Deserving father

2014-10-05 15:00

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Meet Ntate Dan Kgwadi, the new – and first black – vice-chancellor of North-West University

First his name was Pogisego. “That means someone who is going through troubles and hardships,” says the newly appointed vice-chancellor of North-West University (NWU).

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

At some point, he decided he had enough trouble and 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 his never was to support his family and “fix up his mistakes”.

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

On 1 June 2015, the 46-year-old physics professor will take over from Dr Theuns Eloff as the first black vice-chancellor in the history of the university.

But before you could even say BEE, a racial storm burst over his bald head. The folks from Solidarity said the appointment was unfair, racially motivated and a political decision.

Kgwadi smiles resignedly, as if he had been preparing himself for this uproar for years.

“The response was not a shock. [They said:] ‘Oh man, he’s a darkie, they got him from rent-a-darkie, he’s 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. One gets a sense the Doppers are 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,” he says.

There’s a sleek black Mercedes-Benz SLK 200 parked in the driveway of his home in Centurion, Tshwane. 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.

Kgwadi’s wife Mable (44) works at the National Research Foundation (NRF). 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 gets in, out of breath in his Madiba shirt and sandals, collapsing with a sigh on the large sofa.

This beautiful sofa with its bright cushions looks like a throne for NWU’s new king. And in his traditional dress, Kgwadi 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 then the chairman and vice-chairman called him into an office and told him he was 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 he felt it could “turn ugly”.

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

According to him, Solidarity’s response is stereotypical. “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.”

It was actually his mother Meisie who prepared him all his life for this job. She knew years ago, shortly after his birth at Kraaipan, that this child 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 to Taung, also in North West, with her four children.

There, she and the children lived in one room in someone’s back yard, with no running water, no electricity, and 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 a Grade 8 education. But she continued to learn all her life, and in the same year Kgwadi graduated with his BSc, Meisie passed her matric. Before her retirement, she had her teacher’s diploma.

“She was a lifelong learner,” says her accomplished son.

From childhood, she made him do sums. “When she received her salary, 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 mealie meal, a bag of potatoes, a bottle of oil.”

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

By the time Meisie breathed her last breath at 70, her son had four degrees.

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,” he says.

He saw a real laboratory for the first time at the former University of Bophuthatswana and learnt what to do with pipettes and burettes.

He fell in love with physics and eventually became a professor in that field at NWU, later going on to become the principal of NWU’s Mafikeng campus.

He’s been doing this job for almost a decade.

According to Kgwadi, race will long be an issue at NWU because of the university’s history. “It will take wisdom to ensure the country and the students that the university will act in the best interests of all,” he says.

And Afrikaans? Will the university’s Potchefstroom campus 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.

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