Vaal Triangle Technikon: A long battle for control

The minister of education ordered an investigation of the Vaal Triangle Technikon and met stiff resistance.
In August, minister of education Sibusiso Bengu appointed Professor Jaap Durand, former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, as an independent assessor to advise him on “the source and nature of discontent” at the Vaal Triangle Technikon (VTT) and on “steps required to restore proper governance”. Its rector, Aubrey Mokadi has been suspended for nearly a year accused of serious abuse of technikon funds and in April a student riot resulted in extensive damage and theft.

After a brief but intensive visit, Professor Durand duly recommended that:
  • the technikon council should be advised to complete the disciplinary process against the suspended rector as quickly as possible;
  • all retirements in terms of the current over-generous early retirement scheme should cease;
  • a court interdict against student gatherings on the campus should be lifted;
  • the council should appoint a chief executive officer for the technikon until clarity is reached about the position of the suspended rector, so that the council can cease to involve itself in the day-to-day running of the institution;
  • the technikon statutes should be changed in line with requirements of the Higher Education Act. This would require that the council should dissolve and be replaced by a newly constituted council.

The 1997 Higher Education Act provides the minister with very extensive powers against tertiary institutions that do not accept his recommendations including the ability to amalgamate or close universities and technikons as well as the power to withhold subsidies. Bengu has twice threatened to withdraw the Vaal Triangle Technikon’s subsidy. On Friday September 11, after briefly contemplating legal action against the minister, the council appeared to back down and to be about to accept Professor Durand’s recommendations. By Monday, six members of the 25-strong council had resigned — five in support of the Durand report, the sixth, Godfrey Shishana, from disgust at what he perceived as ministerial blackmail, disregard for institutional autonomy and ANC interference. Since these resignations the council has intensified its defiance of the minister and rejected the Durand report. They claim that the report “was inconclusive and at best based on vague assumptions and perceptions. At worst it is completely devoid of any accurate facts.”

At first sight this appears to be a simple story of the education minister flexing his newly-acquired muscles against a wayward and reactionary tertiary institution that had suspended its new black rector, was attempting to suppress student politics and had doled out too many generous golden handshakes to its old guard. Beneath this smooth surface, though, lies an extraordinary and highly complex situation. The essential elements of the story involve the rapid transformation of a diehard Afrikaner institution, an unlikely alliance of black and white staff, an ambitious ANC-aligned rector in a predominantly PAC institution, and a body of disadvantaged students suffering huge social and educational stress.

The most striking instance of the discontent which Professor Durand was instructed to investigate occurred in April, when students at the technikon held a protest about the quality of the food technology course offered there. Students were apparently concerned that the skills taught in this course were not sufficiently market-related and that the course was not nationally accredited. The protest developed into a large-scale riot. The administration block was vandalised. Some students and opportunist non-student criminals made off with a large number of computers and stole the contents of the canteen tills, assaulting the cashiers in the process. The damage and loss were estimated by the technikon authorities at well over R300 000. Eighteen students were arrested and charged with theft and vandalism (their criminal cases are still pending) and a considerable proportion of the stolen property was recovered during a search of the student hostels.

The disturbances also had a racist edge. Several white lecturers and administrators associated with the food technology course and the financial administration of the technikon were forcibly put on a bus and driven out of the campus. Two of the three most senior managers, the vice-rectors for administration and student affairs, Professor Isak Steyn and Dr Ravi Nayagar, were separately abducted in a van. However, police freed them all at the gates of the technikon. The management immediately closed the institution, cancelled scheduled graduations and required students living in residences to vacate them until further notice. It also obtained a court interdict forbidding student gatherings of any sort except for classes.

In the days that followed the SRC, which this year is controlled by Pasma (the Pan-Africanist Student Movement of Azania, the PAC’s newly founded tertiary student organization) said that it did not condone “any criminal activity” and that, in any case, it was in a meeting when the trouble started. Pasma condemned the violence and refused to provide bail for arrested members. The local PAC chimed in, asserting its non-racial character. The ANC-aligned student organization, Sasco, joined in the condemnations and blamed the SRC for not acting quickly to control the riot. Significantly, though, Sasco and the technikon’s Nehawu branch also called for the reinstatement of the suspended rector of the technikon, Professor Aubrey Mokadi.

