North-West University’s Ntate Dan Kgwadi: new captain of the ship

2013-12-08 14:00

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Before you could even say BEE, a racial storm erupted after Ntate Dan Kgwadi was appointed North-West University’s first black vice-chancellor.

First his name was Pogisego. “That means someone who is going through troubles and hardships.”

And as if that name spelt out his destiny, he had plenty of trouble.

But then he decided he had had enough of that, enough trouble, enough suffering, so he changed his name to Ntate Dan Kgwadi. “That’s what my ID book now says.”

Ntate means “father”, because he had to be the father that he never had, support his family, “fix up his mistakes”.

But now the trouble has caught up with him again, despite his new name.

Kgwadi (46) has just been appointed the new vice-chancellor of North-West University (NWU).

On June 1 next year, this physics professor will take over from Dr Theuns Eloff as the first black vice-chancellor in the history of NWU.

But before you could even say BEE, a racial storm burst over his bald head. The appointment is unfair, racially motivated, a political decision, the people of Solidarity said.

Kgwadi smiles resignedly, as if he has been preparing himself for this uproar for years. “The response was not a shock: ‘Oh man, he’s a darkie. They got him from rent-a-darkie, just a black face to get the politicians off their backs’.”

And as if fate has a sense of humour, he is also a Seventh Day Adventist. You can hear the Doppers turning in their graves.

But as if he knows something that others have yet to find out, there’s a smile on Kgwadi’s lips. “Just watch this space.”

The ruler and the queen B

In the driveway of his home in Centurion, Pretoria, is a sleek black sports car, a Mercedes-Benz SLK 200. Inside, the TV is blaring on a music channel. “Let me be your ruler, ruler, you can call me Queen B.”

Then, as if on command, first the Queen B and later the Ruler burst through the door in a blur.

Mable (44) is Kgwadi’s wife and works at the National Research Foundation. Their 15-year-old daughter, Babie, bounces around merrily speaking Setswana with her mother, while the housekeeper does the cooking.

The house smells of baked pudding when Kgwadi finally skates in out of breath in his Madiba shirt and sandals, and collapses with a sigh on the large couch.

This beautiful sofa with its bright cushions looks like a throne for?NWU’s new king. And in his traditional dress he looks like a Swazi prince. “And we’ll never be royals,” the TV sings.

“How are you?” he asks in Afrikaans, before formally draping his arm over the armrest. His large golden wedding ring looks like a royal seal.

The whole thing happened on Friday, November 22. There was a very long board meeting and then the chairperson and vice-chairperson called him into an office and said this is how things are: “You’re NWU’s new vice-chancellor.”

“I was very worried, because I knew it could become a racial thing.”

In the week before the announcement, he even offered to withdraw “because I felt it could turn ugly”.

But then Eloff said no, that would cause even more controversy.

“So I thought, well, let me finish the course. So when they called me and told me of the board’s decision, I said, fine, I’m ready.”

He takes off his glasses and his chiselled face looks tired. “Time will prove that this thing is not determined by race; it’s about the person.”

Solidarity’s response is just stereotypical, he says. “People think that when an appointment is black, it’s transformation; if it’s white, it’s deserving. People do not think about deserving transformation.”

He doesn’t want anything just because of his skin colour.

“I said the same thing to the board. That would be a gross insult.”

Actually, it was his mother who prepared him all his life for this job. Meisie Kgwadi knew years ago, shortly after his birth at Kraaipan, a village in North West, that this boy had to study.

He talks easily about his difficult childhood, as if he has long ago detached the story from any emotion, as if the heartache dissolved as in a science experiment and only the facts crystallised.?His father was abusive, he says almost casually. “My father beat my mother terribly. He drank and when he was beside himself with rage, he kicked everything and everyone in his path. He wanted to kill my mother and the four children. When we heard him coming home, we ran away.”

At one stage it was so bad that the police had to come home with them.

“It was very traumatic. I had the worst of it because I was the oldest boy. I felt I had to protect my mother and the other children.”

When he was eight years old, Meisie fled from Kraaipan with her four children to Taung, a small town also in the North West.

There she and all the children lived in one room in someone’s back yard. No running water, no electricity, food cooked in a three-legged pot on an open fire.

“I grew up very poor. I always tell my students: Poverty is not something I have to look up in a dictionary. I have lived it.”

His mother was a teacher at a farm school, even though she only had Standard 6. She continued to learn all her life and in the same year that her son graduated with his BSc, Meisie passed her matric. Before her retirement, she had her teacher’s diploma. “She was a lifelong learner.”

From childhood she made him do sums. “When she received her salary cheque, she would put it down on the table and say, ‘Come on, work out what we’re going to buy’. So she taught me to budget.

“I remember the groceries list so well: 2kg of Nespray, 5kg of mealiemeal, a bag of potatoes, a bottle of oil.”

But from an early age, Kgwadi looked further afield than Kraaipan and Taung. With iron will, he studied his way out of that rural despair. He passed higher-grade maths and science, became the head boy, and obtained scholarships and loans to study further.

And when Meisie breathed her last breath at the age of 70, that clever son of hers had four degrees.

In the best interests of all

By the time he went to university, he had already changed his name from Pogisego to Ntate Dan.

“I did not want my father’s name any more. I have no happy memories of him.”

At the former University of Bophuthatswana, he saw a real laboratory for the first time – learnt what to do with pipettes and burettes.

Then he fell in love with physics and eventually became a physics professor at NWU, later becoming?principal of Mafikeng’s campus.

This job he has now been doing for almost 10 years “and I don’t think there is a historically black university that is our equal when it comes to research”.

Race will long be an issue at NWU because of the university’s history, Kgwadi says.

“It will take wisdom to ensure the country and the students that the university will act in the best interests of all.”

And Afrikaans? Will Potch University stay Afrikaans? “I will not change the language policy.

The council decides on policy. But Afrikaans is not the issue,” he says.

“The issue is how we can improve access to the university.”

Transformation is a very sensitive process.

“A doctor does not work with a butcher’s knife in the theatre; he works with very fine, sensitive equipment,” he says.

Change will have to come, but he will turn NWU like a big ship – slowly and carefully so that no one falls overboard in the process.

And he does not believe it will cause too much hardship. Because Ntate Dan is his name, he has already had his share of hardship.

»?Fitzpatrick is a senior writer at Beeld

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