Democratisation in troubled Durban

September 29, 1995

The University of Durban-Westville (THES, September 8) has had the exceptional experience of almost simultaneous "democratisation" (release from Nationalist control) and "Africanisation" (greatly increased African participation). There are few institutions of any kind which have faced this dual challenge of post- apartheid society so abruptly and on such a scale.

While the process has been turbulent at times, the university has not been assisted by exaggerated and unsympathetic press coverage, which has described the campus as a "battlefield" at times when I have participated in normal academic activity. For example, in July the department of geography organised a highly successful international conference, untouched by the troubles and characterised by racial harmony which would have been hard to imagine a few years ago.

Whether other South African universities manage fundamental transformation any better remains to be seen. It is worth noting that Durban's formerly "white" University of Natal, where your reporter Karen Mac Gregor is based, has diversified its student body as much by recruiting Indians as Africans. These Indian students would probably otherwise have gone to the University of Durban-Westville, leaving a gap there to be filled by Africans. Durban-Westville, with half its students African compared with a quarter at the University of Natal, has thus faced greater pressure for Africanisation.

Karen Mac Gregor implies that the Combined Staff Association (COMSA) at UD-W is more radical than the ANC. However, the majority of executive members of COMSA are ANC supporters, and the chairperson Dhiru Soni has been secretary of a local branch of the ANC.

COMSA is unique in South Africa in that its membership comprises academics, administrators and other workers. Far from being radical, its members regard COMSA as practical and realistic, and attribute some attacks to its exposure of questionable practices on the part of a supposedly progressive administration. It would have been interesting to read more of what COMSA actually stands for and what it has achieved, to balance the criticism.

As to the experience of the sociologist Ronaldo Munck, it is a pity that focus on this particular individual tended to overshadow the actual issues involved in transformation. Munck is portrayed largely as an injured innocent, but some others involved tell a different story.

This raises questions about the judgement of a newcomer to the country as well as to the university who could publicly take sides in a complex dispute so soon after his arrival, and of a new head of department who could so quickly antagonise staff and students.

Accounts which might question the one which you published are constrained by the university's ban on talking to the press which appears not to apply to Professor Munck talking to The THES.

David M Smith, Professor Department of geography Queen Mary and Westfield College University of London.

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