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