Could We Work Together?

fter the team from the University of Missouri left, and after rector designate Jakes Gerwel’s visit to Missouri in June 1986, UWC professors and administrators had to decide if they trusted Missouri, and if so, if they were willing to break the academic boycott. The University of the Western Cape decided they did trust Missouri, and with some discussion with the ANC abroad, decided an academic partnership with Missouri would not be considered breaking the boycott.

In addition to a boycott on businesses working in South Africa, there was a boycott on South African academics. South Africans were not allowed at some international conferences, international journals were not imported to South Africa and only the most conservative South African universities sent their professors abroad. Even when offered, professors at UWC that were committed to fighting against apartheid refused to speak at international conferences.

“The academic boycott was about bringing the struggle to people that didn’t think they had to engage with it,” said Shirley Walters. Academics, in particular White academics, were able to avoid the repercussions many in the business community felt from the international boycott.

White South African universities were instrumental in the creation and continuation of apartheid. To this day, Stellenbosch University honors the Afrikaner Nationalist D.F. Malan with the D.F. Malan Memorial Centre. D.F. Malan was prime minister in 1948 and was the architect of the grand apartheid. Under his leadership, the racial categories were created, the Group Areas Act was passed and interracial marriage was banned. Even into the 1980s, White universities perpetuated the logic of apartheid and prepared White South Africans for careers in maintaining the system. South Africans encouraged international conferences and foreign universities to not invite any South African academic to contain apartheid ideology.
This did not work as well as activists in South Africa and abroad had hoped. Conservative White universities still sent professors to international conferences and published papers. Not every international conference could be persuaded to exclude South Africans. This left UWC and other universities in South Africa that were committed to the struggle against apartheid at a comparative disadvantage. While Stellenbosch and Pretoria were growing in international clout, UWC was stagnating.

The consequence of this was not lost on UWC professors. They were convinced that with the resources they received from the South African government, they were not prepared to expand in a post-apartheid South Africa. They saw that potential internationalization could invigorate professors and expose them to new ideas. Having access to the libraries and advanced technology at the Missouri universities would help with their research. A linkage could help with the examination of PhD candidates, meaning their graduates would be even more prepared for research at an international level. But most were not willing to break the boycott.

Richard Van der Ross was set to retire in 1986, and his replacement was already beginning some work at UWC. Jakes Gerwel was a well-known activist and lecturer at the Hewat Teachers’ Training College and later at UWC. Because of his activism, he was in contact with the African National Congress (ANC) in exile. Through secret letters, the ANC organized attacks on government infrastructure and protest in South Africa. Gerwel sent a secret letter to Thabo Mbeki, an ANC leader who became a post-apartheid president in 1999, explaining the situation. Gerwel also spoke with the United Democratic Front members, a political party in South Africa that opposed apartheid but was not banned by the apartheid government. Because of UWC’s commitment to the boycott and Missouri’s commitment to stop supporting apartheid, the ANC and UDF supported an international linkage and did not consider it breaking the boycott.

On June 19, 1986, rector designate Jakes Gerwel arrived in Missouri to sign the memorandum of academic cooperation. This document says the cooperation will include, “student interchange, selected cooperative academic programs, joint faculty appointments, faculty exchanges, financial aid support, manpower support to assist in tutorials, internships and academic research development and training opportunities.” Pieter Le Roux happened to be in St. Louis, Missouri at the same time as Gerwel. He spoke to Gerwel after signing the agreement. Gerwel said he was hopeful for the partnership, with Missouri’s tradition as a land-grant university and with Ron Turner’s commitment to UWC.
After the agreement was signed in 1986, the two partners still had work to do to build trust and learn more about one another. The following year, Richard Van der Ross sent Brian O’Connell to Missouri to tour the different campuses and see if Missouri was as committed to the struggle against apartheid as Ron Turner and the group of representatives were. O’Connell was one of the most vocal critics of America’s involvement in apartheid and most resistant to a linkage with an American university but became convinced of Missouri’s sincerity. When he toured the Missouri schools, he found some professors had the same reservations he had, but about UWC. One professor accused him of being a spy from the South African government trying to break the boycott. This was not the case, and over time Missouri professors came to see the commitment UWC professors had to the struggle and to their students.


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