NMMU vice-chancellor Prof Derrick Swartz was in an upbeat mood and in high spirits last week, at a function at which his university was conferring highly prestigious awards on two prominent citizens, Moki Cekisani, and Port Elizabeth-born and Cape Town-based Themba Mvusi.
While welcoming the distinguished invited guests, from various social, political and business circles, he highlighted the tense moments on the campus during the student protests.
He used his welcoming address to reflect on a year that had had its ups and downs. Fortunately for him, he had more to smile about than to bemoan when considering a year that was generally a difficult one.
Karen and I had been invited by Mvusi and his wife, Bongiwe, as their guests when he was being awarded the Council Prestige Award by the university council at a beachfront hotel.
Mvusi, the Sanlam chief executive of marketing development, was honoured for his contribution in making the benefits of broad-based economic empowerment tangible in the Eastern Cape and for his leadership success in the world of business.
Together with veteran political, social and environmental activist Cekisani, Mvusi had the honour bestowed by council chairman Judge Ronnie Pillay. The function was attended by Nelson Mandela Bay mayor Danny Jordaan and a host of other prominent citizens.
Swartz, normally a reserved and considered academic, and former Eastern Cape general secretary of the United Democratic Front (UDF), was in an unstoppable mood to brag about the track record of his institution, his staff and students. He started his conversation by quoting the words of Queen Elizabeth, when she reflected on a tempestuous year of 1992 as an “annus horribilis”.
She spoke these Latin words in November of that year, at the Guildhall, hosted by the lord mayor of London, and was reflecting on a year that was characterised by scandals, the negative publicity surrounding her daughters-in-law and the tragic fire that gutted Windsor Castle.
Swartz told the audience he was thinking aloud about the recent events that had engulfed the learning institutions in the land, when the students were calling for #FeesMustFall . “The student demands were legitimate. “I have always stood for access to education for all,” he said. “However, I did not agree with some of the tactics and methods that were employed.”
He expressed satisfaction with the manner in which his management team had worked hard to normalise a situation that was extraordinarily difficult. He applauded the students for raising their demands within the prescripts of the law.
After all, his institution affords opportunities to academically deserving, but financially needy, students through the process of applying for assistance. He said his management team and students would strive to work towards alleviating some of the stumbling blocks in the way of educational achievements.
In Swartz’s observation, this year was far from being an annus hor ribilis. Actually it was an annus mirabilis year, when one considered that the university managed to register more than 26 000 students in the six campuses under its control, without any glitches.
This number is made up of 13% foreign students, mostly from the African continent. The university is one of the biggest employers in town, with 2 700 staff.
He expressed great satisfaction with the fact that more than 6 500 students were gowned and capped this year.
Swartz tabulated a long list of ground-breaking and milestone achievements by the university. It is earmarked to be the driving engine of the marine economy and one of the biggest employers in the province.
The university injected R1.7-billion directly into the local economy through wages, student purchases and accommodation. In the last six years the university has also ploughed into the economy R1.6-billion in fixed direct investment, through new capital projects.
Prospects for the next five years looks bright and promising. The university is acquiring a seventh campus that will house the Maritime and Marine Centre.
He also announced that the government had approved the funding of the pre-medical programme next year. NMMU is set to be a leader in maritime studies as well as in primary healthcare.
We are fortunate to have a growing, well-led university in our city. Swartz can be commended for good leadership and for tailoring the university degrees to the needs in our city.
Hopefully next year will be an even better annus mirabilis.