SOUTH AFRICA: Reflections on a major merger

At the start of the new millennium South Africa began a radical restructuring of the higher education sector. The number of universities was cut from 36 to 23 through incorporations and mergers - some creating huge universities - aimed at breaking down apartheid's racial divides and transforming the sector. SIPHO SEEPE reviews the first book published on one of the major mergers, the creation of the 40,000-student University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Edited by Vice-chancellor Professor Malegapuru Makgoba and Deputy Vice-chancellor Professor John C Mubangizi, The Creation of the University of KwaZulu-Natal: Reflections on a merger and transformation experience (Excel, New Delhi 2010) comprises 11 chapters by founding executive members of the new university, describing the creation and consolidation of the merged institution between 2004 and 2007.


Nothing captured the link between politics and apartheid education in South Africa more than the words of apartheid's foremost architect, Dr Hendrik Verwoed. Introducing a bill in the senate in 1953 Verwoed, as Minister of Native Affairs, declared his intention regarding black education: "I will reform black education so that the Natives [black people] will be taught from childhood to realise that equality with Europeans is not for them".

He went further to elaborate that there was no point in teaching a black child mathematics since there would be no opportunities his government would provide for the black child to practice the subject. Blacks had to be taught according to opportunities that would be available. This prescription laid the foundation for the whole education system.

Mahmood Mamdani (1999) captured the apartheid imprint on higher education as follows:

"Black universities coming out of apartheid were the intellectual counterparts of Bantustans [separate areas set aside for black people]. They were designed to function as detention centres for black intellectuals [rather] than as centres that would nourish intellectual thought. As such, they had little tradition of intellectual freedom or institutional autonomy."

As in the economic sphere, intellectual life in South Africa has been characterised by gross racial inequalities in knowledge production. Under apartheid research became largely a white affair, and it remains so to this day as conditions at historically white universities were favourable for research, and funding patterns tended and continue to show bias towards them.

Social research in South Africa became intricately linked to the ideology of apartheid. Mamdani's comment is succinct:

"Both the white and black institutions were products of apartheid, though in different ways. The difference was not only in the institutional culture, that the former enjoyed institutional autonomy and the latter were bureaucratically driven. The difference was also in their intellectual horizons. It was the white intelligentsia that took the lead in creating apartheid-enforced identities in the knowledge they produced. Believing that this was an act of intellectual creativity unrelated to the culture of privilege in which they were steeped, they ended defending an ingrained prejudice with a studied conviction. The irony is that the white intelligentsia came to be a greater, became a more willing, prisoner of apartheid thought than its black counterpart."

The ushering in of the post-apartheid political dispensation brought forth a curious historical conjuncture, pregnant with challenges, opportunities and possibilities on how best to translate our political democracy and sovereignty into economic, social and cultural liberation.

Kader Asmal, Minister of Education at the time of the restructuring of higher education, was therefore correct to state that the purpose of restructuring and transformation was to liberate higher education from the geopolitical imagination of apartheid. Asmal described the restructuring and transformation project as follows:

"The creation of a new institutional landscape through mergers and incorporations was the last piece in the educational jigsaw, which consigned to history Verwoed's 'grand' vision of an educational system in which Africans would be prepared for their role as the 'hewers of wood and the drawers of water' and as the administrative cogs for ensuring the smooth functioning of the Bantustans."

This is probably a bit of an exaggeration since not all of South Africa's institutions were subjected to mergers or incorporations. This alone would suggest these institutions would have been immune to apartheid policies or could be trusted to transform themselves.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact that some of these institutions remain largely white and unwelcoming to black academic staff and students speaks volumes. Given the strong identities and powerful interest groups involved, one is left with a lingering sense that some institutions were left out to avoid the political backlash that would have ensued.

The UKZN merger book

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) was created on 1 January 2004 from a merger between the historically white University of Natal and the nearby University of Durban-Westville, which was set up to serve South Africa's Indian population.

The book describing the merger can be divided into three themes/elements.

The first provides the political if not philosophical thrust that underpins the restructuring initiative. Two central pillars and substantive goals are reduced, first, to the creation of institutions with new identities and cultures consistent with the vision, values and principles of a non-racial and non-sexist democratic society. The second pillar or goal is to transform them into effective and efficient institutions that are responsive and contribute to the changing intellectual skills and knowledge needs of South Africa.

Makgoba, UKZN's current Vice-chancellor, describes the merger project as "part of government reforms aimed at reconfiguring higher education so as to make it more relevant and responsive to the needs of a developing society in the post 1994 era of democracy and the knowledge and scholarship imperatives in a globally competitive world".

The second thrust of the book looks at the mechanics, strategies and tactics that were undertaken to integrate and harmonise the administrative structures and policies of the merging institutions and to craft those suitable for the new institution. The third thrust is a reflection on the outcomes of the process and lessons learned.

Given the complexities involved, these goals would take long to achieve. The integration of the merging institutions in terms of academic and administrative structures, systems and policies proved to be a medium-term project requiring three to five-years.

