Professor Dan Kgwadi would probably have faced lesser challenges had his childhood ambition of becoming a high school principal in his home village come true. Poloko Tau reports
We meet this charismatic physicist in a hotel restaurant in Mahikeng in the North West and not in his fancy office on campus.
This, after Professor Dan Kgwadi had taken the tough decision to close the Mahikeng campus of the North West University.
The vice-chancellor took the decision amid protests and “disruptive actions” by students in support of a call for a national shutdown of university and college campuses by the SA Union of Students.
The union is demanding that all students should be funded and that those with outstanding debt be allowed to register for the new academic year.
Kgwadi and his management team decided to send students home on Monday, until the situation was conducive for registration and classes to start.
When the City Press team arrived on Thursday, some students were still gathered at the campus entrance amid tight security.
No staff members were allowed on to the campus.
Asked if he was having sleepless nights over the protests, Kgwadi said: “The minute a job stresses you, then it is a good time to leave it. You must grapple with the challenges … if you stress then there will be no sober head to plan.”
He had to be asked to return to the story of a young Daniel Ntate Kgwadi before he got carried away with the current affairs on Mahikeng campus.
THE YOUNG ACADEMIC
He may not have seen it coming, but physics appears to have pushed him to greater things in life.
Kgwadi wanted to be a third generation teacher – following in his grandfather’s and mother’s footsteps.
He went to university for his undergraduate degree in chemistry and physics and later had a stint as a high school teacher.
Before he realised it though, the physics bug had bitten.
The first time he set a foot in the City of Gold was when he came to apply for a visa and the second time was when he was travelling to the then Jan Smuts International Airport to catch his first flight, to the US.
The young University of Bophuthatswana graduate was on his way to Ball State University in Indiana to read for his Master’s degree in physics.
Except for being in a “completely new world” in a predominantly white university about 13 000km away from home, Kgwadi also had to teach undergraduates as per the condition of his scholarship.
Kgwadi was fascinated and his imagination captured by the “computer-based interface experiment” and having had to “teach in a computer interface set up … that was a good story to write home about”.
He returned home two years later and enrolled for a PhD at the then University of Potchefstroom.
Little did he know then that he would one day occupy the highest office there.
Today Potchefstroom is home to the main campus of the North West University.
“I was addicted to studying and after my PhD, I went on to study for a master’s degree in environmental law and management at the University of the North [now the University of Limpopo),” Kgwadi said, the former rector of the Mahikeng campus.
THE MERGER, LANGUAGE AND TRANSFORMATION
“I chose to study at the Potchefstroom University, a homogenously white and Afrikaans campus, having started at the University of Bophuthatswana in Mahikeng which was a mainly Tswana-speaking black university.
“Then came the homogenously white and English campus in the US,” he said.
“Potchefstroom was an experience on its own … being at all these campuses prepared me very well in that I experienced diversity in many ways.”
The merger of Mahikeng, Vaal and Potchefstroom campuses into the North West University “is a unique merger of historically black and historically Afrikaans institutions”.
Kgwadi said it was also not the easiest of processes.
“Transformation brings fear and Potchefstroom’s fear was that the merger meant there was a lot we could lose because change was coming with the process. They were thinking, what will happen to our campus, our heritage?” the vice-chancellor said.
After his appointment as vice-chancellor in 2014 and on arrival at Potchefstroom, a journalist asked him something he never anticipated.
“He congratulated me on my appointment and then said: ‘What about Afrikaans? I understand you’re going to introduce English at Potch … ’ Most postgraduate classes were already in English and undergraduate classes were in Afrikaans.
“Afrikaans has always been a problem at Potchefstroom but we had to move to an understanding that no campus is a language campus. Potch is not an Afrikaans campus and Mahikeng is not a Setswana campus … Language must be used in a way that includes everyone,” Kgwadi said.
The university has since introduced a multilingual policy to be “accommodative and inclusive of each other”. Its website offers language options for Setswana, English and Afrikaans.
“The fortunate part is after 1994, there was obvious transition taking place in the minds of many people to understand that we’re now in a new country.
“Language is now used in terms of how many students will understand which language and also in terms of the discipline,” Kgwadi said.
“There will be no need to teach law in Afrikaans only and produce legal practitioners who have an Afrikaans-medium LLB when the language of the country’s courts is English only.
“We’re not ideological in how we use language but we tend to be practical … realities will determine how we operate but central to that is inclusivity.”
NEW TERM VISION
Kgwadi has achieved a lot in terms of transformation, but he acknowledged there was still more to be done.
He would not say much about his reception when he first arrived at Potchefstroom, only saying that it was “rough … it was quite an experience”.
“Having to work with a diverse team was easy because of my history and Potch was not a culture shock to me.”
He had to build bridges between two racial groups from different backgrounds.
“You are now sitting with people who may be fearful of each other … remember we don’t know each other that much because of the separation, background and history. And you’ve got to have skills and understand the challenges that come with diversity.”
The legacy he wants to leave would be that of a “truly South African institution that produces responsible citizens” and a “unitary institution with one alumni and not like now where we have Potchefstroom, Mahikeng and Vaal alumnis separately”.
He wants the university’s students to go through a “melting pot that does not necessarily do away with their culture but get them to be appreciative of a diverse society”.
“We’re striving for diversity in our campuses and Mahikeng needs to have more white students. At Potch, we’re increasing the number of black students … it is only through this that we will learn to appreciate each other and do away with misconceptions of the past.”
ON STUDENTS’ PROTEST
Kgwadi said while he was the rector of the Mahikeng campus, he had to “deal with the environment of what you see now [protests] … the campus was really known for anarchy … and one would understand, if you got a campus that people identify a lot with history and poverty”.
“The biggest challenge was how to stabilise the culture. You’ve got an institution that was always fighting for everything. I guess it can be said of the current situation in the country. If a child has to fight before they get something then it gets into them that they must fight for it. Even if it is not possible [to get it], they think ‘if I can fight harder, then it will happen’ … because that is how the freedom was achieved. At some point it was like it’s not possible, but the fight went on until it happened,” he said.
The North West University on Thursday announced that the Mahikeng campus would reopen at the weekend.
Kgwadi said he was hoping things would return to normality.