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Wits turns 85 today
04 October 2007
Wits University turns 85 (Photo: Walter Knirr)

From humble beginnings as a technical institute focusing on the mining industry, the University of the Witwatersrand is now ranked as one of the top 100 universities in the world in seven defined fields of research. This Joburg landmark celebrates a birthday today.

A WISE old man turns 85 today. The University of the Witwatersrand rose in grand style from a grassy patch of land 85 years ago, and has grown to be the country's top university.

The university's first black vice-chancellor, professor Loyiso Nongxa, was appointed four years ago, amid much jubilation. He says that what he particularly likes about Wits, as it is affectionately known, is the diversity of the community.

He has big plans for the university. Among them is to ensure that the academic programmes on offer are of the highest quality, so that they are accredited internationally. Wits has been able, in the past year or two, to attract top scholars, he says.

This in turn will make fundraising easier, and contribute to making the province and the city a global city region. "We want to make Wits a destination of choice."

The inauguration of vice-chancellor professor Loyiso Nongxa in 2003
The inauguration of vice-chancellor professor Loyiso Nongxa in 2003

The origins of the university lie in the South African School of Mines, established in Kimberley in 1896 and transferred to Johannesburg in 1904 as the Transvaal Technical Institute. In 1906 the institute became the Transvaal University College and was renamed again in 1910 as the South African School of Mines and Technology. Departments were added to the school, which in 1920 became the University College, based in Eloff Street. In March 1922 the college became a fully-fledged university and finally took on its present name, the University of the Witwatersrand. Seven months later, in September, the university was inaugurated, and Prince Arthur Connaught, governor-general of the Union of South Africa, became the first chancellor. Professor Jan H Hofmeyr became the first principal.

The city council donated 80ha of land on the western edge of the Braamfontein ridge, called Milner Park, and construction of a dramatic set of neo classical buildings, to become the Central Block, began in 1922.

Clive Chipkin in Johannesburg Style, architecture and society 1880s-1960s recalls that GE Pearse, the first professor of the new Department of Architecture at Wits, had lived in the adjoining Ameshoff Street. Pearse remembers the site as farmland, containing a stone quarry and a rubbish dump, which caused major problems during the initial construction.

Chipkin quotes Hofmeyr, the first principal, as saying: "Barely a mile from the town's centre and easily accessible from every part of it, yet isolated from the noisy bustle of its life, looking on the one side over the most beautiful portion of Johannesburg away to the dreamy distances of the Magaliesberg, and on the other over the industrial activity to which it owes its being, this University set upon a hill is indeed admirably placed for the linking together of the idealistic and the practical, which is not least among its tasks."

But nine years later, in 1931, the Central Block was gutted by fire, which destroyed many valuable treasures. The Star reports that Stone Age artefacts belonging to Dr C van Riet Lowe, as well as his field notes, stone tools and weapons, were lost. It constituted "one of the most complete and important in the world at that time".

IN 1935 BW Vilakazi took up an appointment in the department of Bantu Studies. He reflected on his impressions of the campus in a poem, "Wo, Ngitshele Mntanomlungu" (Tell, white man's son).

Such massive and majestic columns,
Drawing my gaze where, high above me,
Doves are perched whose noisy cooing
Is like the bellowing of bulls.

Thus, as I gaze around in wonder,
I realize beyond all doubt
That I am lost! Yet well I know I came
To serve my own beloved people –
Aware of them always, I hear them cry:
‘Take up your burden and be our voice!'

Translated by Lulu Friedman, from Clive Chipkin's Johannesburg Style, architecture and society 1880s-1960s.

Wits facts

  • Wits has produced 89 Rhodes Scholars
  • Wits has produced four Nobel Prize laureates: Nelson Mandela (Peace), Aaron Klug (Chemistry), Sydney Brenner (Medicine) and Nadine Gordimer (Literature)
  • five Witsies have been awarded prestigious National Orders by President Thabo Mbeki
  • more than 20 Wits alumni have been knighted in the United Kingdom
  • Wits is home to one of the largest fossil collections in the southern hemisphere
  • Wits has 14 ‘A-rated' scientists, all international leaders in their disciplines
  • Wits students designed a software system to solve virtually all maths problems
  • the University boasts 14 museums and two art galleries housing a variety of rare and valuable artworks
  • Wits art galleries are the custodians of important heritage collections of SA and classical African art

For more facts and figures about this quintessential Joburg institution read here [PDF: 23kb].

Dr JC Gubbins also lost valuable Africana material. He had asked the university to look after his collection because he feared that it was vulnerable in his thatched-roof home. He had transferred three-quarters of his collection to Wits.

The law library was totally destroyed, including 18th century material. The Johannesburg public generously donated sufficient money to build a new library building.

Student growth and academic excellence
At the time of the move the university had six faculties: arts, science, medicine, engineering, law and commerce. Under these faculties were 37 departments, 73 members of academic staff and just over 1 000 students.

