THE NEW UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH AFRICA COMING OF AGE

Today is yet another occasion for the making of history, our history, our story. It is a history that has brought two different institutions, the University of South Africa and the Technikon Southern Africa, into a merger and incorporated a section of a third, the Vista University Distance Education Campus. When we inaugurated this new institution at the TSA’s Ormonde Conference Centre on 28 January 2004, we stated that it was to be an institution founded on the vision of an African university in the service of humanity.

Since then the process of history making has continued. We have sought to identify and acknowledge the characters and identities of the partner institutions, and to draw from their strengths. For example, the coat of arms of the erstwhile University of South Africa was registered with the Bureau of Heraldry in 1904. It has served the then Unisa for over 100 years, with only minor adaptations over the time. The rose, the insignia of the Dukes of York, the anchor, the amulets, and the fort, all represent the philosophies, as well as the social and political representations of their time. The crest represents features of the royal and colonial foundations of the university, and it expresses the hopes of a colonial generation and settler communities seeking to set roots in South Africa. We have now moved on. That history, though, is an important part of our country and of the story of the new Unisa. We have understood the histories and cultures of our different entities, out of which we seek to mould new and preferably different cultures. We have had to contend with people and their loyalties, and we have been aware of and sensitive to various vested interests. We are engaging the entire university community, staff students and the alumni, about the shaping of a new institution, the sacrifices it might entail, and the challenges it poses for all of us, as well as the excitement of being part of something new. In fact, the new University of South Africa is history in the making.

A lot of that history making has a lot to do with mapping a character of leadership and management style. By and large, in providing leadership to this institution, we have sought to cultivate an engaged style, one that articulates a clear social and political understanding of the value of this institution. It seeks to align the new Unisa with the broad vision and goals being advanced in South Africa for human development and scientific endeavour. It is necessary, I find, that we constantly engage and challenge ourselves about what we believe together about this institution, its character, and its value. I guess that when that question is posed today, Unisians will give a variety of answers reflecting largely from our race, culture and historical profiles. The aspiration is that in time, we shall gradually answer such questions without regard to any of those identities. An enquirer will no longer be able to identify where we come from from the answers we give or from the questions we ask. What, hopefully, one will observe is a fond gazing at the enchanting future of our institution.

The second challenge for leadership has been to cultivate an environment that is people centred, and which invites debate and intellectual scrutiny. Somehow we need to recover the practice of academic scrutiny in this institution. To do so, somehow, we shall need to get academic and non-academic staff out of their cubicles or cloisters, into the arena for social engagement, to learn from one another and to discover a world they might never have known simply by reading books. That world is vested in fellow human beings – with their diversity of cultures, religions and languages. Innovation is not simply what happens in the laboratory. There is also the social laboratory, social spaces which enhance social interaction and social enquiry. It is the constructing of new attitudes, discovering new values and creating new social relationships. By so doing we shall be experimenting, discovering and advancing our social purpose and explicating an ideology that drives our world view. Increasingly for Unisa it can only be discovered by getting alongside colleagues who are expatriate staff and students from various African states. I grant that we have a long way to go. But we must get there. Otherwise we shall become a smug, self-contented institution that is not aroused by the challenges and opportunities that surround it. Even worse, we shall become preoccupied with our own little closed worlds and descend into an irrelevant and reactionary obscurantism.

During 2003 and 2004, we began a process of discovering the alumni of, first the University of South Africa, and last year of Unisa, TSA and Vista. We travelled the length and breadth of this country, addressing often large gatherings of South Africans who were touched by Unisa somehow. We even travelled to London where a lively band of Unisa alumni gathered to express excitement about this institution and confidence in its future. Asked what it was that they remembered most about their studies at Unisa, almost always we heard that Unisa gave us an opportunity which, were it not for the institution, they might never have acquired university education. In many instances Unisa alumni came from poor backgrounds to attend university, or circumstances required them to go out to work early. Universally former students remembered that much more than the racial discrimination many often experienced just as much. What was uppermost in their minds was the opportunity Unisa offered. Today, it is that opportunity that we must capture. The wonderful thing is that today many South Africans will recognise that we live in a land of opportunity. The question often is which opportunity we need to grab with both hands. To determine which we need a strategy and a clear sense of the goals one wishes to achieve.

The branding and imaging of this university was necessitated by history. It is also part of a strategy to meaningfully create a new institution. But we have been careful that that process be accompanied by clear strategies, goals and values. We have also been conscious that the broad principles and context outlined above should be a critical element that would go into the making of this new institution. This we put together in the first Vision and Mission Statement of the university adopted by Council at its very first session in July 2004, Unisa 2015: An Agenda for Transformation. That Statement focused our thinking into the kind of university we would like to become. I gather that it elicited some debate and not a little cynicism in some quarters, at all our campuses. Whatever standpoint one took to the statement, it at least got Unisa talking about those things we hold in common. The central element of the statement is its vision: towards the African university in the service of humanity. That got us talking about Africanisation and to deliberate on the principles of service, as an integral part of the idea of a university. Naturally, we need not agree with all aspects of this debate, but that hopefully we shall soon find common ground and shared perspectives about this institution and the formation of its identity and character. Since then (i.e. July 2004), we have been continuing that process. Hopefully, by August 2005, Council shall have approved the university’s ten year strategic plan.

The building blocks for a brand image of the university have thus been set. The agency that won the tender for this exercise impressed us greatly by their enthusiasm, their inventiveness and originality, by their creativity and the lengths to which they went in order to understand their brief. It is the genius of translating the brief into visual images and symbols that has impressed us most. They definitely understood what this university understood about itself. The product they presented was as fresh and vibrant, as it was inviting and challenging. The symbols and images constantly reveal layers of meaning at different times and places. In my view a most important characteristic is that they are both open, African and inclusive. The inspiration is unmistakable: the earth colours, the calabash and the flame speak of warmth, community and generosity. There is also the abstract meaning, almost surrealism, embodied in the representations of unity and knowledge. The circular shape, rather than the traditional three-pointed crest, tells of a circle of community signifying an inclusive community. The motto has been rendered in Latin. Perhaps this elicited the most debate. In the end we opted for Latin in order to connect with the ancient traditions of the university emanating from Bologna, Europe’s first formal university in the 11th century. We wish to affirm that notwithstanding our rootedness in the African soil with its history and traditions, there are certain values and standards that define the nature of a university that transcend the particularities of culture, time and place. We can only hope that the motto pro gentibus sapientia, translated from the English, (knowledge) in the service of humanity, fully captures the flair, the intelligence, the ingenuity and poetic beauty of the original.

The City of Tshwane has become the main campus of the University of South Africa. The other main campus is in Florida where we hope in time to locate the Colleges of Science, Engineering & Technology as well as of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences. We envisage Florida as our science and applied sciences hub. Unisa, however, can also be found in five other regional learning centres we have established throughout the country. We believe that the brand image Council has now adopted for the university, with its rich associations and inspirations in African culture and traditional concepts of a university will draw more people into this institution so that it should never become a matter of just a passing interest, or a curiosity on the hill to passers by. In fact, I believe that I can say boldly with William Wordsworth: “Dull would he be of a soul who could pass by/ a sight so touching in its majesty.”

Come join us in the making of our own history. Unisa is coming of age!

N Barney Pityana
PRINCIPAL AND VICE CHANCELLOR: University of South Africa

Pretoria, 30 March 2005.

This site was developed for Internet Explorer 5.5. and best viewed in 1024X768
date: page last updated