Varsity’s wood-and-iron birth

2012-11-22 00:00

THERE was a time when a university education in this “small corner of South Africa” was dismissed as non-essential and inappropriate.

“The Natal boy”, according to a demeaning statement by the Natal Technical Education Commissioner in 1904, “was uninterested in higher education, lazy, devoid of perseverance” and more suited to outdoor activities.

The imposing structures of Pietermaritizburg University and the academic legacy flowing from those halls of learning over the past 100 years, tell you a very different story — one that begins with education visionaries who changed the playing fields and the goal posts.

It is their vibrant and never-say-die legacy that forms the central theme of a new glossy 212-page coffee table souvenir book published this week. The book, with unique accounts and archival images, traces the history of those early struggles for academic freedom, which culminated in the bringing together of five campuses to form the present-day University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Central to this history is Pietermaritzburg University, which had its roots in a two-roomed wood-and-iron structure on the grounds of Maritzburg College.

In 1905, two professors, Alexander Petrie (classics) and Robert Denison (physics and chemistry) and six of the school’s masters recognised as “lecturers”, tutored 11 post-matriculation students in various academic disciplines. It was this group and this building, later moved to another site that can rightfully claim to be the “incubator” of UKZN.

The sum for the building contracts amounted to £30 000 signed off by the Natal government and the foundation stone for the main clock tower building of the Natal University College (now Pietermaritzburg University) was laid on December 1910 by the Duke of Connaught.

The journey to acadaemia in “this forgotten corner”, however, was anything but smooth

Historian Edgar Brookes in his History of the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg recalled: “It was a rough start. It [the college] was under every material disadvantage and bearing every mark of hurried improvisation.”

The financial situation was “woeful” and government intervention and legislation underpinned a fragile and stuttering beginning.

World War 1 saw numbers dwindle and when the new buildings were opened in 1913, there was not enough money for furnishings, let alone furniture.

Brookes recalls that the first full-time registrar, attorney John Feltham, a Cambridge graduate and one-time secretary to Cecil John Rhodes, “fashioned makeshift furniture out of old packing cases”.

The university was officially opened on August 9, 2012, with a deficit of £150 and not much help from students, whose fees were a mere £1,10.

The fact that “the flickering flame didn’t blow out,” says Brookes, “rested on three factors: deep loyalty and devotion of the teaching staff, the calibre of students and a dedicated University Council.”

University sport didn’t feature much in the early years. But within two years, legendary sportsmen like Comrades veteran Bill Payn had helped the new varsity rugby team make it to the Murray Cup finals.

It wasn’t until April 1918 that the Natal University College became a constituent college of the University of South Africa (Unisa). Thirteen years later Howard College was officially opened in Durban and in 1949, the two universities become one entity.

But some things don’t change.

The first reunion of students in 1920 was celebrated with lunch, tennis, a ball and a river party and left the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) only just solvent.

“There was just enough money,” wrote historian Brookes “to send students to Pretoria for the Unisa graduation. The send-off involved a fancy dress procession through the town and was probably the start of the Remember and Give charity processions known later as Rag.

Protest and struggle against government injustice and racial segregation have always been strong driving factors with the SRC having made its presence known in the university’s early years.

Among those who kindled the fires of freedom, of thought, expression and equality was one gritty and persistent scholar, SRC secretary, Alan Paton, founder of the Liberal Party whose sociopolitical classic, Cry, the Beloved Country, would stir the human conscience like no other writing, before or since.

Murdered Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko accelerated resistance to apartheid to a level that permeated all academic learning institutions, including the Pietermaritzburg campus. In so doing, his founding South African Students’ Organisation (Saso) heralded an era of revolutionary struggle and put an end to the idea of the then government establishing a docile African leadership.

Winning battles has never been easy, but there’s one battle that the Pietermaritzburg campus fought and won — and that was to establish and retain a faculty of agriculture, despite political opposition.

The Natal Witness took up the cudgels in support of such a move and in 1944 urged that at a time when “the growing Durban campus was seriously threatening the existence of the Pietermaritzburg campus” that the retention of the faculty of agriculture should be supported as a “valuable asset”.


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