(Published - 13 January 2020)
Vincent Morta went from being a child pickpocket to Director Quality Assurance and MI at the University of the Western Cape (UWC). More than 4 decades after joining the institution he has officially retired but his story remains legendary on campus.
Born in Cape Town, his life quickly spiralled into trouble. The “uncontrollable” youth counted gangsters as friends and pickpocketing was just one of his bad habits. At the age of 11, he was sent to a reformatory school in Pretoria for seven years. In 1966, after completing Grade 7 at the reformatory, he joined Ferguson High School in Marabastad. A year later, due to the Group Areas Act, the school was moved to Eersterust High School where he completed his matric in 1970.
One would never imagine this by just looking at Mr Morta - as he is affectionately known on campus - because he was always eager to please and serve. At his farewell party held late last year, the 67-year-old from Kraaifontein, was surrounded by colleagues and friends who bore testimony to the enduring place he holds at UWC.
In many aspects, he heeded his adoptive mother’s advice – “Vincent...those who come from the slums can rise above others”.
He has certainly achieved that at UWC. After school, at the age of 18, his first job was typing addresses for a fencing company in Pretoria for R9.20 per week. Then he worked as a teller at Trust Bank. But, as was common during apartheid, Morta quickly experienced exclusion because of his race. At the bank he would be prevented from attending “white meetings” and was told he could not share the yellow plastic office cups.
Eventually, he wanted to return to Cape Town, and in 1972 he was allowed to transfer back home where he reunited with his adoptive parents in Kraaifontein. A year later he started working at the Department of Coloured Affairs. At the time (May 1974) he discovered that his matric certificate was issued erroneously and his new employer kept him on as a temporary, unqualified Grade 2 clerk.
“At the time, I thought: ‘Am I going to be the underdog all my life?’. I decided to re-enrol for matric, it was a life changing moment for me,” he said.
After matriculating, again, in 1974, Morta enrolled at Pentech – now the Cape Peninsula University of Technology – for a National Diploma in Administration. It was also during this time that UWC appeared on his radar. Fortuitously, he heard about a vacancy for a clerk in the exams office and found himself employed at UWC, where he would remain for the next 44 years, occupying different roles.
Having started in Student Affairs in 1975, Morta occupied various positions in the section, eventually rising to become its head with the responsibility of its overall management. In the 1980s, as a bursary officer, he often used UWC transport to Stellenbosch to meet with the Anton Rupert Bursary Fund.
Morta recalled the day the billionaire businessman asked him: “Do you have a car?”
“No, I don’t,” the young man replied.
Shortly thereafter Rupert had a Chevrolet Rekord refurbished for Morta at a giveaway price. When Morta arrived at the next meeting in his new bright red vehicle Rupert quipped: “I see you do have a car.”
In 1999 he assumed the role of Deputy Registrar: and Quality Assurance and Management Information (MI) where he stayed until 2001.
Then he became Director: Quality Assurance and MI in the Institutional Planning office. He went on to obtain a Bachelor, Honours and Master’s in Administration at UWC, and a Certificate in Total Quality Management from UNISA.
Morta became the go-to person for almost everything UWC – from running queries on student numbers to completing surveys for international rankings. Throughout this time, he served on various academic committees such as Senate, Senate Higher Degrees, Academic Planning and Council Information Technology. He has also contributed to the development of the South African Qualifications Authority as well as the Council on Higher Education in the early years where he acted as trainer and evaluator. In addition, he was a member of the Accreditation Committee of the Higher Education Quality Committee of the Council on Higher Education.
His memories of UWC are rich and varied. From protecting students from the security police in the 1970s and 1980s, to having enjoyed working with and supporting the vision of each rector and registrar who held office.
Additionally, as with others who have been at this institution for a long time, Morta has come to embody the spirit of UWC. Like the university, he exemplifies a can-do spirit and a tenacity to succeed, as well as a compassionate nature that makes him a generous mentor and colleague.
