Wound that must heal

March 1, 1996

In the Long Walk to Freedom Nelson Mandela describes apartheid as a policy that "created a deep and lasting wound". It is a wound that has damaged people, institutions like the University of Natal and our country.

It is clear, he says, that "all of us will spend many years, if not generations, recovering from that profound hurt". But how do we start the healing process?

Mandela himself, like all truly great leaders, has given us many examples of how we should start by reaching out to people and seeking reconciliation. Mandela knows, as I am sure we know, that reconciliation is necessary to the transformation of our country. It is necessary to the nation-building that will bind us together. Bound together, acting as one people, with discipline and determination, there is nothing standing in the way of our delivering what our people need. But for reconciliation to take place, it is necessary first to acknowledge the hurt that has been inflicted. Reconciliation, like the search for the truth about apartheid horrors, must be founded on what Milan Kundera has called "the victory of memory over forgetting".

The University of Natal, as an institution, must understand that many of its past actions were unacceptable, judged by any universally accepted criteria of justice and human dignity. A curious anomaly of apartheid emerged at the university.

While the National Party government decreed that "white" universities should have no black students, the University of Natal had a "black" medical school where white people could not be enrolled. For several decades it was the only place in the country where black Africans could become doctors. Though they were part of the university, students of the medical school nevertheless found themselves victims of discrimination and exclusion and one of their forms of protest was to boycott graduation ceremonies. It was necessary for the university to initiate a reconciliation process.

A first symbolic gesture was to hold a reconciliation ceremony where students who had boycotted in the past could graduate symbolically and I, as vice chancellor, could publicly acknowledge the past and apologise to them.

Many prominent people in the public life of the new South Africa are graduates of Natal's medical school and all joined in the occasion which turned out to be one of great joy. One alumni said: "It was a night when I suddenly came alive. I could forgive the hurts of the past and be recognised as an equal partner in our country's future. In a moment I had reached my full stature as a person and a doctor. I wanted to cry for joy."

In our search for the authentic experiences of our past we have embarked on a substantial history of the medical school from its very beginnings. Through this process we hope to separate fiction from fact. Time and again we have been told by our alumni that the medical students were not allowed on the Howard College campus, not allowed to use its library, not allowed to participate in the sporting life of the university, not allowed to compete for colours, not allowed to wear the university blazer, and a host of other matters which drove the students to the point where they wanted as little association with the university as possible.

Such was the intensity of this that they even felt driven to have their own letterhead - anything to distance themselves from an institution which could inflict a myriad of such demeaning hurts. It is small wonder that our graduates believe they are owed more than an apology. They also look for sincerity of intent.

I suppose one should look back and at least try to understand how such things could happen and how normal relationships became abnormal and were horrendously distorted. The government of the day was ready to seize on any opportunity to close the medical school and indeed history records that there were such attempts. But perhaps we were too cowed. I am sure we were.

Thank God there were at least some people who had the courage and the heart to rise above the rest and we should pay them tribute for rescuing something for the university.

There were staff at the medical school, admittedly few in number, but inalienably wedded to a democratic ethos, who led the resistance to discriminatory policies in education and to an unjust society.

The student movement made its own valuable contribution to the processes that have made it possible for us to meet and celebrate our future. I know that many of these progressive staff and students should have received more support. To them we pay tribute.

The fact remains that the University of Natal owes the students who were profoundly hurt by both its commissions and omissions an unequivocal apology. It has owed them this apology for a very long time and indeed the apology is well overdue. This does not however diminish it nor make it less sincere and heartfelt. For a number of years and for many reasons, most of the students lost contact with their alma mater, but they can be assured that the process of transformation is well under way.

The university has had to look at its institutional history with an unflinching eye and find the courage and heart to repent deeply of such a history. In this search we have found a reciprocal generosity and forgiveness. Medical graduates responded warmly to the university's invitation to take the first steps in the healing process and it is deeply appreciative of this response.

No one would suggest that a ceremony is enough in itself to constitute an instant cure. It is in many ways a symbol, but one that augurs well for a cure. Indeed it is the work of the future which will ultimately decide whether the reconciliation or cure is real.

What is the work of the future? Above all else I would suggest that the work of the future will be marked by the participation of medical students in the affairs of their university. Such participation can take place in many ways, not the least of which is participation in the teaching of a new generation of students; students ready to take their place among health workers facing poverty, malnutrition and perhaps the most catastrophic virus the world has ever known.

Convocation too can play a powerful role. Along with students and university staff, it can support the university's initiatives to become more fully a part of the community; to foster systemic thinking across disciplines and professions; to make a significant contribution to the reconstruction and development of South Africa.

I concluded my speech at the reconciliation ceremony by adapting some words from President Mandela's inaugural address: never, never and never again shall it be that this university will experience the oppression and hurt of one by another.

Brenda Gourley is vice chancellor of the University of Natal.

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