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UWC’s rise through the eyes of Yvonne Arnold - Secretary in the office of four Rectors

Author: Harriet Box

When Yvonne Arnold started working at UWC in 1974, she was only 19-years-old - she has played a role in steering the institution from the ashes to a stance of fighting for social change, and achieving it.

(Published - 13 September 2018)

When Yvonne (Yasmin) Arnold started working at the University of the Western Cape, she was just 19-years-old.



Back then - a staggering 44 years ago - she didn’t even know who Nelson Mandela was. But her enthusiasm to learn new skills and being open to explore new technologies and tasks, helped her grow, she believes.

She has had the honour of working in the Rector’s office for 31 years. This role not only helped her to get to know UWC’s leaders very well, but it also enabled her to develop an in-depth understanding of the institution and its critical role as a public university in South Africa.

Although she wasn’t a secretary to the very first rector of colour - Professor Richard (Dicky) van der Ross - she had the opportunity to observe him at different stages of his leadership from her position as a young typist in the University’s typing pool.

“He would call me the girl with the big shoes, because it was the early seventies after all and huge platforms were the in-thing,” she recalls with a laugh.

Despite not working directly for Professor Van der Ross, she cherishes the fact that they developed a close relationship and that they continued to have frequent interaction until shortly before his death in December 2017.

Arnold was appointed as executive secretary in the Rector’s Office when Professor Jakes Gerwel was appointed. This was a time of ongoing political turmoil and she acknowledges Professor Gerwel as the one who inducted her into the intricacies of South African politics at the time.

She recalls Professor Gerwel’s declaration of UWC as the "intellectual home of the left" as a special highlight during that time. As with Professor Van Der Ross, her relationship with Professor Gerwel extended beyond his tenure as rector, and over the years they became close friends.

Arnold fondly remembers Professor Cecil Abrahams as the person who took her on her first visit to Robben Island. He was also the rector who initiated UWC Secretaries Day which became a unique UWC tradition that continued for many years.

Professor Brian O’Connell is the rector with whom Arnold worked the longest, as he served in that position for 13 years. This was also a period in UWC’s history that posed many challenges as well as witnessed many wonderful achievements. She recalls key moments from this period, including: UWC recovering from its dire financial position; the challenges during the time of the restructuring of the higher education landscape with mergers and incorporations; the construction of the Life Sciences building and other new buildings, and UWC being recognised nationally and internationally for its research. She recalls the special times when Professor O’Connell, a master storyteller, would share memories from his life and his childhood in District Six.

“My daughter, Aniqah, decided to become a teacher as a result of her engagement with Prof O’Connell - a decision she has not regretted.”

Arnold loves the fact that Professor O’Connell is still a regular visitor to the office and that her special relationship with him continues.

Her time at the University saw her rub shoulders with world icons. Shortly after his release from prison in 1990, Arnold assisted Mandela whilst he was staying at Professor Gerwel’s home in Belhar. She also met the late Mohammed Ali, attended a state banquet with Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and is familiar with UWC’s beloved former Chancellor, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu.

At the University, Arnold is known and loved for her positivity and generosity. Over the years she was involved in organising various events and her colleagues know that she is always ready for a theme party. In addition, she would be the first one to be seen on the dance floor.

“ In my time at UWC I have had the privilege of working with many wonderful people. From the day one enters the gates of UWC, you feel a sense of belonging. For me, this institution is more than just walls and paved walkways, it has provided me with so many opportunities and experiences. My family has also benefited in many different ways, including the fact that all three our children were able to study. Khaleel, our son, studied drama at Stellenbosch University and our daughters, Nazli and Aniqah, are proud UWC alumni.”

Arnold currently works in Professor Tyrone Pretorius’ office. She loves his energy, his sense of style and his sense of humour. She first got to know him when they were both much younger. At the time he was a psychology master’s student and she assisted him with typing his thesis on one of UWC’s first computers.

At her formal farewell function earlier this year Professor Pretorius remarked:“I often tell my children that they mustn’t take work personally. Work is work, it is not personal. But Yvonne made me realise that I am actually wrong. When it comes to Yvonne, work is not just business, it is personal and it is therefore hard to see Yvonne leave. By her example I can truly see that in the love and respect that she has for her co-workers and people in general. Yvonne has shown that everybody can play a part in building something as great as the University of the Western Cape.”

Arnold responded: “Prof’s words meant a lot to me. I would have never have thought that 44 years could make you fall in love with a place so deeply but, as my family would say, UWC has become part of my DNA.”

Yvonne Arnold’s UWC journey is characterised by relationships. Not only did she forge very special bonds with the different rectors, but it is clear that she has established close ties and friendships across the campus. She will be sorely missed when she logs off for the final time later this year.
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