Leading a University at the very source of civilization

A speech delivered at my installation on 24 August 2013


Our Chancellor, Honourable Justice Dikgang Moseneke

Honourable Minister, Mr Derek Hanekom

Honourable Deputy Minister of Public Service and Administration, Ms Ayanda Dlodlo

Ambassadors, Consular Generals, High Commissioners and Members of Diplomatic Corps

Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson and Members of Council

My Predecessor and brother, Dr Loyiso Nongxa

Chairperson of Convocation

Former Chancellor of the University of Witwatersrand, Justice Richard Goldstone

Fellow Vice-Chancellors from South Africa, and especially my Colleagues from the University of Lagos, University of Ibadan, University of Dar Es Salaam, University of Botswana, Great University of Zimbabwe, Lupane State University, and Morgan State University

The City Manager of Johannesburg, Municipal and Government Officials

Leaders of Political Parties

Members of Senate, my Executive Team, Academic Colleagues, Students and Alumni of the University of Witwatersrand

My Family, Friends from across the Country

My lovely wife Fatima, and wonderful sons, Irfan and Zidaan

Distinguished Guests


Welcome to Wits and thank you for joining me at my Installation. A special thank you to my aunts in the audience – in their 70s and 80s now – who brought me up as one of their own when as a boy of ten I, together with my brothers, lost our mom to the ravages of cancer. A special thank you to Irfan and Zidaan, who through their daily travails in life, make every day such a delight for Fatima and me. And of course an even more special thank you to Fatima who accompanied me on the road to this podium. I would not be here without your encouragement and sacrifice, and may I continue to have the honour and pleasure to accompany you on your path in life.

But all of you honour me with your presence here today. This is a special moment for me, as I symbolically assume the Vice-Chancellorship of Wits University, a university that is my alma mater. A university that is the alma mater of Nelson Mandela, the father of our nation and icon of our world. A university that is also the alma mater of Robert Sobukwe, Nthato Motlana, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Eduardo Mondlane, Amina Cachalia, Ismail Meer, JN. Singh, George Bizos, and Chief Justices Mohammed, Chaskalson, and Langa. A university that is the alma mater of some of South Africa’s most illustrious entrepreneurs – Ernest Oppenheimer, Donald Gordon, Koos Bekker, Patrice Motsepe, – and numerous CEOs in this country and across the globe. A university that is the alma mater of both Gwede Mantashe and Helen Zille. A university that is the alma mater of Nadine Gordimer, William Kentridge, Ezekiel Mphahlele and Aggrey Klaaste.

Yet as much as Wits has done for all these individuals, and the other 150 000 alumni all around the world, it is also a university that has much to account for. Nelson Mandela never got his Wits degree because the then Dean of Law refused to credit him with the courses he passed and allow him supplementary examinations for the rest. It was never the ‘Open University’ under apartheid many of us imagine. For a long while its black medical students were not allowed to work on white cadavers or work in white hospitals. Black students could not do BA Fine Arts because white models were used in its studios. It was Wits that was party to creating Apartheid South Africa’s nuclear capacity. It is Wits, which many thousands of black graduates continue to remain alienated from. It is Wits, where only recently vulnerable young women were sexually preyed upon or harassed. Like all of our institutions in this beautiful yet tragic land, Wits reflects our country’s pains and its euphoria, its successes and its failures.

And today, without any reservation or qualification, I want to apologise as its new vice-chancellor to all those we have done wrong by, and to pledge that we collectively will work towards creating a safe, student centred, non-racial, culturally plural and sensitive, cosmopolitan academic environment.

I stand today not only before you, but also among the bones of our common ancestors, the little Taung child, and Sediba. They are symbolic of our common ancestry and the oneness of humanity.

These bones are also symbolic of the fact that this land we occupy is one of the very sources of civilization itself. In the words of one of Wits most illustrious academics, Phillip Tobias, who in an interview on his 80th birthday said:

‘Philosophically it is terribly important that these fossils of hominids are seen as our common human ancestors. This is the scientific basis of the brotherhood of man.’

It is an onerous responsibility  -  just ask my predecessor – to lead a university located at the very source of civilization. To be true to our ancestral heritage, to be honest to Wits’ geographic lineage, we have to weave a commitment to the nation, the continent and the entire globe. We have to see our world through the lenses of all of our people: black and white and all variations in between. We need to see our world from the eyes of both men and women, and all other communities including rural and urban, abled and disabled, homosexual and heterosexual, and citizen and immigrant.

