In praise of my illustrious alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand

Most people can’t even pronounce it and few outside of South Africa would have heard of “The University of the Witwatersand” – until recently.

Wits University's east campus with the imposing Great Hall at the centre

The imposing Great Hall at the heart of Wits University

‘Witwatersrand’, an Afrikaans word pronounced gutterally ‘vit-varters-rand’, and meaning “ridge of white waters” (referring to the ridge of ancient white rock running east to west across Johannesburg) appeared in every major news outlet around the world this month when archeologists and paleontologists from the University of the Witwatersrand  revealed that in caves near the Cradle of Mankind world heritage site, outside Johannesburg they had unearthed one of the most significant fossil finds of all time: the remains of a new human-like species. since named Homo Naledi.

Fossil remains of Homo Naledi

Fossil remains of Homo Naledi

Reading all about the Homo Naledi discovery brought back so many vivid memories of my six years spent at Wits University in the 1990s, where I mostly traipsed around its lively, liberal arts East Campus in Braamfontein from lecture to lecture. It’s the oldest part of the university, dominated by the imposing Greek-columned Great Hall with pretty gardens, sports fields and a mix of old and modern architecture.

It was in the Great Hall that I graduated in 1997 with a Bachelor of Arts Degree and in 1999, with a post-graduate business management diploma. Before that, I tried architecture for a year and building science for another, before finally  finding my feet in an English and Psychology degree with a bit of Film and Drama and Economics thrown in, much to the relief of my exasperated parents.

Taking-a-break-on-the-lawns-Wits-University

The lawns on East Campus

While Wits may not have an ounce of the global clout or fame of legendary universities like Harvard, Stanford, Oxford or  Cambridge, in South Africa, its reputation is immense.

It occupies a special place in the country’s psyche, firstly as a centre of learning and research and secondly, as a hotbed of left-wing political activism that helped shake off the shackles of apartheid.

Since its founding in 1922 (originally it was a mining school dating back to 1905), Wits has produced a veritable who’s who of the country’s best writers, lawyers, thinkers, architects, doctors, business leaders and political players.

Graduates include three Nobel prize winners, among them anti-apartheid scribe Nadine Gordimer, who won for Literature in 1991, the lawyer George Bizos who defended Mandela at the Rivonia Trial, Oscar winner, Gavin Hood, who directed the movie Tsotsi, musicians Manfred Mann and Johnny Clegg and political satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys (South Africa’s equivalent of Dame Edna). Former Westpac boss Gail Kelly and Glencore mining boss Ivan Glasenberg are also Wits graduates.

Among my many memories of Wits, is walking into a library one late summer afternoon and noticing a glamorous-looking black lady huddled over her books, surrounded by a posse of body guards. It was Winnie Mandela, then still married to Nelson Mandela, and who was – I believe – enrolled in political science degree. It would only have been a year or two after Winnie and her ‘Mandela Football Club’ thugs had been implicated in the brutal slaying of Stompie Moeketsi, a 14-year-old boy, accused of being a police informer.

Speaking of the police, they were an unwelcome presence on campus from time to time when various left-wing student unions would protest about things like fee hikes and threats to expel students with unpaid and overdue fees.

Not everyone on campus supported the protests: I remember that some students took it upon themselves to print and sell t-shirts with “The Police: Their Greatest Hits” printed on the front, a parody of the rock band’s very popular ‘Best Of’ album  except with a policeman bashing a students head in with a truncheon. On the back, instead of concert dates and venues, was a list of police clashes on campus.

More pleasing are my memories of discussions with novelist and short story writer David Medalie, whose passionate lectures inspired my many re-reading of E.M. Forster’s brilliant novel, A Passage to India. Internationally acclaimed artist William Kentridge was a guest lecturer in my Film and Drama classes in the basement of Senate House, where he showed some of his incredible hand sketched short films, including one I recall vividly for its pathos and utter sadness, Felix in Exile.

It was in those Film and Drama classes that I was also introduced to classic Italian and French movies like the Bicycle Thieves and The 400 Blows, and where we discussed Pulp Fiction, then just released.

Also, I recall vividly going to a university production, where the female drama students from my Film and Drama class disrobed and pranced around the stage in the nude. It was a very pleasant shock.

In my psychology classes I discovered Freud and Jung for the first time and learnt about Maslow’s hieracy of needs. In English lectures I immersed myself in the writings of Margaret Atwood, Thomas Pynchon, Charles Dickens, the Bronte sisters, the poems of Keats, Wordsworth and EE Cummings and the plays of Athol Fugard, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill.

In the canteen, between lectures, I got fat on sugary Chelsea buns and pap and wors, drowned in gravy. Attempts at exercise at the  university’s squash courts did not help much.

