Mandela steps in to race crisis

September 8, 1995

Karen Mac Gregor on the troubles rocking the predominantly Indian University of Durban-Westville. Internal politics over the past year at South Africa's University of Durban-Westville has degenerated into threats and attacks, theft and trashing, rumours and intrigue, investigations and interdicts, disruptions, marches and closures.

The causes of the crisis seem petty: bitter squabbles between lecturers, wrangles over pay and conditions and students wanting different food. In normal circumstances, all could have been dealt with swiftly and with a minimum of fuss. But UDW is a microcosm of a society still in the throes of traumatic transition, and it is anything but normal.

Under the surface, obscured by an avalanche of little issues, lurk problems of profound importance to all South Africans: issues of race, politics, authority and change. Failure to address them is damaging the university.

There are racial tensions between Indian and African people at UDW - though the protagonists are not racist - over jobs, power, the future of the university and the cultural survival of a previously oppressed and now possibly threatened Indian minority.

There have been rumours of a political battle between supporters of the African National Congress and parties to the left of it to seize control of the university. President Mandela has announced an investigation into UDW, placing its troubles on the national agenda, and National Intelligence Agency agents have been interviewing people on campus.

The university has banned talking to the press. During the apartheid years, historically-Indian UDW's staff fought racism and National Party control. In the past ten years, the university has tried harder and faster than most to transform itself into an institution that represents the whole of South Africa. It has become legitimate and more democratic.

Of the country's 12 historically non-African universities, UDW has made the greatest strides in enrolling African students, who now comprise more than half of the student body and virtually all students in residence. These students have brought with them problems of finance, educational disadvantage and a different culture.

But UDW now seems to have shied away from fundamental transformation, and lack of action is causing major problems between its three main constituencies: staff, students and management. Its progressive staff, still 95 per cent Indian, saw themselves as part of the struggle against apartheid and thought, understandably, that once the war was won they too could enjoy some gains.

For years the Combined Staff Association (Comsa) fought hard and effectively for better pay and working conditions, and made real breakthroughs for all staff at UDW. But the reality is that African people perceive UDW as being as ethnic an institution as the historically white universities - and expect Indian people to give up their hold much faster, precisely because they were part of the struggle.

Staff realise their composition has to change but feel threatened, treated unfairly and determined to hang on to the privileges they have fought for. Affirmative action has become a contentious phrase, and the university has failed to develop a policy or to really begin implementing social redress.

The students are demanding that UDW become a national (African) institution. This would involve, among other things, more African people in academic departments and the administration at all levels, and Africanisation of the curriculum. An ongoing fight by students to get private catering in residence is a small but serious part of that programme: small, because it is perfectly reasonable for African students to want to eat African food, but serious because Indian caterers would lose their jobs and because the issue has elicited racist responses.

It also highlights a bigger issue. Indian people are a tiny minority in South Africa, and UDW is the only historically Indian university. It has a definite ethnic character, it observes Indian holidays and its buildings have Indian names. It is debatable whether UDW, or any university, should have to eradicate its cultural flavour.

While relations between Indian and African students appear to be good - largely because most Indian students have withdrawn from the political arena - relations between students and the staff association are bad. The university's leaders - management and council - appear to be scared of both.

Management's dilemma is that if it takes the side of Comsa, it will have to maintain the status quo, and if it backs students it will mean full-scale Africanisation.

Both are perilous routes. But lack of management is the university's most critical problem. It is the reason why manageable problems have erupted into big issues, and why morale is at an all-time low. It is the reason why disputes between lecturers in the sociology department in particular, and ideological disagreements in general, deteriorated into a university-wide crisis.

A report on disputes in sociology, which has been kept secret, apparently accuses the university of allowing soluble issues to spiral out of control.

A Crisis Resolution Committee has been established to try to resolve the current problems, but it seems likely to get snarled up in the same narrow conflicts that have been preoccupying management for years.

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