As Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University celebrates a major milestone in its history, Xolisa Phillip looks back over the years to the opening of its forerunner, the University of Port Elizabeth, 50 years ago amid controversy.
The University of Port Elizabeth, (UPE), whose founding was mired in political controversy, came into being 50 years go. It preceded the amalgamated entity that is today referred to as the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), which is celebrating a milestone decade this year since the merger of UPE, the Port Elizabeth Technikon and the city’s campus of Vista University.
This week key figures who have in various ways been part of both institutions’ rich and sometimes contentious histories, went back in time to revisit the human dramas that shaped and coloured a divisive, bygone era that also gave rise to a new, inclusive one.
Former vice-chancellor Rolf Stumpf, NMMU council deputy chairman Cumngce Gawe and dean of students Khaya Matiso all gave contrasting accounts of the long and difficult road it took to arrive at a new entity designed to serve all in the Eastern Cape, the country and elsewhere.
It all began in January 1964, when parliament passed Act 1, which paved the way for UPE but the process usurped the Port Elizabeth branch of Rhodes University.
This was a political coup for the Broederbond, whose members held powerful positions in the state, as it has been widely reported Rhodes was seen as too liberal for the government of the time.
The following year the first crop of students arrived at the newly unveiled university in Bird Street, Central. It later moved to Summerstrand.
UPE broke the mould as the country’s first dual-medium institution and was founded to advance the cause of whites in general, and Afrikaners in particular.
Stumpf, UPE vice-chancellor from 2002 to 2004 and thereafter NMMU head from 2005 to 2007, said although the merger years were a difficult time for the institution, they presented it with an opportunity to do things in a new way.
“There was a lot of uncertainty among staff about their futures. That time was a mix of opportunity and challenges, but the pros outweighed the cons.” There were two universities – UPE and the Rand Afrikaans University – in the country that were founded by the Broederbond to advance the white cause, especially that of Afrikaners, which later incorporated a large black student body through mergers and the dawn of a democratic South Africa, added Stumpf.
“The merger afforded UPE the chance to deal with its past constructively,” Stumpf said.
One of his biggest challenges while the university was undergoing changes was maintaining focus on the end goal when many issues were in flux. But a lot of good came out of the process and the unity of NMMU bore testament to this.
“NMMU was up and running in three years. Some of the other institutions are battling to get to where NMMU was then.”
He credited his former staff for this achievement, saying without them it would not have been possible.
For former Uitenhage mayor Gawe, who was the Technikon’s first black graduate in 1980, there is much to celebrate about NMMU’s progress but also still a lot to be achieved when it comes to transforming its higher echelons.
“The university’s student body is reflective of the country’s demographics, but the same cannot be said about its management structure.”
Each of the merged institutions had its good and bad points, from which the best aspects were picked to help form the new entity, NMMU.
Matiso – appointed acting principal of the Port Elizabeth College and helping to oversee the turnaround in the province’s troubles further education and training colleges – lit up when he recalled the university transformative trajectory from its exclusionary past to its inclusive present.
He was part of a group of Fort Hare students kicked out for their political activism in the mid-1980s. “Fortunately for us, this was around the same time the PE Vista campus was opened. The authorities were desperate for students, so they took us in without knowing our political backgrounds,” Matiso said with a chuckle.
He was among the first group of graduates from Vista.
“Our graduation ceremony was held at Qhayiya hall – I would equate that to NMMU hosting a graduation at a high school because it does not have facilities. What is that?
“But we are here today because we were committed and dedicated to our education.”
In contrast to its forerunners’ divided past, NMMU students could today enjoy a vibrant campus environment, he said.
– The Herald Reporter