The students’ present discontents and occasionally violent behaviour can only be understood in the context of the past. The technikon was founded in 1966 in Vanderbijlpark, a model dormitory town for Iskor’s white workers that now exists as a tract of predominantly white suburbia wedged uneasily between the enormous Iskor plant and some of the most famous townships in South Africa’s modern history: Sharpeville, Sebokeng and Boipatong. The technikon’s students and academic staff were all white and almost all Afrikaners, its medium of instruction was Afrikaans and its purpose was to train skilled workers for jobs at Iskor and in the Free State goldfield towns on the south side of the river. Many of the original lecturers and administrators are still employed by the technikon, where 20-year-long service certificates are not uncommon.

By 1992 blacks made up roughly 15 per cent of students at the Vanderbijlpark campus. The senior management of the technikon seems to have viewed this not as a precursor of things to come but as a problem of controlling a recalcitrant minority. For this purpose, they recruited Professor Kotie Grové, previously of the University of Port Elizabeth, as dean of students. On his arrival at the technikon, he was shown a videotape by members of the management which, he was told, would “indicate very clearly and immediately. . . who the guys among the blacks are. . . causing all the problems.” In fact, he proved to be the Trojan horse of change. In the area under his control, student affairs, he began to recruit black members of staff. The SRC was temporarily abolished and replaced by a student transformation forum of four black and four white members.

These changes no doubt created a more welcoming atmosphere for black students who grew in confidence as well as numbers. By 1994 blacks made up roughly half the student population. They were, though, a very discontented half. They complained that:
  • instruction continued to take place in Afrikaans and lecturers showed little concern for the problems specific to black students
  • the food in the canteen was of poor quality;
  • the political leaders of white student opinion had easy access to the rector, Professor Pieter Du Plessis, while black students found it very difficult to gain a hearing;
  • white students were in general standoffish or openly hostile;
  • there were strong rumours in the air of corruption in high places and the misuse of funds.
These circumstances all chafed upon a highly politicised generation of black students for whom barricaded streets and the Boipatong massacre were fresh memories. The spark came in early 1995, when a group of white students declared a section of one residence to be off-limits for blacks or, as they called it, a Volkstaat or AWB hostel.

In February 1995, the technikon featured in the television news on several occasions and was the subject of a documentary in the Beckett’s Trek series. The administration block was seriously vandalised, student gangs roamed about the campus at night fighting in groups and assaulting individuals. For several days, crowds of armed black and white students confronted each other and the police on the technikon’s large but rather bleak lawns. Stones were thrown and insults hurled. The students on either side of the racial barrier viewed each other, as Denis Beckett found, through a mist of hysteria, machismo and alcohol.

The rector appealed in vain for calm and declared that he was prepared to accept an inquiry into student concerns. Asked to comment on the accusations against him of corruption and mismanagement, he denied any impropriety but said that he would prefer not to comment in any detail until the accusations had been formally presented to him. Professor Du Plessis proved to be wise in his reticence. A commission of inquiry conducted by Advocate Johann Gautchi found that “the conduct of the Rector. . . demonstrated a lack of competence rendering him unfit. . . to hold the office of Rector. . . and justifying dismissal.”

This was not an entirely surprising finding. Professor Du Plessis had, most remarkably, been appointed rector at the Vaal Triangle after his dismissal on similar grounds as vice-chancellor of the University of Venda. As vice-chancellor of Venda, Du Plessis had been known for his supine compliance with student demands and his all-night drinking sessions with student leaders. (See Focus 11, July 1998.) At the Vaal Triangle Technikon, his behaviour changed to some extent. Now, it appears from the Gautchi report, his drinking became more solitary in nature and his favoritism towards student leaders became more narrowly focused on whites only. It seemed very likely to the commission that he had actually encouraged right-wing student leaders in their hostility to blacks. He had permitted “serious deficiencies in the administration and management of the technikon.” It was proved that Du Plessis had made “unauthorised and irregular use” of technikon funds to renovate his private house, but it was not possible to follow the paper trail further and much more serious accusations of corruption relating to the management of the canteen were not proven. Disciplinary hearings against Professor Du Plessis and his closest colleague, Dr Kempen, were begun.