For Asmal it was gratifying that the process of academic and administrative integration was completed without any major mishaps: "This is no mean feat given the alarm bells rung by the prophets of doom at the time, who predicted failure, arguing that the complexities involved were beyond the capacities of either the ministry or the affected institutions."

For Asmal it is fitting that UKZN, one of the first institutions created as a result of the merger process, would be the first to produce a book reflecting on the process.

It would appear that the merger is beginning to bear fruit with regard to at least one of the substantive goals. Asmal observes in the foreword that "there has been a steady increase in graduate and research output at UKZN. This is in large part due to the consolidation of academic programmes through the creation of a single and unitary academic architecture, which was fast-tracked at the outset."

Contributors were however quick to point out that the process required steely resolve on the part of the executive leadership. Since race as a fault line runs deep in the South African psyche, changes were viewed through the prism of race. It did not help that the dominant political discourse sought to sweep racial demons under the carpet.

In making an irrevocable break with the past, UKZN adopted a bold vision of creating "the premier university of African scholarship" accompanied by a mission of being "a truly South African university that is academically excellent, innovative in research and critically engaged with society".

This philosophical posture did not come easy. It triggered fierce resistance from those who had become accustomed to apartheid ways of being and seeing. Indeed, some saw this as the beginning of the end of scholarship (read privilege).

Both Makgoba and Asmal note that the interplay between politics and the meaning of African scholarship in the context of a truly South African university became the focal point of resistance by those opposed to higher education transformation. They invoked the universality of knowledge and sought protection in the constitutional right to academic freedom.

Paraphrasing Mahmood Mamdani, Asmal points out that these people should be reminded that universalism is not an abstract concept but is rooted in "producing knowledge that takes as its starting point, the addressing of the local condition, which in turn contributes to and advocates the universal condition".

Most importantly, both Makgoba and Asmal are agreed that the "countering of a spurious universality should not be at the expense of academic freedom and the silencing of critical voices, including those opposed to the transformation of higher education. The opposing views, no matter how unpalatable, must be challenged and defeated through engagement and debate. The defense of academic freedom and the free flow of flowering of ideas must be at the centre of defining a new institutional identity and culture if higher education transformation is to give meaning to the building of a democratic society and a nation united in its diversity."

Reflecting on the challenges of merging institutions, Dr Vincent Maphai, then chairperson of council, noted that the "challenges that confronted the noble objective, the pedantic and cynical opposition that courted the process and the sometimes devious agendas of the dissidents, can never be underplayed or discounted. The process and experience of the merger was as formidable as it was challenging, it was as daunting as it was exhilarating and as painful as it was also immensely rewarding."

All contributors agree that the pain and effort were worth it as the university can now claim a position as a pivotal expertise and technology-driver serving academia, industry, commerce and society generally through its knowledge production endeavours. Research productivity in has increased significantly, placing UKZN as the second most prolific institution in the country in terms of officially recognised publication (SAPSE) outputs.

Makgoba's contribution to the book seeks to answer three inter-related questions. What is the book about? Does it give a definitive story of the creation of the University of KwaZulu-Natal? How does the book project contribute to scholarship?

He writes: "The challenges associated with changing the mindsets, physical locations, the form and content of scholarship and the essence and appearance of the new university are documented in the book written by members of executive leadership of the university who served in various capacities since 2004 when the new university came into being.

"It is a reflection of individual persons who happened to occupy various positions on the executive leadership team of the new university at a time when it was created through the merger process.

"The book is therefore not intended to be the one and only factual historic record of the emergence of UKZN nor is intended to present the varying perspectives of the broader university community that participated in the merger process and related terms. It cannot and does not purport to be an expression of the general view of the whole institution. Rather, it is meant to be a collection of reflections of some of the people who played a central role in the creation of the new institution."

Regarding its contribution to scholarship, Makgoba writes that the objectives of the book include the needs to:

* Reflect on the mergers in the context of South African higher education post-1994.
* Analyse the context and challenges in merging higher education institutions in South Africa.
* Analyse and evaluate the merger experience in the context of UKZN.
* Record historic views from an executive perspective on the emergence of UKZN for the benefit of policy-makers, academic administrators, students, researchers and the general public.

The scholastic element becomes clearer if one considers how little literature there has been on mergers of higher education institutions in South Africa. Indeed, contributors bring "a hands-on experience in conceptualising, planning, implementing, managing and driving a real merger process".

Those contemplating undertaking an enormous and complex project such as this would find in this book a useful guide on what to do and what to avoid. It will provide a guide on what problems to anticipate and the form of leadership required to put together a sustainable merger project.

Explained in it is a detailed process of establishing a new institutional identity, the manner in which the vision, mission, core values and goals were arrived at - this includes the way in which academic ceremonies, apparel and symbols were conceived to reflect the new notion of African scholarship.