On the day of his farewell, Rector and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, jokingly reminded that Morta had intercepted him on his way to a meeting, insisting on giving him updates on student numbers or projects. Prof Pretorius expressed his appreciation of Morta’s thoroughness and diligence with which he tackled every task.
That day, one of the Rector’s boardroom walls was covered with photographs of Morta throughout his years at UWC including an image of him and former president, Nelson Mandela, when the latter received an honorary degree from UWC shortly after his release from prison. “My best interaction was with Mr Mandela. We had a good conversation and I spoke to him about my background. It was the pinnacle of my experience at UWC,” said Morta.
When asked what was special about his time at UWC, Mr Morta smiled and paid tribute to the university for giving him the opportunity to grow and improve. “I’ve seen this university grow from a bush university, to a historically disadvantaged institution, to a world-class university.”
These days, he is working towards a PhD with a focus on recognition of prior learning. In his spare time, his garden, transformed into a lush vista after the heavy Cape drought, occupies some of his time, along with his church commitments and grandchildren.
However, you’ll still find Mr Morta striding across the quad to the Administration Building, given his part-time contract with Institutional Planning. A final piece of wisdom from him: “People must appreciate where they are working. The world out there is cruel”.
My Colleague, Vincent Morta
Author: Lois Dippenaar
People’s life stories can be told in many different ways. One could for example plot someone's life by reflecting on where they lived at different times, which cars they drove, who they fell in and out of love with, the clothes they wore in different eras - the possibilities are actually endless. Similarly, the stories of individuals' work-lives can also be told in many different ways. As you know, I do not make a career out of telling life-stories, but if I did and I had to tell the story of Vincent's life at UWC, it would be a story with very interesting twists and turns.
It would be a story about a young man who arrived at UWC with a matric certificate after having rapidly turned his life around. The story would then plot his career and different life choices along the lines of him completing his matric, doing his bachelor's degree, honours and master’s degrees, to the point where he is now busy with his doctoral degree studies. This story would also include how he initially used public transport until a certain Dr Anton Rupert got involved in Vincent buying his first car.
The story of what happened whilst pursuing his studies would obviously steer away from work a bit and include him meeting and falling in love with his dear wife, Ingrid. And as things tend to happen when there is a wedding and a wife involved, the story would have to include the joy of the births of their two children, Arlene and Lloyd. Much later, somewhere between his master's and doctoral studies, one would weave in the arrival of three very special grandchildren.
But back to work and studies, this tale would have to include many characters - actually too many to mention - but that is what tends to happen with life stories. Not only did Vincent the student have many lecturers, but Vincent the employee also worked with many rectors, vice-rectors, registrars, heads of HR and Finance, numerous deans, administrators, lecturers and students - so many students. In many respects Vincent's story would become UWC's story, as he witnessed so many phases in the development of the University.
Ah, and let's not forget all the new buildings, or the thread of technology which also runs through this story, which will undoubtedly include a period of handwritten lists, of typewriters, typists, typing pools and punch cards - eventually introducing the dramatic moment the very first computer arrived on campus. This part of the story would have to be written with great care because modern audiences no longer understand the significance of those very first computers, the first cell phones, the internet, email, SMSs, Google, websites, online registration, e-learning, social media and virtual reality. But the thread of the introduction of different types of technology would be interrupted and overshadowed by references to collegiality, loyalty, friendships and many of those typical Vincent stories and jokes.
Then, between the different degrees, the story of his varied roles and positions would be featured. The narrative would also speak of Vincent's dedication, his professionalism, his personal and professional growth, his ongoing interest in the development of colleagues, and his passion for supporting students. And when the work-life-story of Vincent Morta included tales of struggles and moments of difficulty, these would be positioned in the broader context of his integrity, his faith and his humanity.
As you can see, this would ultimately be a very long story, because in a career that has spanned more than 40 years, there are so many chapters to be covered. But a summary of this biography would be short, because it would simply focus on Vincent being a good human being and a trusted, valued and respected colleague. And maybe, that is all that matters.