It was clear to everyone involved, which included an increasingly concerned and interventionist education ministry that a new and more representative technikon council had to be created. The council was duly reformed to represent the ministry, local and business interests, and all levels of technikon staff. Equally important was to find a head for this council. Given the new government, the militancy of the black students, and the way the previous administration had behaved, this had to be a black person. It was therefore fortunate that someone who seemed perfect for the job was at hand: Aubrey Mokadi, who was appointed chairman of the transformed technikon council in August 1995.

Although only 35, Mokadi had already had a varied career in universities, politics and business. Born and raised in the Vaal Triangle, he was a student at Fort Hare. In 1987, he took English Honours at Wits and then taught at Bophuthatswana and Vista universities. While at Vista, he obtained an MA from Unisa and continues to work on a Wits PhD. He had also become an important figure in local ANC-aligned politics, having been first chairman of the Vaal Civic. He was, and has continued to be, deeply involved in local education organisations, including the Vaal Career College (of which he is chairman) and the Vaal Education Transformation Forum - positions which involved him in troubleshooting instances of racial tension at the technikon in 1993-4. Mokadi had also had a brief but significant experience of senior non-academic employment. After leaving Vista, he was appointed to Iskor’s RDP office, where he worked until he was appointed rector at the technikon.

The events of February 1995 proved to be the last stand of white supremacist attitudes at the technikon. But far more than that changed. Courses began to be taught in English as well as Afrikaans, and Afrikaans will shortly cease entirely to be a medium of instruction. White student numbers have fallen rapidly to 18 per cent this year and this minority is not a political or cultural force on the campus. The days of khaki-clad aggression seem ancient history. There is no visible tension between black and white students but, as at so many other South African educational institutions, there is very little genuine social contact either.

The black students at VTT, like most of their peers at South Africa’s tertiary institutions, are under a great deal of pressure from a number of sources. With the exception of the ineffably relaxed young members of the African elite to be found on the Wits or UCT campuses, black students are still very often their family’s first and only chance of a way out of poverty. On their success in passing exams (in what is often a third language) depend their grandparents’ medical care and their siblings’ and childrens’ schooling. They are also often under pressure to send cash saved from their bursaries to their families. Even at institutions, such as VTT, where student debt to the institution is not a major problem because of relatively wide bursary coverage, students continue to be under serious economic pressure of an agonisingly personal kind. The choice between a useful textbook and money sent home is easy to predict, but bad for the students’ chances of success.

Students, then, are often very poor and very tense. Some subsist on breakfast cereal. Others are more quickly recognised by their unchanging clothes than by their faces. Sexual promiscuity is widespread and so are sexually transmitted diseases. Aids has not yet been acknowledged as a problem at the technikon, but the first Aids deaths in residence are already rumoured to have occurred. There is said to be a lot of heavy drinking, not all of the cheery, after-hours-in-the-bar variety. It is no wonder that political demonstrations such as the one that occurred in April are so quickly capable of degenerating into destructive, vengeful, racist riots.

When the new council and its chairman, Mokadi, were installed, they found themselves at the head of a hybrid institution. In student numbers and, unquestionably in student culture and politics, they found a situation similar to that of other historically disadvantaged institutions. This did not apply, though, to the physical structure of the technikon, which is certainly more than adequate, or to the teaching staff. For, although the academics resembled their colleagues at the former bantustan universities in being predominantly Afrikaners, they differed from them in having had very little previous experience of classroom or social interaction with black people.

The new council, apparently largely at Mokadi’s urging, treated Professor Du Plessis and his closest associate with great forbearance. During his suspension, Du Plessis retained his salary and privileges. In January 1996, he was allowed to take early retirement, complete with the usual package of benefits. Dr Kempen simply resigned and the accusations against him were not pursued. Now the management of the technikon, still largely comprised of white Afrikaner males, was instructed to turn its attention to cultural and demographic transformation of the institution. They set to their task with considerable thoroughness and enthusiasm putting together a comprehensive package of reforms. This included a transformation charter, a detailed transformation plan and a sweeping and well-defined affirmative action policy. But although there were several appointments of black people to middle-ranking and senior administrative positions, in general transformation activity remained in the realm of ideas.

