To Wit: a culture clash

February 9, 1996

Three months ago, 13 senior academics at the University of the Wi****ersrand - all but one white - lodged a 297-page dossier of complaints against William Malegapuru Makgoba, deputy vice chancellor and most senior black staff member.

It was the start of a public battle that has polarised black and white and highlighted crucial issues with which many universities will have to grapple. It also left Professor Makgoba temporarily suspended.

Led by historian Charles van Onselen, the 13 academics accused Professor Makgoba of exaggerating his curriculum vitae, making public statements that brought the university into disrepute, and neglecting his administrative duties.

He denied the accusations and rounded on his opponents for using unethical methods to compile the dossier, as well as for tax evasion, nepotism, under-qualification and unjustifiable promotions.

The row illustrates a clash of cultures and a struggle for control which is an undercurrent in South Africa as a whole, contained only by a universal wish to make the new country work.

Professor Makgoba took up his post in October 1994, head-hunted from the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London, and clearly hand-picked as the university's next vice chancellor. He arrived full of enthusiasm, defining his job as the Africanisation of the university with more black students, staff, and governors and, as he wrote in The THES soon afterwards, replacement of the dominant eurocentrism.

But even in rapidly transforming South Africa, universities are slow to change and the establishment had much to lose. Many white academics were shocked by the difference of Professor Makgoba's vision. Their animosity was fuelled when he went to the press, describing the Wits leadership as "a small inbred elite" and a "junta".

Professor van Onselen launched an investigation into Professor Makgoba's record, collecting documents that allegedly contradict the professor's claim to be a member of the British Transplant Society and the American Association of Immunology, to have received large research grants and a certificate in paediatrics, and to be the first black medical graduate awarded a distinction in medicine at the University of Natal.

In October a dossier was presented to vice chancellor Robert Charlton. Nine deans and four senate members told journalists the file had been compiled because the university's administration had persistently failed to act against Professor Makgoba.

Professor Makgoba immediately denied all the allegations, saying they were part of a rightwing campaign to discredit him and hinder the transformation of Wits. Soon afterwards the executive committee of the Wits council decided that an independent tribunal of foreign people of "unquestioned integrity and academic reputation" would be established to investigate the allegations against Professor Makgoba.

Interviewed in the high circulation Sunday Times, Professor Makgoba said he could answer all charges against him, and that there was nothing in his performance or his record that he could not defend.

The Wits Student Representative Council and South African Students Congress sprang to Professor Makgoba's defence, and slowly the tables began to turn. Questions began to be asked about the way in which the dossier against him had been compiled, and the seriousness of the "misrepresentations" in his cv. The Mail and Guardian obtained a letter that Professor van Onselen had written to the University of Natal, asking who the first African student to be awarded a distinction and certificate of merit was, as part of "a rather esoteric enquiry for a piece of social history I am conducting". Natal requested that the information be removed from the dossier because it was obtained under false pretences.

Professor Makgoba said he wanted the independent tribunal to be extended to include the way he was investigated, the transformation at Wits and the management of the university.

In late November the Wits Transformation Front - the Black Staff Forum, SRC, Sasco and union representatives - and the Academic Staff Association called for an inquiry into the way in which the investigation had been conducted.

The front appealed to education minister Sibusiso Bengu to set up an international commission to investigate the "legality and professional propriety" of the inquiry by the 13 academics, their cvs and the suitability of procedures for recruitment and promotions.

In early December, Professor Makgoba fired another volley - 104 pages of allegations against the 13 - obtained from their personal files - accusing them of tax evasion, inconsistent salary scales, nepotism, lack of qualifications and misrepresentation of credentials. All allegations were denied.

Wits suspended Professor Makgoba on December 5 for abusing his position to access personal files and making the information public.

Professor Bengu expressed anger that Wits had not waited until a meeting he was due to have with them the following day: "I am duty bound to meet urgently with all parties concerned and to impress upon them that the situation that is now developing cannot be tolerated."

A series of meetings between the Wits council, administration and Professor Bengu gradually forged agreements. One was the setting up of a commission to investigate the allegations against the 13 - it is due to report soon. Four council members were appointed as mediators to address the issues of change.

Professor Makgoba's suspension was lifted in mid January when he agreed to return copies of the academics' personal files and not to divulge personal information.

Hopes that the tribunal investigating Professor Makgoba might start in late January faded and it is now expected get going in February, around the volatile time when students return to campus.

Whatever the outcomes of the commissions, Professor Makgoba and the 13 academics will find it hard to work together in the future. Some will probably have to leave. In the longer term, the "Battle of Wits" will probably decide who runs the university and how it will change.

What happens will send signals of change to other historically white universities, which have been monitoring the "Makgoba affair" with trepidation. Their silence on the issue has spoken volumes.

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