We need to understand our world from the perspective of not only the coloniser, but also the colonised, not only the landowner and farmer, but also the labour tenant and farmworker, not only the entrepreneur and chief executive officer, but also the worker and the unemployed. We need to understand our world not only from the perspective of government, the president and the cabinet, but also by understanding the concerns, desires, fears and hopes of business (both big and small), trade unions, NGOs and the civic and social movements, and the general public. We need to be responsive to the concerns of the poor and marginalised, but as much as we want to do so, it cannot be our only concern. We also have to be responsive to the challenges of business and government, rich and poor, men and women, citizen, immigrant and refugees. Wits, as a public university at the heart of the national and continental economy, can never be the prisoner of any single stakeholder.

Rather to be true to its mandate and its historical mission, it needs to be an institutional interlocutor that bridges divides, and enables a social cohesion among our multiple stakeholders. It needs to create a common bond between businessman and worker, government and citizen, farmer and tenant, citizen and immigrant, and the nation and our world.

Yet as much as we represent the multiplicity of our stakeholders, we do not do so in abstraction from a commitment to principle. This university is proudly grounded in the philosophical values of contemporary South Africa; values that are enshrined in the very constitution of the republic. This constitution requires of us to both address the historical disparities of our past and to build a new national identity among all of our citizens. It is a clarion call to build an integrative and cosmopolitan identity, where we are not only white or black, English, Afrikaner, Zulu, Sotho or Xhosa, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, or Jew, but we are all these things and simultaneously so much more, South African, African and human.

In the celebrated words of Thabo Mbeki to the Constituent Assembly in 1996, when he was still Deputy President:

I am an African!

I owe my being to the Khoi and the San whose desolate souls haunt the great expanses of the beautiful Cape – they who fell victim to the most merciless genocide our native land has ever seen…

I am formed of the migrants who left Europe to find a new home on our native land. Whatever their own actions, they remain still, part of me.

In my veins courses the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East. Their proud dignity informs my bearing, their culture a part of my essence. …

I am the grandchild of the warrior men and women that Hintsa and Sekhukhune led, the patriots that Cetshwayo and Mphephu took to battle, the soldiers Moshoeshoe and Ngungunyane taught never to dishonour the cause of freedom.

I am the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Bahamas…

I am the child of Nongqause. I am he who made it possible to trade in the world markets in diamonds, in gold, in the same food for which my stomach yearns.

I come of those who were transported from India and China, whose being resided in the fact, solely, that they were able to provide physical labour, who taught me that we could both be at home and be foreign, who taught me … that freedom was a necessary condition for … human existence.

Being part of all these people, and in the knowledge that none dare contest that assertion, I shall claim that – I am an African.

In essence, this is a call for what Achille Mbembe, one of Wits great Humanities scholars, calls the Afropolitan dream, where we simultaneously reflect a commitment to country, continent, and globe; where we are at one with being African and human.

This call has woven itself into the very soul of contemporary Wits. We have a deep commitment to be a racially integrated and nationally diverse institution. At the student level, we are currently, without question, the most demographically representative of South Africa’s research intensive universities. At the staff level, our racial diversity leaves much to be desired. But we acknowledge this, and have institutionally set a course to address this travesty.  Yet despite our commitments to this diversity, we are also mindful of the importance of and remain committed to retaining our cosmopolitan character both in national and racial terms, and we shall do so without explicit or implicit racial quotas.

There are some who refuse the constitutional imperative to build an integrated and cosmopolitan institution by invoking the banner of academic freedom and institutional autonomy. They invoke the words of T.B. Davie who as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town between 1948 and 1955 led the fight from within universities against the National Party’s incursion into Higher Education. In his inaugural address, Davie defined academic freedom and institutional autonomy as the University’s right to decide who shall teach, what we teach, how we teach, and whom we teach.

In recent years, these words have been sometimes used by some who wish to stem the tide of transformation and progress. The result has been a dialogue of the deaf between some government Ministers and officials who insist on diversity and transformation and some university leaders who invoke the principles of academic freedom and university autonomy.

