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30 September 2021
UWC: A Heritage Of Hope, Knowledge And Action
South Africa’s Heritage Month is a time of reflection for a country - and a world - facing numerous challenges, from inequality to climate change to (of course) a global pandemic. At times like these, the University of the Western Cape (UWC) looks to its history for inspiration - a history of overcoming challenges that seemed insurmountable at the time.

“These are challenging times,” notes Prof Tyrone Pretorius, Rector and Vice-Chancellor. “But we have faced challenging times before. In our six decades of existence, we have overcome the limitations placed upon us by the apartheid state, served as a home of the intellectual left during the turbulent eighties, helped a nation forge a constitution for a new democracy, and moved from a ‘bush college’ to one of the world’s most respected institutions. It’s a history of hope - and a legacy of knowledge and action that we strive to live up to.”

From humble beginnings, UWC has grown to firmly establish itself as one of the top tier South African universities, walking a long journey from a “bush college” set up to train administrators to an integral part of the new democratic South Africa, and a producer of world-class teaching and research.

This is how it happened.

1960s: A Bush College (So They Thought): In 1959, Parliament adopted legislation establishing the University College of the Western Cape as a constituent college of the University of South Africa for people classified as "Coloured". One year later, in 1960, UCWC opened its doors, offering limited training to Coloured students for lower positions in schools, the civil service and other institutions - exclusively in Afrikaans. In that first year, the student body was only 166 strong, and the teaching staff numbered only 17 – all white, except for the legendary philosopher/writer/activist Adam Small. But in institutions like UWC, the apartheid government laid the seeds of its own demise.

“Fifty-three years ago I graduated from UKWK, then a “Bush college” designated for coloureds - even one with average matric results, like myself,” recalled UWC alumna (and one of the most significant authors of late-apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa), Prof Zoë Wicomb, while receiving an Honorary doctorate from her alma mater. “There was a stigma attached to Bush - and justifiably so. “But the apartheid university policy consumed itself from within, and produced dissent. Herded together, we questioned the silence of our parents, cowed by draconian laws. But we could speak to each other, without the racial inferior-superior opposition that apartheid fostered. Thus education asserted itself after all: The Bush colleges transformed themselves against the vision of apartheid.”

1970s: Finding Footing - Becoming UWC: In 1970, the institution gained university status and was able to award its own degrees and diplomas. And so the University of the Western Cape (UWC) began to expand its academic project, founding (among others) its then-tiny Faculty of Dentistry and Faculty of Law - which many years later would come to play a massive role in South Africa, and beyond. At the same time, protest action by students and black academic staff led to the appointment, in 1975, of the first black Rector, Professor Richard E van der Ross. The new, freer climate under his leadership was amenable to intellectual debate and internationally respected scholarship - and laid the seed for greater things to come. 

“I think the periods of contestation for this university in the seventies were foundational for its narrative as a place of struggle, a place of contrarian ideas. The tie-burning incident in 1970, the famous campus-wide walk-off of 1973 and the country-wide student uprising of 1976 - these shaped the character of the University going forward,” recalled Prof Hein Willemse, UWC alum and editor of 'Hostel: Autobiographical Narratives of the 1975-1980 University of the Western Cape Student Generation'. “And we should never forget the remarkable role Prof Richard van der Ross, the then-rector, played in fostering an environment of academic freedom. He, more than anyone else, I think, played a role in establishing an environment conducive to the free exchange of ideas on campus.”

1980s: Hek Toe! University Of The Left: In 1982, the university formally rejected the apartheid ideology on which it was established, adopting a declaration of nonracialism, and paving the way for rapid growth. A year after that, the University of the Western Cape Act finally granted UWC its autonomy – marking the first time that University was free to determine its own destiny. And under the leadership of UWC’s new Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Jakes Gerwel, and with the support of students and staff willing to fight for a brighter future, UWC determined that that destiny lay in outright opposition to apartheid. The University became "an intellectual home of the left", with a community always willing to march “Hek toe!” for justice.

