Two Weeks

In 1986, the University of Missouri President Peter Magrath called Rector Richard Van der Ross to ask if he could send a team of American professors and administrators to come and investigate a possible faculty exchange program. Van der Ross was a little unsure but did not see any harm in it, so he invited them to come in April of 1986.
So Peter Etzkorn from the University of Missouri St. Louis, Otis Jackson from the University of Missouri Columbia, Henry Mitchell from the University of Missouri Kansas City and Ron Turner from the UM president’s office flew to Cape Town, South Africa. On arrival in Cape Town, Turner spoke to a BBC journalist. When asked what he was going to South Africa to cover. The journalist pointed to the billowing smoke coming from Crossroads Township, a Black majority township near the Cape Town airport. He said, “that.”

UWC professors were unsure about the committee from Missouri. When UWC professor Shirley Walters first spoke with them, she was quick to get at the heart of UWC faculty’s concerns. “What do they think we need? What are you trying to teach us?” said Walters about the questions she and others had. “[We] were challenging any sort of paternalistic intent,” she said.

This suspicion did not scare away the Missouri group. They spent time with professors from all over the university. While the Missouri group did get a tour of Cape Town and the campus, they mostly sat and listened. The goal of the trip was not to deliver a plan for UWC. The goal of the trip was to listen.

“People thought they were spies,” said UWC professor Jan Persens. Because of their professed interest in UWC and their ease in traveling to South Africa, some professors thought the Missouri group were Americans spies working with the South African government to break the boycott.

Turner and the Missouri group surprised everyone with their open mindedness. “They did not try to seem super knowledgeable,” said Persens. Instead, they acknowledged that there was a lot they did not know and asked if UWC could teach them. If UWC professors thought Missouri could help in any way, the Missouri group wanted to be of service. The Missouri group also wanted to hear what UWC felt they could offer an American university. From the beginning, it was not the patriarchal relationship Walters feared. Turner was clear that this relationship was going to be academics working together on equal footing, or Missouri was not going to engage at all.

Still, some were not convinced international engagement was in the best interest for UWC. They asked why should they dilute their commitment to the struggle against apartheid by engaging with an American university, a country that is so allied with their oppressor? Brian O’Connell, then professor at UWC and current rector, recalls Turner saying, “It is one thing to be against, but you must also be for. You can be against apartheid, but you must be for building the new South Africa.” With this in mind, O’Connell and others initially opposed to the linkage were convinced.

In a meeting with in a lecture hall with staff from all over the university, one professor asked Turner, “Whose side are you on, the government or the ANC?” This question hit at the core issue of the University of Missouri’s mission. Turner said, “I’m on UWC’s side. Whose side is UWC on?” The University of Missouri decided to stand with academic colleagues working against apartheid but was not in the position to oppose the government of South Africa. The University of Missouri was not acting against the apartheid government; they were seeking to working with an educational partner committed to building a new South Africa.

After two weeks, the Missouri group headed home. During their stay, they spoke candidly with some very pro-apartheid people and met with revolutionaries living in townships. They listened and found that the University of the Western Cape was the most appropriate partner for working towards a new South Africa. As the Missouri group was leaving, Turner spoke with Van der Ross. Turner remembers Van der Ross saying, “ We have had a long train of American educators come to visit, they have tea, offer to help and we never hear from them again. There is something different about Missouri; first, you came as a team of four, you did not flit about the country, you stayed here and tried to get to know us. Yes, there is something different about Missouri. I think we can work with Missouri.”

Following the Missouri team visit, Van der Ross sent the new UWC Rector designate, Jakes Gerwel, to Missouri in June 1986. Before this visit, both sides worked on a draft memorandum of agreement that would outline the University of Missouri South Africa Education Program. Gerwel signed the agreement with Magrath in Missouri on June 1986. After, Van der Ross agreed to send a team of UWC professors to Missouri so that they could see what they could gain from a relationship with Missouri and to see if Ron Turner was as sincere as he seemed.


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