‘Life at UCT will never be the same’

JOHN HARVEY

The Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Student Affairs and Transformation of the University of Cape Town is well aware of the difficulties of overcoming exclusion on the basis of race.

Raised in the tiny KwaZulu-Natal town of Greytown before reading for a BSc at the then Indians-only University of Durban-Westville, Professor Anwar Mall has in the decades since become a role-player in the affairs of students at UCT, not only as a lecturer and tutor but also as a long-standing warden of one or other residence on campus.

For the surgical researcher and former winner of the University’s prestigious Distinguished Teacher Award, the past few months have been among the most challenging of his career, in his position as Acting Deputy Vice-Chancellor, which requires of him and his colleagues to answer to the claim that UCT remains the depiction of a colonial past and needs to urgently transform and embrace the needs of its entire constituency, in all its diversity.

“Life at UCT will never be the same again,” Professor Mall said during an enlightening interview with the Tatler at his Mowbray home on Friday.

“The increasing protest action since the fall of the statue of Rhodes asks of each one of us to revisit aspects of our thinking and our forgetfulness about the circumstances and lives of the more unfortunate among us (especially the students we are meant to teach and mentor), who speak of an alienation and absence of integration in our learning spaces that are not conducive for young people of all backgrounds to flourish in our institutions of higher learning”.

One of the aspects that has struck a particular cord with the professor is the students’ assertion that the course material at UCT is predominantly Eurocentric.

“This is an interesting argument. As a medical scientist I have believed that modern science has given us so much, longer lives, clean water, modern technology and other developments of this nature. Why does it matter that inventions are viewed as being from black or white minds – they’re come from the human mind! After all the theory of evolution tells us that the concept of race is a social construct, so it is this area that we need to focus on in order to improve our lives.

“We, all of us, the entire humanity, are the descendants of a band of Africans who left this continent 70 000 years ago and colonised this planet”.

To say that Professor Mall can relate to the students’ feelings of isolation and frustration does not do justice to the incredible journey he has taken from apartheid-era Greytown to the hallowed halls of UCT, an institution he cherishes above all other for giving him an opportunity when the laws of the country dictated none should ever be available to him.

“After completing my BSc, I was working at a drug company in Durban, something I was not enjoying at all. I happened to be visiting Simon’s Town in the late 70s and very bravely drove to the city and landed at what was then the Faculty of Medicine, and found myself in an unplanned meeting in the office of the Head of Medical Biochemistry, Professor Wieland Gevers, in a 20-minute exchange that changed the trajectory of my life.

“I was offered a postgraduate position in the Department of Surgery Research Laboratory led by Professor Rosemary Hickman, who together with her team made me feel welcome and helped me settle in.

“Of course I faced racism at UCT and was left to deal with such issues in a way that did not compromise my academic progress.”

Shortly after the completion of an MSc, further fortune came in the chance to read for a PhD at the world-renowned research laboratory in his field of research at the University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK.

“I was in my mid-20s, married and had a young daughter. It was a huge move. But it was a fabulous experience, working with academics of this stature.

“To my surprise, I was again able to settle in easily. After completing my PhD, Professors Gevers and Hickman invited me back to the university, where I took up a position in the Department of Surgery.”

Professor Mall said he was immersed in every aspect of student life, thriving in an environment that allowed him to assist in developing students “academically, culturally and socially”. “Interacting so closely with young people has kept me on my toes and enriched my life.

“I grew up in a conservative religious environment, and I don’t think it was a terribly stimulating young life. When I got to university, I learnt to question everything. I was gripped by curiosity, and that is what I want for my students. To be curious is the true revolution of the mind.

“I have always said that I want to be the kind of teacher who teaches the way I would have liked to have been taught. It is more than just learning the facts; you need to expand your curiosity into other areas.”

A voracious reader who devours everything from Thomas Hardy, James Joyce and modern fiction to the latest scientific literature, marrying science and the humanities, Professor Mall insists that the “learning must never stop”.

“Take Kader Asmal as an example. He was an academic and a lawyer, but was appointed by Nelson Mandela as the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry. Everyone thought that this was strange given his background, but he learnt everything there was to know about that portfolio. Asmal was a specialist, a generalist and a thinker, which is what made him great.”

Professor Mall said his greatest wish was for young people to develop a world view.

“We need to do everything possible to develop ourselves into better human beings. Life goes by so quickly, so you need to live it to the best of your ability.

“My gratitude to my colleagues and the students at UCT for having had a wonderful career at at the university.”