The book details what it takes to deconstruct legacy institutions, to change mindsets, to (re)brand an institution. It provides insight on how to handle human resources such as engaging union concerns and managing debates around the nature and practice of academic freedom.

It is encouraging to note that a chapter has been dedicated to deal with the core business of the university. To paraphrase Makgoba the chapter discusses "teaching, research, and community engagement by presenting an outline of the structures supporting the core functions, the nature of research and knowledge production more generally, reasons for the choice of strategic research initiatives, curriculum challenges and the outreach initiatives which were relevant, scholarly and impacted on the community in UKZN's attempts to be critically engaged with society".

Equally important is dedicating a chapter to explain what a premier university of African Scholarships entails in real terms. The starting point is recognition that universities are intrinsic parts of societies in which they are located. As such they are expected to be responsive and to play a meaningful role in the development and transformation imperatives facing society.

The adoption of 'African scholarship' is deliberate. It is a rejection of a view that says that nothing of value can be expected from the African continent. All that is required is the mimicking of what is taking place in the West. Indeed our universities can be described as Western institutions located in Africa whose intellectual inspiration is to be found outside their location. In branding itself as the premier university of African Scholarship, the UKZN leadership invariably had to address questions relating to the knowledge it researched, produced and transmitted, questions it asked of society, and scholarly solutions it proposed for a society.

Describing this challenge Makgoba reminds us:

There existed a denial of everything African, a context in which there was no place for African knowledge systems to contribute to the shaping of global scholarship. Universities had a dislocated identity; dislocated from the very people who possessed the relative knowledge and understanding so necessary for the amelioration of colonial legacy.

Deliberate historical overlooking of the cultural context forced us to face the responsibility of being an African university, for it is here that we were to find our most honourable identity; an identity that was to define a distinctive brand. These responsibilities were moral, intellectual and inspirational and they are served by adapting our scholarship to the social, structural and cultural environments of Africa and producing 'knowledge that takes the African condition and the African identity as its central problem...'
(Mamdani, 1997).

Responding to the question of what is meant by an African University, Makgoba writes:

The African university is an institution that had the consciousness of an African identity from which it derives and celebrates its strengths and assesses those strengths to its own comparative and competitive advantage on the international stage. The African university draws its inspiration from its environment, as an indigenous tree growing from a seed that is planted and nurtured in African soil. (Nkrumah, 1956)

Describing the challenge and responsibilities required, Makgoba continues:

Radical restructuring of institutions of higher learning, especially in a context of liberation from oppression, brought with it a natural contestation over the theory of knowledge, and its production and dissemination. Africans have had to face and strive to overcome the penalties of a colonial history - the valorisation of Western academia, insufficient levels of pride and faith in African achievements, a heritage of complex racial dynamics, and an unequal distribution of national resources.

There was need to be finely-tuned to this environment to enable the creation of a university with a strong sense of itself and that was also world-class; an institution that could play a transformational role in the development of South Africa, but also make a meaningful contribution to global knowledge.
(Makgoba, 2005)

The success of the creation of UKZN would ultimately be measured by the extent to which the university fulfills the objective it sought to achieve, and the extent to which it does this in a sustainable fashion. Clarity of thought informed by continuous deliberations during the mergers assisted the university in crystallising the objectives of creating the new institution. Of the 15 or so, the following are worth restating:

* Promote access to learning that will expand educational and employment opportunities for the historically disadvantaged, and support social transformation and redress.
* Create and develop an enabling environment for all learners and scholars to pursue their studies in accordance with the principles of academic freedom.
* Advance knowledge and culture through globally competitive teaching, learning, scholarship and research, innovation and scientific investigation.
* Foster a capacity for independent critical thinking, free engagement in foundational discovery and reappraisal and extension of traditional views of the world among students.
* Ensure effective governance through democratic representation, accountability, and transparency.

Meeting these objectives will be tall order. But they are critical if the UKZN is to fulfill its vision of being a 'truly South African university' that is academically excellent, innovative in research, and critically engaged with society.

Since its creation in 2004, the transformation project has been in full steam. The fact that 54% of UKZN's academics are black is no small achievement. This makes nonsense of the claim that black academics are hard to find.

At the same time it challenges the wisdom of having left some historically advantaged institutions out of the restructuring process. These have tended to maintain their historical identity as last bastions of white privilege.

* Dr Sipho Seepe is a strategy consultant and Special Advisor to the Minister of Defense and Military Veterans. He is a former academic and President of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

* To order a copy of the book, email:


Mamdani, M (1999) "There can be no African Renaissance without an Africa-focused Intelligentsia". In African Renaissance, MW Makgoba (ed). Mafube Publishing (Proprietary) Limited.

Makgoba, MW (2005) "The African University: Meaning, penalties and responsibilities". Installation address as Vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, 30 September 2005. Durban.

Nkrumah, K (1956) Opening Address, University College, Accra .

Seepe, S (ed) (1998) Black Perspective(s) in Institutional Transformation. Vivlia Publishers Johannesburg, South Africa.