The appointment of a new vice-chancellor for Wits University has stoked racial tensions on campus.
Wits will announce the candidate to replace the outgoing vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Adam Habib, at the end of this month.
Three candidates – the University of Johannesburg’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and internationalisation Professor Saurabh Sinha, Wits’ deputy vice-chancellor: academic Professor Ruksana Osman and deputy vice-chancellor for research and postgraduate affairs Professor Zeblon Vilakazi – are vying for his position.
On Wednesday, they will face the broader university community before their interviews on Thursday.
Racism claims emerge
However, racism claims have emerged following the recent appointment of Professor Shabir Madhi, who will take over from the dean of health services, Professor Martin Veller, whose contract ends in December.
City Press understands that Madhi’s appointment, which was announced to the university community on Friday, has ruffled feathers within the corridors of Wits.
As a result, Wits Students Representative Council president, Thuto Gabaphete, told the university council that students would not be involved in “anti-black” appointment processes. He said it had become a culture that Indians, particularly men, dominated senior executive positions at Wits.
“It’s problematic and we flagged it in the recent [university] council meeting in which it was announced that an Indian male [Madhi] had been appointed.
“Our flagging of this made it very clear that we would not involve ourselves in processes that are anti-black and anti-progressive and this is the view we are taking about the decision for vice-chancellor,” Gabaphete said.
Sources within Wits told City Press that Madhi’s appointment showed that black local academics were not preferred at Wits under Habib’s leadership.
No local black academics
They said senior executive positions were reserved only for academics of Indian descent.
To support their view, they said not one faculty at Wits was headed by a local black academic.
. Professor Nithaya Chetty for the faculty of science;
. Professor Imraan Valodia for the faculty of commerce and law;
. Professor Garth Stevens for the faculty of humanities;
. Professor Ian Jandrell for the faculty of engineering; and
. Veller for the faculty of health services.
Sources said these deans formed part of the senior executive team, which would make recommendations to the university council on who the suitable candidate would be for the vice-chancellor post. They said Habib chaired the team.
Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said the selection process for the vice-chancellor post was led by Wits University Council chairperson Isaac Shongwe.
“The senior appointments selection committee comprises almost 20 members, including external members of council, internal representatives, student leaders, senate members and a member of the transformation and employment equity office, each of whom have one vote, she said.
“Vice-chancellor and principal Professor Adam Habib is not represented on this committee and is not involved in the selection process at all,” Patel said.
It was the selection committee that was responsible for the appointment of members of the senior executive team, which Habib chaired.
“This committee includes both internal and external representatives of the council – senate, students, faculty, professional and administrative staff and other entities, each with their own vote. It is therefore impossible for the chairperson [or] any one person to influence the appointment of a particular candidate.”
Habib said he would not respond to “trashy journalism and crude racism by nativists and others who parade as progressives”.
He said if the nameless sources and the SRC had made such racist statements, they were in violation of Wits’ codes and policies and should be held accountable for for that.
“I will not contribute to a crude racist narrative that seeks to destroy our society and our democracy,” Habib said.
Patel said Madhi was an A-rated scientist and that the majority of black members of the selection committee had voted overwhelmingly for his appointment.
“The university has made significant strides in transformation in the past six years. Its policies are guided by transformation and merit, which are not mutually exclusive endeavours, and which are particularly important in a research-intensive university.
Wits strives for appropriated balance
“The university strives to ensure that an appropriate balance is struck to ensure that competent leaders are appointed so that Wits as a public institution is managed capably and does not suffer the fate of some other public institutions which have been run aground,” Patel said.
She said that, in terms of diversifying the academic staff, the percentage of black academic staff had increased from 39.97% in 2013 to 50.7% last year.
These developments were due to interventions made by the university and such programmes were being continued at Wits.