A three-cornered battle of Wits

October 11, 1996

Race and gender are to the fore in the election for the leadership of one of South Africa's largest and most influential universities, writes Karen Mac Gregor.

The three professors in the running for the vice chancellorship of the University of Wi****ersrand are June Sinclair, Njabulo Ndebele and Sam Nolutshungu. They are very different people from very different backgrounds: one women and two men, one white and two black, one internal to Wits and two external, one exiled and two local South Africans.

The election will end years of uncertainty about who will succeed Robert Charlton, who is due to retire at the end of next year.

But there are already allegations of impropriety in the selection procedure, in which eight candidates were reduced to three. This is strongly denied by the university executive and the 28-member selection committee.

The race began with an international head hunt for a deputy vice chancellor. The job went to Professor M. W. Makgoba, who was heir apparent to the v-c until a brush with 13 academics, who accused him of exaggerating his credentials, poor administration and bringing the university into disrepute. He was one of the eight candidates.

The election will be closely contested. Professor Ndebele and Professor Sinclair are frontrunners.

Professor Ndebele, a well known author and vice chancellor of the University of the North, enjoys the support of many students and scholars.

The backing of the latter is important because academics are in the majority on the selection committee. He is well liked, a politically correct choice and considered an able vice chancellor of his university.

Professor Sinclair, a law academic, advocate and current vice principal of Wits, will have the support of the university's liberal constituency: many academics and a fair body of (white) students.

She is a highly competent manager but has the reputation of being a hardliner. She has called the police on to campus to quell unrest.

Professor Nolutshungu, a professor of political science and interim director of the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African American Studies at New York's Rochester University, is relatively unknown as he has been abroad for 30 years, but is an impressive political scientist.

The selection process will, literally, be a show. In the next few weeks candidates will have to give public lectures and an interview broadcast across campus. The selection committee will receive views of staff and students before reaching a decision.

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