Yet words abstracted from context and their substantive intent can often be misrepresented and misappropriated.  It is a real injustice to this valiant fighter of freedom, T. B. Davie, when his words are used not to merely contain authoritarian power, but instead to protect inherited privilege. Many scholars, including those associated with the CHE Task Team on Academic Freedom and Institutional Autonomy, have questioned Davie’s easy conflation of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, especially in world where threats to the academic craft can sometimes come from within the institution itself. Even more importantly, many scholars and the CHE Task Team, insist that the rights of academic freedom and institutional autonomy can only truly result in progressive outcomes, if they are applied simultaneously with a commitment to social accountability.

Wits therefore refuses to accept the intellectually questionable dichotomy between academic freedom and social accountability. We refuse to become party to a dialogue of the deaf between some in government and others at the university. Instead we chart a third independent path where we are proud to be both defenders of academic freedom and institutional autonomy, while simultaneously being a strong institutional advocate for social accountability. All three rights are enshrined into our institutional soul: the only issue remaining is how to achieve the appropriate balance in the application of all of these rights. Striking this balance of course poses hard questions: is academic freedom that of the individual scholar or the university itself?  Is institutional autonomy to be determined by the council, the senate, or the vice-chancellor and her/his executive team? Is social accountability to be constructed through the government or to the broader public through the constitution itself? These are hard questions not easily resolvable. And they cannot be resolved in the abstract. They require being addressed in the actual art of institutional decision-making and in the battle of ideas that accompany it.

Building and managing any university is a challenging task in the 21st Century, but undertaking this responsibility in South Africa is an even more onerous one. This is because the managerial challenges tend to be all the more acute. Structural poverty and inequality seep across institutional boundaries and forces the University’s executive to confront challenges such as starving students and residential overcrowding. Systemic disparities in education means that limited state budgets get directed at primary and secondary education, with the result that higher education tends to be perpetually underfunded.

It would be worthwhile noting that Higher Education receives only 12% of the Education budget, and the DHET Task Team on the Funding of Higher Education reports that if Higher Education were to be funded at the world average, it should be receiving R37 billion, not the R22 billion it presently receives. This in effect is an underfunding of about 40% in a context where the demands on universities are increasing all the time. In a world where science and higher education has no national boundaries, addressing these developmental challenges while still pursuing globally competitive university education and research, requires hard trade-offs that are not simply managerial and strategic, but also ethical and moral.

Wits, located as it is at the heart of the South African and African economy, confronts all of these challenges. In one sense, it is an institution that is blessed. Not many universities in the world own a private hospital, a 350 hectare game reserve, and a football team in the premier league. Like its host country, Wits represents two worlds in one. It has world class infrastructure. Wits also has a balance sheet that most African universities can only aspire to. Yet this budget, while large by African standards, is miniscule compared to its international peers and its institutional ambitions. Moreover, while the university can boast some world class scientists, research and teaching footprints and 8 of its disciplines in the top 1% in the world, Wits still has to continually manage problems of student homelessness and starvation. In addition, given that South Africa is still in its developmental phase, Wits has to constantly balance the imperatives of building a globally competitive university with the demands to be nationally responsive.

Thankfully these need not be mutually exclusive goals. There are some who of course hold that to be world class requires eschewing the national. In this view, to be world class means simply to imitate the foreign. Wits, by contrast, holds that it is precisely in responding to the national context that an institution can become globally competitive. It is the responsiveness to one’s contextual specificities that enhances a university’s ability to make unique contributions to the global corpus of knowledge.

To use two Wits examples: deep level mining engineering and palaeontology, both globally competitive institutional strengths which required and were enabled by a responsiveness to our national challenges and endowments.

Our humanities and social sciences bring to the global academic conversation a perspective that is often unique, foisted on our academics by their very location and the challenges that it spawns. In effect, these experiences have taught us that being world class requires not the imitation of the foreign, but the conquering of the local and the theorization of this to the global. A second principle informing our plans going forward is a more globally recognised and common one: world class universities are built by great academics, who are given financial resources and an enabling environment to operate within. Both goals – national responsiveness and global competitiveness – will define our agenda in the years ahead.