“This was the age of revolution, regime-changing action, the “soldiers'' armed with stones, rocks, a “guava juice” here and there, wet handkerchiefs to neutralise the tear gas – this was the vanguard of the struggle to these 18 - 21-year-olds, heroes all, victims never, architects of their own destiny and the destiny of what South Africa would become,” recalled Reverend Courtney Sampson, former Anglican chaplain to UWC, when the University celebrated its ‘80s Alumni Reunion. “There were of course the sell-outs, and the impimpi, that most despicable of all students, and the politically aloof – but in the end this was Bush – viva Bush. Bush, where many dreams became realities and many dreams never bore fruit, presented experiences that would last a lifetime and reach deep into the heart of a liberated and democratic South Africa.”

1990s: Building A Rainbow Nation: As South Africa became - at last - a democratic state, UWC had a role to play in the unfolding drama. UWC’s leadership took part in writing the higher education policy for the incoming government, while the country’s Constitution was drafted at UWC’s Community Law Centre (now the Dullah Omar Institute). Many senior academics and alumni found themselves in public office, a number in the national cabinet - including Prof Jakes Gerwel. But Gerwel also foresaw the need for UWC to remain at the forefront of intellectual leadership - and so UWC established such important academic institutions as UWC’s School of Public Health, the School of Government, and the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS)

“Jakes was probably best known to most South Africans as one of the country’s great intellectuals and thinkers, a man who helped shape our transition into a democratic South Africa,” noted Prof Uta Lehmann, Director of UWC’s School of Public Health, which hosts the prestigious Jakes Gerwel Award, given in recognition of outstanding contributions to the field of public health. “But for us at UWC - and especially for us at the SOPH - we remember him as the visionary leader who steered UWC through turbulent times, transforming the University from a ‘Bush college’ into a vibrant space of engagement for scholarship.”
2000s: Going Global - International Excellence: Towards the end of 2001, Professor Brian O'Connell assumed the Vice-Chancellorship amidst a plethora of processes to restructure the higher education system in South Africa. In 2002, the Minister of National Education mapped the future higher education landscape. One of the outcomes of the restructuring process was that UWC would retain its status as an autonomous institution. With that out of the way, Prof O’Connell led the University to expand its footprint, becoming one of the country’s - and the world’s - premier institutions.

“I am very proud of the University of the Western Cape,” said Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who served as UWC Chancellor for almost 25 years, as UWC celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2020. “Under the exceptional leadership of Professor Jakes Gerwel, and then Professor Brian O’Connell, it was transformed from a marginalised ‘bush college for Blacks’ into a deracialised centre of academic excellence with an acute social conscience. The courageous commitment of the university community to the parallel values of intellectual growth and justice was second to none. Since I stepped down as Chancellor, it has been thrilling to see the institution continue to grow under a new generation of leaders. May God richly bless my dearly beloved UWC and all her people, past and present.
Now: Leaving A Lasting Legacy
Now, more than ever, the University of the Western Cape is challenged to demonstrate that it is capable of competing with the best and of playing a prominent role in the intellectual, social and economic life of the nation.

The Centre for Computational And Applied Maths is housing the Fourth Industrial Revolution at UWC. The University’s Faculties of Dentistry and Community and Health Sciences have become integral to health services in the Bellville area. And the Life Sciences Building – which is set to become a landmark in Cape Town as the roof now carries the university’ name – houses some of the continent’s top biological research, with world-class work on everything from genomics to zoology.

“2020 was a difficult year - but also a year where we all learned a lot about ourselves,” says Professor Tyrone Pretorius. “And what we’ve learned is that UWC is so much more than a bunch of buildings where students go to listen to lecturers.” 

The University is consistently recognised for its international excellence - in the Times Higher Education rankings; the Webometrics Ranking Web of Universities top 1000; the Centre for World University Rankings top university lists; the URAP top 1000 universities rankings; the US News & World Report 2020 Best Global Universities rankings; and, the QS World University Ranking (among others). 

UWC athletes have claimed victories on local, national and global stages, as Olympians and World Champions. UWC researchers have worked on research that matters, decoding the nuclear reactions at the heart of stars and the genome at the heart of SARS-CoV-2. UWC lecturers have won recognition for their innovative efforts. And the University - Africa’s Greenest University - remains committed to outreach, engagement and transformation.

“UWC is world-class researchers investigating everything from astrophysics to food security to visual history,” he said. “UWC is creative students and staff who’ve developed brilliant apps, built successful businesses or written bestselling books. And UWC is an idea - the idea that we can move from hope to action through knowledge, and leave the world better off than when we found it.”