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ID #5377

Engineering at Wits in the 60’s, Johannesburg, Gauteng, South Africa.

The philosophy at Graeme College, the boarding school I attended in Grahamstown was a curious mixture of Victorian and Calvinistic values such as: “People are inherently bad and one had better knock it out of them as soon as possible or they will come to no good”. Such ideas were harshly imposed and enforced with vigour. So it was a relief when I left school and enrolled at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) at the beginning of 1966.

One of the first things I noticed was how bright some of the students were. In spite of a sometimes modest appearance, a few students possessed ferocious intellects and were able to pass all exams with flying colours in spite of partying all night, sleeping through all the lectures and so on. I am still unsure how they did it. Never judge a book by its cover.

Some did things that were, from my perspective, different and thought provoking. We traveled from Krugersdorp to university each day by train. At Discovery a fellow student climbed onto the train who caught my attention. I noticed that, irrespective of the weather, he always wore short shorts and carried all of his belongings in a heavy canvass bag. Strangely I never heard him utter a sound -- he was as silent as the grave. A year or two later I was on a ski-boat fishing at Zavora, a remote resort on the Mozambique coast. We noticed something unusual – miles out to sea we saw a rubber dinghy of the type used by spear fishermen. For safety reasons one diver usually stayed in the dinghy to prevent it from drifting away. However in this instance there was nobody in the dinghy.

Concerned for their safety, we went around to the other side of the dinghy to find my friend from Florida in the water with his fellow divers. They had shot an enormous grouper and were defending it from attack by sharks that were zooming in like torpedoes and hitting the grouper, jaws agape, trying to get their jaws around it. But the grouper was so large that they slipped off, jaws snapping audibly. Where was my friend during all of this? He was in the water kicking the sharks with his flippers and hitting at them with his spear gun as they zoomed in. At the time I thought he was quite mad. Nor have I changed my opinion in the intervening years.

The country was in turmoil at the time. Nelson Mandela and his fellow Rivonia trialists had been tried and sentenced to long prison terms two years earlier. University campuses in general and Wits in particular were the focus of agitation against what was perceived to be an illegitimate and unjust regime. Values such as academic and freedom of the press were cherished by most on campus. Outside the university things were much worse. Reporters were regularly beaten up, newspapers were banned, prisoners regularly died in police custody and so on. Wits was like a beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

Engineers are for the most part unmotivated by such ideals. But there is a more practical reason – engineering is a difficult degree so few of us had time to spend on such niceties. So apart from attending the odd meeting in the Great Hall, we paid little attention. However on one occasion the agitation got out of hand so Grant Robinson, chairman of the SRC and an engineer, stood up and accused the assembled throng of verbal diarrhea, after which a Harley Davidson motorbike was wheeled in, started and revved to make as much noise as possible. Needless to say the meeting broke up in disarray.

I personally felt out of my depth for the first few years. The pressure started during the induction week after registration. We were required to attend a lecture in the Great Hall given by Professor Oliver, a Professor in the Applied Maths Department. We were chatting noisily together when I noticed a man in a white lab coat wandering aimlessly about the stage. I mistakenly thought he was part of the cleaning staff and paid little attention. Suddenly he wheeled around and said: “Three out of every four of the people in this room will never get a degree” and walked off the stage. Well! We looked at each other wondering which group we were in. Incidentally the underlying reason for this attitude on the part of the university authorities was because they believed that the school system did not adequately prepare students for a university education. Which may well have been the case. However, instead of starting programs to remedy the problem, they failed students by the thousand. In my case, of the 65 students who started Chemical Engineering with me, 8 completed the course.

They took the easy way out -- i.e. blaming the raw material for their poor workmanship. But the fact of the matter is that teaching standards were atrocious. Instead of behaving like teachers, many of the lecturers behaved like prison guards. Some even went to the extent of keeping records of who attended lectures, who was asleep and so on. Failure to attend classes mean failing the final exam. Fortunately I had been to a school of hard knocks so such behaviour did little to distract me from my objective.

This injustice was justified by the need to maintain high academic standards at the university. Which was true -- engineering standards were high and the quality of the graduates first class. But this had nothing to do with the quality of the education received. Instead it was simply a case of survival of the fittest. If one was bright and willing to slave day and night, one might eventually pass the final exams. To better illustrate this point, I have a friend who, 40 years after graduation, still wakes up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night after dreaming about writing an exam at Wits the following day -- i.e. he suffers from post-traumatic stress 40 years after attending university! Surely something is very wrong with such a system. There were other disturbing signs in this symbol of academic virtue. For example, when Sir de Villiers Graaff was invited to give a speech, he was booed out of the Great Hall. What happened to freedom of speech I wondered?

After attending a private university in Pittsburgh (Carnegie-Mellon University) I became aware of several weaknesses in the structure of universities in South Africa. For example:

•    Tenure: After about 10 years teaching at the university, one is required to apply for tenure. Receiving tenure meant a guarantee of lifelong employment by the university. To determine one's suitability, information regarding one's suitability is gleaned from both fellow staff members as well as students at the university.  Failure to do so meant one’s prospects at the university were so severely jeopardized that most who failed left to find employment elsewhere shortly thereafter.
•    Incestuousness: Joining a post-graduate programme from the university where one obtained one’s undergraduate degree was not permitted. The reason for this rule was simple – they wanted to maintain the flow of fresh minds and ideas into the university and avoid the incestuousness that would otherwise result.
•    Post-Graduate Research: Apart from passing an entrance examination and a passing many courses at the post-graduate level, students are required to pass their final oral examination and have their thesis accepted within 5 years. Failure to do so meant that all funding was summarily terminated.
•    External Contacts: Academic staff is paid for 10 months of the year. For the remaining 2 months their salaries must be supplemented by consulting to companies external to the university. One's ability to obtain research funding from external sources is highly valued.

The above rules were introduced to ensure that both academic staff and students consistently perform at a high level, thus ensuring that the university remains in close contact with its environment. And this is indeed the case at Carnegie-Mellon. For example, the quality of the engineering faculty (robotics), computer science and drama are all world class.

Not so at South African universities. With few exceptions they perform little or no research, are not world-renowned and the students are ill-prepared for work in a modern industrial environment. Instead universities are characterized for the most part by politics and in-fighting. Lastly the salaries are low when compared with employment in the private sector.  So I see little future in an academic career at a South African university. 

I am nevertheless grateful to my alma mater for the opportunities it has given me. But I am one of the survivors. I wonder whether those who did not make it share this opinion?

The criticism expressed here should not be seen as negative. Instead I hope it may help in some small way to assist our universities to become what they should be – i.e. world class havens of enlightenment and progress in a sea of poverty and ignorance. Which is what South Africa desperately needs if it is to lift its population out of the grinding poverty and ignorance they endure at present.

Alan McIver, Palawan, Philippines, November 2012


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Last update: 2014-05-14 14:17
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.17

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