Journey from student activism to varsity helm

Derrick Swartz
Derrick Swartz

The very idea that Derrick Swartz would one day become vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University would have been laughable at the height of his student activism days in the 1970s.

As would the fact that his tenure would be marked by seven years of intense creativity and problem-solving. These and other nuggets about both professor Swartz and the institution he has run since 2007 emerged during a conversation on the university’s decade of existence and its forerunner – the University of Port Elizabeth – which was started 50 years ago.

“It has been a tumultuous and exciting time marked by intense creativity, and I am fortunate to be attached to NMMU,” Swartz said.

The institution mirrored the societal complexities and contradictions of transformation witnessed throughout South Africa. It represented a microcosm of South Africa’s transformation process, which began in the early 1990s, Swartz said.

Asked if the thought of leading the university had ever crossed his mind while he and countless others agitated for an inclusive South Africa, he said: “In those days you did not think beyond the present. Future possibilities manifested themselves in poetry, music and freedom songs.

“I also would have asked myself what beer I had been drinking. The then-UPE was in a different world to mine. I studied at the University of the Western Cape because UPE was not meant for us. It and the Port Elizabeth Technikon were alien … I cannot remember ever visiting the university until the time of democracy.”

Being at the helm presented him with a set of challenges and his work was a delicate balancing act.

A dilemma Swartz has had to grapple with is the question of opening up NMMU to more students who have academic potential but lack financial means.

Creating conditions for this had to be weighed against the institution’s financial health.

Although NMMU’s student body was largely representative, lower- and middle-echelon staff were undergoing the transformation process, which he estimated would take a decade or two to be completed.

“A big thank you to past and present staff for making NMMU a wonderful space, and my hope for the next decade is that we will all reach for the best that lies within us to become true South Africa. It would be wonderful to emulate the values espoused by Nelson Mandela in order to serve the wider community.”

– The Herald Reporter 

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