'Freedom fighters' university struggles to survive

May 7, 1999


Radical action is afoot to try to rescue a South African university that produced many black leaders in the struggle against apartheid.

Financial disaster and closure of the University of Fort Hare faced Derrick Swartz when he was appointed acting vice-chancellor following the suspension of Mbulelo Mzamane, who has headed the university since 1994.

The university's debt soared to R57 million (nearly Pounds 6 million) and Professor Swartz, who is trying to raise money from the private sector, reportedly has only R43 million left for the year.

He intends to lose staff, cut operating expenses, reduce wastage, collect student fees more efficiently, overhaul all programmes and make mainstream departments generate income.

Former students include Nelson Mandela, the late Chris Hani and the late Oliver Tambo, who became its chancellor.

The spectre of closure was raised by a state-appointed independent assessor last month. Earlier this year the education department initiated audits of six historically disadvantaged universities.

Stuart Saunders, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, conducted the inquiry following allegations of mismanagement, non-payment of salaries, mounting debt and campus unrest.

He recommended non-renewal of Professor Mzamane's contract and warned that the institution was facing financial crisis. He also reported low staff morale and "tension and lack of trust".

Closure was a serious option, Professor Saunders wrote, given its cash-flow projections and campus problems. These included R420,000 spent on a concert that never occurred, rumours of a suspicious death and heavy security since unrest in 1997 that followed restructuring and the loss of more than 900 workers' jobs.

Many academics worked half-time, some did not work at all and there was little research, said the Saunders report. Some staff had been on sabbatical leave on full pay for two to five years.

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