The council needed, of course, to find a new rector. A personnel consultancy was hired and a short-list drawn up. In an unexpected development this list included the name of the council’s own chairman, Aubrey Mokadi. After he had duly resigned his position, the council voted upon the candidates and elected him rector. Putting aside the — as yet completely unsubstantiated — rumours that some of the electors were influenced by factors other than merit, it remains an odd decision for the council to have made and an even odder one for Mokadi to have permitted.

As a senior RDP officer in the dominant industry in Vanderbijlpark, he had all the local influence he could reasonably desire. He was a past chairman of an important local ANC-aligned structure. He was one of the biggest fish in the Vaal Triangle’s political and economic pond. For these reasons he was at least a defensible and, from an education ministry and ANC perspective, a very good choice as chairman of the technikon council. The position gave him a considerable amount of power to guide the technikon in the directions he wished without concerning himself too closely with everyday administration. This is why his decision to take the step — formally a downward one — of becoming rector is hard to understand. He was still young, with a Master’s degree in English literature, some experience as a fairly junior teaching member of university English departments and a year in a big corporation. On the face of it, he was not well qualified to be rector of a large (12 000 students) tertiary institution focused exclusively on technical education. No doubt the choice available to the technikon was restricted by South Africa’s realpolitik to non-white applicants. Nevertheless, the shortage of black administrators is not so acute that there cannot have been better qualified candidates. It looks very much as if the academic in Mokadi combined with the local bigwig to persuade himself and others that he was the right choice for the job.

In the brief period between his appointment in July 1996 and his suspension on October 31 1997, Professor Mokadi proved to be very good at some aspects of his new job. He was undoubtedly very energetic and hard-working, full of innovative and ambitious ideas, a setter of high standards. He is said regularly to have worked a 16-hour day and to have required his immediate colleagues to do the same. He disapproved of the tendency of the technikon staff to leave work very early on Friday afternoons.
His greatest strength, though, was the confidence and insight with which he handled the students. Of all the senior employees at the technikon, it was Mokadi who best understood their background and politics. He put his position on student affairs in two newspaper interviews conducted around the time of his appointment. Students were to be consulted, to be kept fully informed, but, “in the end, it is management that has to take decisions”. He also saw and, more unusually, was prepared publicly to state that student demonstrations often had less to do with the specific issue which had sparked them off than with anxiety about “funding, accommodation, fees and access”. Having been a struggle-era politician himself, he was not easily impressed or intimidated by students’ tactics. He recalls that when he heard students singing and toyi-toyi-ing in the corridors of the administration block, he could be certain that they were not heading for his office. They knew that a demonstration of that sort would not impress him in the slightest. He proposed to turn student energies into more productive courses. He went about the residences holding braais and suggesting, for example, that the SRC mobilise students to design, build and decorate a pedestrian bridge over a busy road near the campus. From someone less well-rooted in local black communities, such a suggestion would seem insufferably patronising. For Mokadi, it was possible — and that is no small thing.

Professor Mokadi, however, appears to have overreached himself in other spheres. He proposed, for example, to transform his technikon into a university of technology and what he had in mind went well beyond a cosmetic makeover. He envisaged his institution as a centre of excellence in scientific and technical education, linked by student and staff exchange programmes to foreign technical universities and producing original research. This plan ignored the fact that the teaching staff has no research experience; that the library has only 33,000 books (to put this in perspective it is less than half of 1 per cent of books in the Wits library system), and that its laboratories are not equipped to university standard. Nevertheless, Mokadi established a new directorate to encourage, direct and fund research with the goal of ensuring that 50 per cent of the technikon’s staff would be involved in research projects within five years. His announcement not only embarrassed the technikon administration, it also displeased the other technikons and the education ministry since any change of status should first have been agreed by all technikons and centrally co-ordinated. Mokadi’s decision, as a senior administrator at the Vaal Triangle puts it, looked arrogant and foolish, like a declaration of UDI.

On transformation, he was more cautious. Mokadi knew that he “could never be a black rector in a traditionally white institution and not be expected to put in black people to the right places”. But his good sense and what he describes as his “fear of black failure” prevented him from appointing blacks fast enough to satisfy the black administrators and activists already on the campus. He was robustly and explicitly reluctant to risk the administrative and academic capacity of the technikon in this way.

