives of higher education. I ventured that South Africa is a prodigal. Our return to the Commonwealth is not just cause for celebration but for reflection about the nature of the family we belong to I its jealousies, inequalities and strengths. The Biblical analogy fits almost too well, for South Africa needs to be careful of triumphalism and perhaps of a "favoured nation" status within the Commonwealth. While the scourges of contemporary global life flourish here as elsewhere, our international profile is heroic. The South African struggle against legalised, institutionalised racism has reminded countries worldwide of their closet inequalities and of the frailty of ethics and statutes in the face of race, class or ethnic allegiances.
It is tempting for South Africa to seize that unoccupied moral high ground somewhere between the imagined neo-colonial imperatives of the richer members of the Commonwealth and the presumed destitution and despair of its poorest people. This bleak picture assumes that the weak have no agency or creativity.
The discussions that took place last week suggest a more complex picture. Yes, the Commonwealth is analytically elusive. No, it is not a neo-colonial relic or emergent hierarchy; it is not a club of sentimental monarchists. Its participants have a pool of historical narratives that are adversarial yet shared. That is the legacy of the Commonwealth's origins in the British empire.
While this empire club might be derided for its origins, it is irreplaceable precisely because of its history. Families and histories spur conscience. There is no market strategy that can evoke conscience as effectively as habit and history, and our histories, the narratives by which we make sense and purpose of ourselves, begin with family.
South Africa needs to tread a little softly, to hear the stories, get to know the family, be forgiven and find her role. Economic reality is such that the prodigal must recognise that the family is more powerful than its constituents.
The ACU can play a critical role in ameliorating some of the difficulties that beset higher education throughout the world - because of the strong thread of conscience running through it and through the Commonwealth. But we agree that we must also develop a forward-looking mission over the next few months, giving clarity to the somewhat faded picture the Commonwealth evokes. This new mission will have to be realised if the ACU is to survive as a credible entity into the next millennium.
Brenda Gourley is vicechancellor of the Universityof Natal and chair of theAssociation of Commonwealth Universities.