National responsiveness is not only reflected in our earlier mentioned deep commitment to be a nationally diverse and racially integrated institution, but also in our rejuvenated attempt to address throughput. South Africa’s statistics in this regard are shocking. The vast majority of students – well in excess of 80% – do not complete their degrees within the minimum time. About 50% of students also drop out of universities. In an institutional attempt to address this national challenge, Wits will revitalise its academic support programmes and throughput capacity through the establishment of a learning academy where struggling students are identified earlier on and provided with tutorial and other support interventions. In addition we are reorganising our Centre for Learning and Teaching Development (CLTD), so as to professionalise teaching among our academics.

Finally, in an effort to address inequality – the Achilles heel of South African society – Wits will introduce a new scholarship program. Currently Wits has a Vice Chancellor’s merit scholarship which is targeted at the top students in the country whose studies will be fully funded. Now it will introduce the Vice Chancellor’s equality scholarship targeted at the top students in quintile one and two schools, those that are the most marginalised and depressed in the country. Top students from these schools – merit is still retained – will be given a similar fully funded scholarship, to ensure that talented students from economically marginalised communities are also given access to Wits.

In addition, we will continue with our Targeting Talent programme where we bring onto campus grades ten, eleven and twelve scholars from rural schools for a winter and summer programme.

These two initiatives and others like our 20 year longitudinal study on how rural communities in Bushbuckridge are being transformed in our transition are directly targeted at inequality and are meant to create hope, in a section of society where it is beginning to erode.

Yet global competitiveness is also integral to our agenda. In the coming months, Wits will recruit 30 new A-rated or equivalent scholars, those that are defined by South Africa’s National Research Foundation (NRF) as being at the global cutting edge of their disciplines. A number of new multi-disciplinary research institutes have already been or are in the process of being launched. Research productivity is to be revitalised with the introduction of incentives and penalties. It is intended that Wits will significantly increase its quantitative research output while retaining its current globally competitive qualitative footprint. Wits will also double its existing cohort of postdoctoral fellows, and enhance its postgraduate scholarships to the tune of R300 million over five years so as to significantly increase its postgraduate footprint. By the end of this decade Wits should be a much more research productive and postgraduate oriented university.

This collective set of measures is meant to create a more globally competitive, yet national responsive Wits. As indicated earlier these are mutually compatible goals. And not only will these measures be important for South Africa to achieve its developmental and transformative potential, but they would also enable Wits to take its place as an equal partner in a global commons of 21st century universities.

The central motif running through these reflections, you would recognize, is the importance of ‘balance’. It is a value I often did not recognize as a young man. I recall how my Dad, now passed on, often spoke of its importance. He had a fondness for Islamic quotations and would often quote Khalil Gibran. He would say:

Among the hills, when you … shar(e) the peace and serenity of distant fields and meadows, then let your heart say in silence, “God rests in reason”.

And when the storm comes, and the mighty wind shakes the forest, the thunder and lightning proclaim the majesty of the sky – then let your heart say in awe, “God moves in passion”.

And since you are a breath in God’s sphere and a leaf in God’s forest, you too should rest in reason and move in passion.

For Gibran, it was passion and reason. For Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist who battled Mussolini’s Fascism, it was reform and revolution. For Steve Biko, who stood against Vorster’s apartheid South Africa, it was freedom or death. The singular lesson to be learnt from all of these reflections and experiences is that striking the appropriate balance between competing priorities is a necessary prerequisite for human progress. And this lesson continues to apply to contemporary South Africa. Whether we are speaking of growth and redistribution in the economy, or service delivery and transformation in the state, or national responsiveness and global competitiveness in the universities, structuring an appropriate balance between competing priorities is the precondition for breaking out of the impasse and achieving progress outcomes.

It is a lesson that we as South Africans need to learn. It is a lesson born out of this country’s fractitious history. It is a lesson crafted in the very architecture of our country’s political institutions. It is a lesson we need to teach our children. Most importantly, it is a lesson that we as South Africans need to re-learn. And it is a lesson which will govern how Wits strides forward into its future.

Chancellor, dignitaries, family, friends, colleagues and comrades, thank you once again for sharing this occasion with me and also for the many messages of support Fatima and I have received. I am deeply humbled by the honour bestowed on me to lead this great University.

As I embark on this leg of my journey in life,  I am confident that with your on-going support we will not only do great things at Wits but more importantly, we will continue building one of the world’s leading research-intensive universities, located at the economic heart of South Africa and Africa.

I thank you

Professor Adam Habib

Vice-Chancellor and Principal

Wits University

24 August 2013