Instead he resorted to heavy use of talking-shops and symbolism. In the brief period before his suspension, he conducted a comprehensive “culture audit” of the technikon, to which all departments and interest groups were encouraged to contribute their hopes, fears, future visions and so forth. He held a bosberaad. He took great pains to draw up, with the full range of consultation, a charter defining the responsibilities of the rector. He produced, or, as his opponents allege, appropriated from another source, a transformation charter for the technikon promising, in gothic script and flowery tones, all things to all people. Little placards, bearing the rector’s slogan “At our campus, collegiality must become a way of life” are still displayed in the administration block.

Considerable sums of money were spent on public relations exercises. A Day of Acknowledgement was held, at which awards for “friendship, contribution and commitment” were given to the minister of education, to Iskor and to a number of other persons whom Mokadi chose to honour. The rector’s sayings and doings were reported in Tech News, the technikon’s internal newsletter, in a breathlessly adulatory style, bizarrely reminiscent of the Soviet press: “History in the making — a day of triumph” (Professor Mokadi signing the transformation charter) “ ‘I have a dream’ says Professor Mokadi”; “ ‘Let us defend democracy’ says Professor Mokadi”. He bolstered himself with an extra title, choosing to refer to himself as the CEO of the institution. His opponents also allege that he required his wife to be styled First Lady of the Vaal Triangle Technikon. In October last year the inaugurations of Mokadi as rector and Tokyo Sexwale to the honorary position of chancellor of the technikon were celebrated with great pomp.

Yet within weeks of this ceremony the technikon council suspended Mokadi and began the series of investigations into his conduct, one chaired by lawyer Ronald Sutherland, which at the time of going to press still continue. The council, in classic coup style, decided upon the suspension while Mokadi was on an overseas trip. He was accused of having exceeded his travel budget on a series of visits to technical universities in Britain, the United States and New Zealand and was said to have used technikon funds to buy his wife a Volkswagen Jetta. He had also, his accusers claim, a highly autocratic management style, and had given promotions to favourites rather than on merit or on plausible affirmative action grounds. By contemporary South African standards, these are absurdly minor grounds on which to suspend anyone from anything. But as the suspension has dragged on, the accusations against him have become more serious. In May, the Vereeniging magistrate’s court ordered Mokadi to repay R32 000 to the technikon after he had unilaterally increased his housing allowance from 8 to 14 per cent and he is also accused of defrauding the technikon’s international donors.

Undoubtedly Mokadi had been inept, unrealistic and insensitive — and this had lost him popularity and made him vulnerable to attack. But the attack derived its real venom and its surprising success from Mokadi’s misdiagnosis of where power really lay at the technikon. A considerable majority of the technikon’s staff in all grades from management and lecturers to the cleaners and ground staff, are members of Nutesa — the National Union of Technikon Employees of South Africa. Nutesa was founded in 1996 and has its roots in the old white technikon staff association. But, as its leader at the Vaal Triangle, Nic Coetzee, explains, “the members of the staff association felt that the times called for protection from something more muscular — a full-fledged union”. What is more, Nutesa realised that if it were to have any real hope of success, it would have to attract a significant number of black members. This proved easier than might have been expected. Neither the white staff nor most of the blacks liked the practical changes Mokadi was making. His handling of affirmative action was universally felt to be unsatisfactory. He also wanted everyone to work harder.

