Starting a university

2009-03-18 00:00

KwaZulu-Natal’s first fully-fledged university, the University of Natal, was established 60 years ago, on March 15, 1949. It was initially envisaged almost a century earlier. In 1853, some prominent citizens launched the Durban Mechanics’ Institute and soon hoped that this recreational club might develop into a ‘young men’s university’. In 1877, a similarly unsuccessful attempt was made to create a Royal College in Pietermaritzburg. By the early 1900s, several Natal schools were preparing post-matriculants as candidates for the University of the Cape of Good Hope, founded in 1873. These included Maritzburg College, where six masters, serving as “lecturers”, eventually provided the nucleus for a local university college. Unsurprisingly, given the colonial context, the focus was on advancing white education. The contentious issue was where the institution should be sited — in Durban or Pietermaritzburg.

In 1907, Dr S. G. (Sam) Campbell led the way in establishing the Durban Technical Institute, in 1922 renamed the Natal Technical College. From 1912, it too produced examinees for the University of the Cape of Good Hope, although Campbell and his associates clearly aimed for Durban’s own university. Instead, the 1909 Natal Government Commission recommended a university college for Pietermaritzburg, with no mention of similar facilities at the port. In December 1909, before dissolving in the unification of South Africa on May 31, 1910, the colony’s government promulgated the Natal University College Act and allocated £30 000 towards its implementation. It joined seven other institutions preparing candidates for the University of the Cape of Good Hope and, in 1918, became a college of the University of South Africa.

Independent university status was not easily achieved. The college was fortunate in the quality of its inaugural staff, primarily from Britain, who replaced the Maritzburg College masters as lecturers in the wood-and-iron building reserved on school premises for this purpose. The Pietermaritzburg City Council donated a prominent 18-hectare campus site in Scottsville, where the colonial grant was used to construct the first building on the highest point of the ridge. The Clock Tower (Old Main) building was officially opened in August 1912, but initially there were insufficient funds to furnish it, or for a hostel. Students had to lodge in private dwellings being built in the neighbourhood. State funding was almost always frugal, registrations (57 in 1910) were uneconomically low and other sources of income were almost non-existent.

Greater hardship followed during World War 1 (1914 to 1918). Student enrolments declined to 36 in 1916 and part of the building became a military hospital. Significant expansion followed after the conflict. In 1923, T. B. Davis gave university education in Durban an important boost when he donated £50 000 to construct Howard College, in memory of his son killed on the Somme during the war. It was situated on an imposing 20-hectare site in the Stella Bush, donated by the City Council, and opened in 1931 to accommodate the full-time engineering and commerce classes held at the Technical College since 1922. In 1936, part-time commerce classes were transferred from the Technical College to City Building in Warwick Avenue.

In 1930, there were 337 students enrolled in Pietermaritzburg and 143 in Durban, but it was already obvious that the latter was the region’s major population and commercial growth point and therefore the most likely future source of students and donations. The principal, J. W. Bews (1928 to 1938), was familiar with dual-campus structures in Britain and hoped to incorporate Adams College (for Africans) and Sastri College (for Indians) into a federal structure. He also envisaged the establishment of a faculty of agriculture in Pietermaritzburg (realised in 1949) and of a medical school in Durban (opened in 1951 for black students only). Bews supported the indefatigable Mabel Palmer when she proposed part-time classes for “non-European” students in Durban. The conservative Council and Senate reluctantly agreed to allow them separate classes, off-campus. From 1936, Palmer taught these on the basis that “separate” was better than none at all. They were primarily arts courses, conducted at Sastri College over weekends and mainly for Indian teachers seeking to improve their qualifications. Enrolments increased from an initial 19 to 130 by the mid-forties and nearly 900 in 1960. Developments were more modest in Pietermaritzburg where, by 1939, registrations numbered 418 compared with 440 in Durban, including 49 “non-Europeans”.

The impact of World War 2 (1939 to 1945) on the college was far less severe than that of World War 1. Nevertheless, on arrival as principal, E. G. Malherbe (1945 to 1965) was astounded by the institution’s financial weakness, considering the obvious wealth in Durban and its sugar-farming environs. He concluded that Natal was “the least university-minded” of South Africa’s then four provinces. Other ethnic groups were still not considered when he calculated that it had only one in every 300 of its white population studying at a university, compared with the Orange Free State’s one in 230, the Transvaal’s one in 215 and the Cape’s one in 150. Malherbe was determined to change the prevailing mind-set. Within a month of assuming office, he announced his intention to secure the college’s independence from the University of South Africa. He expected to receive at least 400 of the 3 200 ex-servicemen wanting admission to universities and by mid-1947, they numbered 650 out of 1 808 registrations. By 1948, overall student numbers had climbed to 2 031, of which 660 were in Pietermaritzburg and 1 371 in Durban (including 342 “non-Europeans”).

While Pietermaritzburg’s arts and social science classes were duplicated in Durban, Malherbe launched a 10-year campaign to raise £1,2 million for ambitious building programmes in both centres. He addressed numerous business gatherings, tapped the local sugar and wattle industries and made frequent weekend trips to rural centres. In November 1945, the Pietermaritzburg City Council granted an additional 18 hectares near Epworth School for the envisaged faculty of agriculture. In February 1946, male students began moving into the converted facilities at Oribi Military Hospital, which government had agreed to re-allocate as a residence for 200 to 300 ex-servicemen. By mid-1947 the college was receiving regular annual grants of £4 000 from the Durban City Council and £1 250 from Pietermaritzburg. Malherbe’s fund-raising achievements contributed significantly to the success of his campaign for independence and the University of Natal (Private) Bill came into effect on March 15, 1949.

The new principal’s residence in Durban was named Campbell House after Sam Campbell, who had done so much to promote the university. The Honourable Denis G. Shepstone was installed as the first chancellor. Both were eminent individuals, deserving of such recognition, although their names were also reminders of the university’s deep colonial roots. Indeed, it was one of several such institutions which, however limited, nevertheless provided invaluable foundations, which subsequent generations could develop, or erode. Within a decade, it was struggling to defend its hard-won, if incomplete, autonomy. The Nationalist Government’s 1959 Extension of University Education Act eventually deprived it of its small contingent of so-called “non-European” students. It also nearly lost its “blacks-only” medical school, but for protests by other sectors of the university and the threat of the school’s staff to resign. Authority to admit persons of colour to fully integrated, full-time classes on the university’s non-medical campuses required another long struggle, which made the notion of academic freedom all the more precious to its institutional memory.

• Professor Bill Guest taught history on the Durban and Pietermaritzburg campuses for 38 years and has authored and co-edited 10 books and numerous articles on South African and KwaZulu-Natal history. He retired as professor and is now professor emeritus and a senior research associate in historical studies. The full unabridged version of this article will appear later in the year in the journal Natalia (Journal of the Natal Society).

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