Academics singing ‘The Farmers’ Song’

2010-11-15 00:00

“WITH this book I’ve satisfied my curiosity,” says Bill Guest. The book in question is A Fine Band of Farmers Are We!, a history of agricultural studies in Pietermaritzburg over a period of 75 years from 1934 to 2009, the focus of which is the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of KwaZulu-Natal — affectionately known as AgFac — today the School of Agricultural Sciences and Agribusiness.

“I was always curious about AgFac,” says Guest, a professor emeritus and senior research associate in historical studies on the local varsity campus. “I first became interested via the prominence of its students in Durban-Pietermaritzburg intercollege sporting competitions of the early sixties — I was then a Durban participant.

“This youthful curiosity was fed many years later during the eighties and nineties when I was a member of the University Research Committee and its chairperson Professor Deneys Schreiner sent me to interview AgFac applicants to the university research fund, presumably on the basis that I had no connection with the faculty.”

As Guest got to know the faculty and its members better it confirmed his intuition that AgFac was in some ways very different from other sections of the university and, having done some initial research into the faculty, he decided to “work it up and find out more”.

The faculty came into being in the thirties, born out of the realisation that the eastern seaboard needed an agricultural faculty to meet research needs and requirements different from those of the Highveld and the Western Cape, areas already well served by agricultural studies.

The faculty was a curious hybrid, partly a creature of the government and partly a creature of the university. Which is possibly why AgFac had a reputation as being a conservative section of the university. “It’s always dangerous to stereotype,” says Guest, “but the faculty was seen as fairly conservative compared with the medical school which was seen as the more radical and politically active faculty.

“The staff were as much public servants as university employees,” says Guest. “All staff appointments had to be approved by Pretoria, conference papers had to be approved by Pretoria and even international correspondence had to be vetted. Research programmes meant doing what the department wanted them to do.”

The links with government also raised issues of academic freedom and Guest’s book makes clear how at times the faculty could not fully take part in the life of the university. “They were not able to speak out when anything of a social or political nature came up, they had to keep mum.”

The faculty was also officially bilingual and teaching was supposed to take place in English and Afrikaans, “although in practice it soon became English-medium only”.

The student body itself was also perceived as conservative, largely because it was drawn from rural, traditionally conservative environments. Paradoxically, despite this apparent conservatism, the student body had a reputation for boisterous behaviour. “Although in AgFac they always felt they were not the only ones,” says Guest, “and that they were no rowdier than a good few others from other sections of the university.”

The book’s title is taken from the chorus of a song — The Farmers’ Song  — composed by first-year agricultural students in 1948, which was adopted as a general university refrain to represent the Pietermaritzburg campus. “In Durban it was the engineering department that had this boisterous reputation,” says Guest, “and at the annual inter-campus sports tournaments Durban students countered with ‘We are the engineers from Varsity ...’, whether members of that faculty or not.”

In 1976, after over 40 years of serving two masters, the faculty became fully integrated into the university. But integration did not extend to including black students. Guest says that even from the faculty’s early days there was acknowledgement that black students needed agricultural training “but it was not promoted very hard. The focus was on white, and preferably English-speaking students.

“In the seventies and eigthies there was more pressure for the admission of black students and in 1986 the government decided that blacks could be admitted to previously white-only universities.”

Unlike its earlier counterparts, today’s student body is drawn from largely urban and peri-urban environments. But although some things have changed the school finds itself still serving two masters, two areas of interest that at times appear to be in direct opposition, a tension embodied in the title “School of Agricultural Sciences and Agribusiness”. While the school services the need to produce scientific research for commercial agriculture it also caters for the needs of emerging farmers, as well as addressing wider environmental and social issues.

“There is pressure from commercial agriculture versus government and university pressure to look more to the needs of smallholders and subsistence farmers,” says Guest.

Such pressures have seen the creation of the African Centre for Food Security, the African Centre for Crop Improvement and other initiatives such as the Centre for Environment, Agriculture and Development.

“Today the school offers the broadest range of agricultural studies in Africa,” says Guest. “And it generates a lot of kudos for the university thanks to the quality of its graduates, its research output and its community service. It is also noted for its work on food and fodder, and what two items could be of more importance to a country? So the school plays a fundamentally important role in the life of this country.”

 

• A Fine Band of Farmers Are We! — A History of Agricultural Studies in Pietermaritzburg, 1934-2009 by Bill Guest is published by The Natal Society Foundation. The book will be launched on November 18 at 5.30 pm for 6 pm in the foyer of the Rabie Saunders Building on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg Life Sciences campus (end of Carbis Road).

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