The all-white Nutesa leadership of early 1996 approached the PAC’s affiliated union on campus, Meshawu, and offered not merely an alliance, but a complete merger and a change of name. This offer, to what is on other campuses an insignificant minority union, was perceived as generous. The merger was accepted and, as a reciprocal concession, the name of Nutesa was kept. Coetzee was appointed chairman and now works with three black deputies, representing administrative staff, academics and manual workers. The Nutesa leadership proved to be as successful at bread-and-butter unionism as they had been at political strategy. As the new majority union on the campus, they were able to secure wage increases all round and housing subsidies for categories of workers previously not eligible for them. Ironically enough, Nutesa also proved to be the most important beneficiary of transformation and transparency. As majority union, they are statutorily entitled to a powerful voice on the technikon council. They must also be kept informed and thoroughly consulted by management on all major issues. When, therefore, the membership of Nutesa could no longer tolerate Mokadi’s leadership, they were extremely well placed to start the process of removing him.
Since Mokadi’s suspension, the acting rectorate have stopped pushing ahead on the university question. They await further instructions from above. Much less emphasis is being placed on the requirement for research. The fever pitch of the Mokadi era has thoroughly subsided. Public relations are low-key and office hours have regained their accustomed brevity. Nutesa and the acting rectorate of the institution are not, however, inclined to be reactionary. Their visions of the future are remarkably similar and, unlike Professor Mokadi, they cannot be accused of attempting to substitute style for substance. The administration insists that it will continue to be guided by the transformation charter which, naturally, calls for a “vigorous and accelerated programme of transformation of our institution in its entirety”. Speaking for Nutesa, Coetzee says, “We stand for transformation; we have to accept the fact that transformation has to happen and be positive towards that.” His black vice-presidents are even more enthusiastic.

All are clear that transformation means more than affirmative action. It includes keeping decision-making at the technikon as open and consultative as possible, the final phasing out of Afrikaans as a medium of instruction, and attempts to develop a common institutional culture in which both blacks and whites can work comfortably. Internal empowerment programmes have also been started, which are intended to train the technikon’s existing black staff to take on more senior positions. Quality, moreover, has not been neglected, at least at the conceptual level. Both the Nutesa leaders and the administration are concerned to maintain or even to improve the standard of teaching and learning. Godfrey Shishana, the Nutesa representative of administrative staff explains that he felt responsible as a member of council to the communities that the technikon serves. He could not, for this reason, tolerate a lowering of standards in the name of transformation. Senior management are equally concerned with quality. They are, in fact, currently considering the adoption of what is referred to as the “total quality management system”, which will involve regular peer and external review of all the technikon’s departments, co-ordinated by an office and a director of quality management. This scheme, though somewhat top-heavy and expressed in bloated management-speak, is entirely laudable. The question remains, though, of how much of it will prove possible to implement.

Doubts are in order because of the way in which the real core of transformation — affirmative action — is being pursued since Mokadi’s suspension. Although it began during the Mokadi period, it has been carried on with extra vim and vigour in his absence. Guided by the Affirmative Action Monitoring Task Team, its goal is “to develop a staff profile that will reflect the needs and demographics of the region and country.” This leaves a little room for manoeuvre but not much — and the current administration is in no mood to equivocate. All new appointments are to be of black people. If a white person is felt to be absolutely necessary, the decision to appoint him or her can only be made by a committee of the acting rector and his two deputies. They are unlikely to do so unless every possible avenue for finding a black person has been exhausted. Affirmative action, what is more, is to be both strategic and top-down.

Certain positions throughout the technikon’s administration have been identified as strategic, which simply means that the continued presence of a white person in that job is intolerable and that they are to be replaced by a black as quickly as possible. Clarity about which these jobs are is difficult to obtain, but a Nutesa source considers financial administrators and administrative heads of faculties to be quite definitely strategic. Top-down affirmative action means that the most senior positions will be targeted first, whether they are strategic or not. Vacant director-level posts are also going to be filled by blacks only.

All tertiary institutions are obliged to submit to the education ministry a three-year rolling plan with an equity component. In its plan, the Vaal Triangle Technikon states that this year, the faculty of management science is to be divided in two, and half of it is to have a black secretary and a black dean. Next year, all academic department are to get a black “shadow” head, who will “function together with existing heads of department, in order to take over the position within a determined time span”. A similar scheme will apply in some divisions of the administration. Less detail is provided for 2000, but parallel appointments will continue. From this year forward, early retirements of white staff will be encouraged and those occupying strategic positions are to be provided with severance packages.

These schemes do not, however, contemplate the removal of academics with valuable teaching skills. White lecturers in engineering or accountancy will not have their posts designated as “strategic”, and new white employees in these areas may pass the tests set by the rectorate committee. The chances, however, of people with such skills taking a job or choosing to stay for long in such an environment are not large. They are being told, in effect, that although they may continue to teach their access to higher pay and promotion are permanently blocked on racial grounds.

