Red bricks

2010-12-02 00:00

ONE hundred years ago, on 16 hectares of windswept grassland generously donated by the Pietermaritzburg City Council, the current-day University of KwaZulu-Natal came to life. On December 1, 1910, the foundation stone of the first building — the Old Main Building — was laid on a ridge in Scottsville by the Duke of Connaught. Every student, in cap and gown, participated in the ceremony which generated considerable interest among the townsfolk, whose curiosity had been piqued by the bustling activity taking place on the skyline.

Designed by local Pietermaritzburg architect J. Collingwood Tully and built at a cost of £30 000, the redbrick building was conveniently located, with a spectacular view overlooking the city, and at the terminus of the existing tramway system — the motor car had only just been introduced to Pietermaritzburg. It was, however, only in 1912 that the 57 students and eight professors who comprised Natal University College (NUC), as it was then known, were able to move into their new abode. Prior to this, they had already become a part of Pietermaritzburg society, occupying a two-roomed wood- and-iron building in the grounds of Maritzburg College and later, the Natal Museum and the city hall.

Today, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is a regional institution with a clear vision of being the Premier University of African Scholarship. It has, however, not lost its local roots and its local focus. Its activities, particularly those of the local campus, are inextricably entwined with those of the city of Pietermaritzburg. It has a wide-reaching influence on the city’s educational, economic, social, cultural and environmental heritage.

The university is a key driver of capacity building and innovation in the Msunduzi Municipal area, particularly through its association with the Msunduzi Innovation and Development Institute (Midi) — a pioneering partnership that was established in 2005 between the Msunduzi Municipality, the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business and UKZN. This joint enterprise is unique in that there is no other city in the country, and perhaps on the continent that exhibits the same unity of purpose between local government, the business sector and higher education.

Collaboration with local industry features prominently on UKZN’s agenda. It recently consolidated its long-term relationship with Umgeni Water by concluding a mutually beneficial agreement around water resources management (WRM). This partnership will establish an Umgeni Water Chair of WRM at the University for a period of 10 years.

Agriculturally, the university ably serves Pietermaritzburg and its surrounds. It offers the widest range of agricultural disciplines at any single South African or African campus. It is home to two highly acclaimed centres: the African Centre for Crop Improvement, the first of its kind in Africa, which trains African PhD students in the breeding of African crops; and the African Centre for Food Security which contributes towards eradicating hunger and improving health among the people and nations of sub-Saharan Africa. A recent study found that over 90% of Pietermaritzburg’s poor population does not have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food on a daily basis.

Culturally, the campus boasts several renowned centres that add to the experiences of Pietermaritzburg. The Hexagon Theatre is a hive of activity, hosting and producing professional and student productions throughout the year. Equally, the Jack Heath Gallery, which forms part of the Centre for Visual Art, exposes the public to eclectic exhibits by staff, students and invited artists. Also on campus is the Centre for African Literary Studies, a major repository of African literature, and the Alan Paton Centre and Struggle Archives.

In striving to generate more community-based research, the School of Religion and Theology is committed to establishing “deliberate structural forms of engagement between the academy and the community”. Both the Ujamaa Centre for Community Development and Research and the Sinomlando Research Centre for Oral History and Memory Work in Africa work directly with local community organisations, NGOs, civil society and government.

The law faculty, through its various centres and programmes, is actively committed to the furthering of human rights, poverty alleviation and community service. Pietermaritzburg’s Legal Aid Clinic, which provides students with opportunities to practise their legal skills in “real life” situations, is highly regarded by the legal profession and the general public. The Centre for Criminal Justice, based on campus, empowers the disadvantaged sectors of society by providing education, training and access to justice. It also partners the police and local communities in facilitating improved policing and crime prevention.

In responding to the challenges of contemporary life, the Centre for Adult Education actively services people in the Pietermaritzburg and surrounding areas. Its work incorporates adult literacy, basic education and development programmes, extramural studies and adult and community educator initiatives. The centre’s highly successful and innovative newspaper literacy project, Learn with Echo, is distributed to approximately 250 000 people in the Msunduzi and midlands areas on a weekly basis. This supplement is used in a broad variety of formal and informal adult education initiatives, including isolated rural organisations, schools and independent pupils.

Providing one of the finest study environments on the African continent, the local campus is a major player in the economy of the city. As one of Pietermaritzburg’s largest organisations, it employs over 800 people, many of whom perform highly specialised job functions. Its 10 000 students, from around the globe, contribute significantly to the city economy by virtue of their spending power.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal is particularly proud of its local contribution. As it marks 100 years of academic excellence, it can look forward to engaging with society and to responding to the critical needs of its local environment. It is committed to making a difference by serving as a catalyst for transformation and development in Pietermaritzburg.

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