There were of course friendships struck in lecture halls and mostly disastrous attempts at romance. For a brief time I wrote heavily parodied (by my friends) film reviews and bits and pieces for the student newspaper and recall enrolling in the photography club for a while.

I wrote my essays out by hand at first before we finally got a computer at home. It was at Wits that I used email for the first time.

I also remember the archeology building, where the Homo Naledi fossils are presumably now stored and catalogued.  It was and is still called the Bernard Price Institute or BPI for short.

I remember its windows lined with jars and specimens and inside, a big airy foyer filled with the strange and interesting exhibits.

A bit like my 41-year-old self: a strange and somewhat interesting ‘exhibit’ and product of that same institution, the University of the Witwatersrand.

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Postcard from Australia: Parks, recreation and racism

Major-parks-Hyde-ParkFor me, there is no greater symbol of Australian tolerance and acceptance of multiculturalism than park life.

Not the song by Blur, but what goes in a park in Sydney or Melbourne (or Brisbane or Perth I am sure) on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

If you don’t spend much time in parks, I urge you to visit now that spring is in the air and the days are warming up and the skies are a deeper shade of blue.

Here you’ll find people of all colours, creeds and sexual and socio-economic persuasion eating, playing, laughing, drinking and cooking side-by-side in seemingly perfect harmony.

You’ll see Asian families with their massive plastic Tupperware containers of marinated chicken wings and rice eating under gazebos, traditional Muslim families sitting on rugs having picnics and pasty white folk riding their bikes, throwing the frisbee, walking dogs or just enjoying a good book on the lawn. The children’s playground will be a similar multi-coloured, multi denominational kaleidoscope filled with laughing, screaming happy kids having fun without a bother in the world.

I see scenes like this every time we go to the park, without fail. It’s positive reinforcement that Australians are decent at heart, kind, tolerant and accepting, fitting in with the global stereotype: the happy-go-lucky, easy-going laughable larrikin Aussie.

Parks are where I find myself, someone who does not usually engage with strangers, striking up conversations with parents of all backgrounds, while my daughter swings or hurtles down slides. Last week it was a guy, Rudy from Santiago, Chile, who has lived in a Australia for more than a decade, is an Australian citizen, making the move here for a better life. A couple of weeks ago it was a Greek grandfather “pappou” as his grandkids called him, with whom I discussed the economic collapse in the country of his birth.

It’s hard to correlate this multicultural idyll with some of the racist vitriol that is so very present in so many other aspects of Australian life and which reinforces another widely held stereotype, that Australians are racist bastards who call Italians “wogs”, Aborigines “Abos” and who want to send Muslims “back to where they came from”.

But yet, we live in such a dichotomy, one that is particularly pronounced under the most conservative government in the country’s modern history.

Last weekend’s Border Force crackdown Melbourne where there were plans for the new militarised goon squad in their sinister Stasi-like black uniforms to target suspected visa dodgers before a public protest led to its hasty cancellation only rammed home the message of racial vilification because after all, as a colleague of mine highlighted, they were unlikely to ask a pasty white guy like me (a permanent resident, but a foreigner none the less) for proof of my residency.

Adam-Goodes

Adam Goodes being booed

Add to this the thousands of mainly Muslim asylum seekers, deemed “illegal” by the government, locked up, abused and forgotten in offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, the many Reclaim Australia and even more sinister United Patriotic Front rallies – skinheads disguised as “concerned citizens” and the recent targeted booing of aboriginal AFL player Adam Goodes and its hard not to stereotype Australia as a hotbed of white-trash yobbos parading in those blue Australian flag singlets on Australia Day.

Most recently, a gang of racists disguised as concerned citizens protested at a property auction, because of the prevalence of Asian buyers in the overheated real estate market (even though research shows its local cashed up mum and dad investors that are driving up prices)

As someone who lived in apartheid-era South Africa, I am acutely aware of racism in its many forms, overt and subtle, as a Jew, I have experienced the occasional anti-semitic episode.

But it seems to be as though racism is too easily brushed under the carpet here. Racist remarks by well-known public figures like Dawn Fraser, Eddie Maguire, Darren Lehman and others are quickly forgotten after the most facile of apologies. There are no repercussions for the right-wing columnists like Andrew Bolt who regularly degrade minorities, while the government through its stoking of the paranoia of fear about Muslim extremists (when the greatest dangers appear to be domestic in nature), is doing nothing, but helping prejudice, bigotry and intolerance fester.

The remedy of course, is to forget all about this and take off to the park on a sunny spring day, breath in the air, feed the ducks and enjoy the multi-cultural ambience. Perhaps even strike up a conversation with a Muslim father playing with his kids, an African women walking her poodle or a tanned Spaniard practicing his English.

Think of it as anti-racism therapy 101. It’s good for the soul. It may also renew your faith in Australia.