Considered as a whole, the Vaal Triangle Technikon’s affirmative action policy could hardly fail to warm the heart of even the most enthusiastic Africaniser. The current administration, unlike Professor Mokadi, is utterly unafraid that affirmative action of this sort amounts to setting people up to fail. The anecdotal evidence, however, is that such failures are already evident. Some people, it is clear, have been “affirmed” without being “empowered”, as the jargon puts it. One young lecturer I met in the course of this investigation began his career at the technikon as a student activist. He proved a successful and responsible leader and at the end of his three-year BTech degree, was offered a junior job in the student affairs administration — a sensible enough move. So powerful, however, are the affirmative action pressures at the technikon that he was effectively ordered to become a lecturer in the faculty of management. As he himself is the first to admit this is a position for which he is almost totally unprepared. He is intelligent, high-principled and hard-working. He is popular with his students and does his best for them. He reads around his subject as widely as he can at an institution possessed of only 33 000 books. He would, in other words, make an outstanding academic given the proper training. At the moment, though, he seriously believes (and tells his students) that the recent decline in the value of the Rand can be largely attributed to South Africa’s return to the Commonwealth. The Queen of England, in his opinion, has in this way gained considerable control over the country, which she uses to sinister, currency-weakening ends.

Despite the thorough-going nature of the technikon’s affirmative action scheme, there is no resistance to it anywhere along the management-Nutesa axis. Speaking for his union’s white members, Nic Coetzee acknowledges that “it is realistic for the whites to feel fear in this whole situation.”

Nutesa, however, has made it its business to ensure that those whites who have to leave to make room for affirmative action appointments will do so with dignity. There is no disagreement from the black Nutesa leaders or from the rectorate. Dignity, in this context, appears to be largely a matter of money. According to the Durand report, the price of dignity had been originally calculated to include R7.6 million for payments to officially retired white staff who were to return on contract to assist their black replacements. After protest by Mokadi supporters had resulted in negative publicity for this scheme, Nutesa and the rectorate decided that dignity could be valued at R3.6 million in contracts for retirees. Details of the retrenchment compensation and early retirement packages themselves are, once again, hard to obtain — but these packages are said to be just as consistent with dignity as the contract arrangements.

The PAC-Afrikaner alliance that is Nutesa is a genuinely non-racial alliance, committed to achieving its goals through negotiated consensus. It looks after its members’ material interests with great effectiveness. Its leaders are charismatic and appear to be personally honest. But neither group has demonstrated a serious interest, despite the total quality management programme, in providing a decent level of tuition for the future. Professor Mokadi, for all his buffoonery and his more serious faults, cares deeply for education. The leadership (and so, by implication, the rank-and-file) of Nutesa, despite some of their rhetoric, do not give it as much priority. The whites want an exit with a soft landing, while the blacks want a quick rise into jobs that are not over-demanding.

The current rectorate team are well-meaning people whose detailed local knowledge ought to continue to be available to the technikon under its new management. They do understand that the primary role of the institution is to teach skills vital to South Africa’s future. What they appear to lack, though, is an ability to put some distance between themselves and the “transformation agenda” presently so dominant in South Africa. At the moment, they appear not to have access to a mode of thinking which would enable them to work out, in a principled way, which parts of the transformation agenda ought to be adopted for the good of the institution and its students and which should be modified or rejected. Not surprisingly, given its history, transformation at the technikon seems a matter of all or nothing: indefensible racist reaction or total Africanisation.

The education ministry, too, could learn something from the recent history of the technikon. It is quite likely that the Durand recommendations will reduce the influence of the Nutesa-PAC alliance on the campus. If a popular and effective ANC-aligned rector is found, it may even be possible to restore Nehawu to majority status and to return Sasco to the SRC. However, the tensions and inefficiencies created by attempting to run an educational institution along the lines required by the Education Act will not cease to exist. Situations will continue to arise in which the rector, the union and student politicians will disagree in public. So, too, will administrative navel-gazing and union feather-bedding. Strikes, demonstrations and other interruptions of education will very likely continue to be frequent. Most serious of all the neglect of students and the denial of their right to the best possible education will also most likely persist at the Vaal Triangle Technikon.