Despite WW2, student numbers continued to rise. In 1939 there were 2 544 students which grew to 3 100 students by 1945. A burgeoning of student numbers after 1945 led to accommodation problems and "wood and galvanised-iron hutments" were constructed in the centre of the campus. They were still there in 1972.

Student numbers continued to rise in the coming decades. In 1963 there were 6 275 students, 10 000 in 1975, and 16 400 in 1985. In 1951 the University awarded its 10 433rd qualification, in 1981 its 50 000th and by 1988 its 73 411th.

By 2007 student numbers stood at 24 278 with 16 405 undergraduate and 7 873 postgraduate students. They are taught by 1 587 academic staff, including full- and part-time, honorary and visiting members. By September 2007, 108 800 degrees had been conferred.

Today Wits is ranked as one of the top 100 universities in the world in seven defined fields of research, according to the 2006 ISI international rankings. Its MBA programme was voted the best in the country for six consecutive years in the Financial Mail annual survey.

Its achievements are impressive. During WW2 Wits academics "took an active part in the original development and construction of radar". Wits was also the first South African university to have a nuclear accelerator and a computer; the first university to study early Afrikaans, to produce a systematic climatological atlas of southern Africa, and to achieve a successful graft of plastic cornea.

The country's first dental hospital and school was established at Wits, as well as opening the country's first clinic for the treatment of speech defects. The country's first blood transfusion service was started by Wits medical students. And, Wits academics "greatly advanced the theory of human origin and evolution".

The university, with five faculties – commerce, law and management, engineering and the built environment, health science, humanities, and science - and 33 schools, offers around 3 000 courses. Over a third of the student body consists of postgraduate students. They are able to access over 1,5 million books in two central libraries and 12 branch libraries.

The campus contains 42 sports clubs, 60 student societies, the Wits Theatre, art galleries, a concert hall and 14 museums.

Liberal tradition
More than any other university in the country, Wits has always maintained a policy of non-discrimination, particularly tested after the apartheid government passed the Extension of University Education Act in 1959, a follow-up to the Bantu Education Act of 1953. Both acts sought to exclude blacks from white schools and universities, creating so-called "tribal" colleges for blacks, or allowing them into white universities only under special circumstances, with a permit from the government.

Wits took a strong stand against these policies, and maintained vigorous opposition to the obnoxious law. Protests were frequent, especially as more civil liberties were withdrawn, and peaceful opposition to apartheid was systemically suppressed. On 16 April, 1959 thousands of students and staff stood in silence on campus to mourn the passing of academic freedom.

Throughout the 1960s Wits staff and students kept up the barrage of opposition, with respected palaeontologist professor Phillip Tobias often in the forefront of protests.

Wits in the early days, when a street ran in front of the Central Block
Wits in the early days, when a street ran in front of the Central Block

The university suffered severe consequences – banning, deportation and detention of staff and students. Police invaded the campus to disrupt peaceful protest meetings. Government funding for the university was curtailed and often channelled to Afrikaans universities.

Despite these troubles, Wits established itself from early on as a place of high standards. Chipkin says of the architecture department: "Undoubtedly the establishment of the Department of Architecture at the University of the Witwatersrand was a major factor in the change of face that South African architecture underwent. For it was from this source that a stream of imported ideas on modernity would disseminate and from which, after 1929, a new generation of architects, committed to these ideas, would emerge."

The campus soon became "a major exchange centre for post-war ideas", says Chipkin. The history department's WM Macmillan and CW de Kiewiet, Raymond Dart in the Medical School, and others in the physics and mathematics departments, established a "new liberalism" at Wits.

But, says Chipkin, the "university environment was filled with deep contradictions". The crux of this was that the university council was dominated by "highly conservative members representing mining and financial interests", complicated by the fact that the mining industry provided major financial support for the university.

"Colonial mentality, high capitalism, the new liberalism and communism of a South African kind, combined with entrenched white settler mores (particularly in the Engineering and Science faculties): the university, in short, was an arena of conflicting positions generally contained within polite academic conventions."

This doesn't take away from Wits the fact that it was a "vehicle for social change", offering the next generation of white middle class people a place to study. Up until WW2 the sons of upper class families were sent to Oxford and Cambridge in England. Now the daughters of the retail, wholesale and managerial classes registered at the arts, medical and law faculties. "It was from this diverse student body, therefore, that important elements of the indigenous, semi-colonial intelligentsia emerged."

New premises in Parktown
By the 1960s it was obvious that the present campus needed more elbow room. Wits started buying properties in Parktown, at that time a residential suburb, formerly the home of several Randlords and their wives.

The area owned by Wits, some seven hectares, is now the home of the Wits Business School and the School of Public and Development Management, but is also a student residential hub, with 22 double-storey cluster units for postgraduate students.

Whereas the main campus is a conglomeration of different architectural styles, built over decades and different architectural genres, the Parktown campus has an old world feel to it, maintaining some of the spaciousness of the former suburb, as well as some of the grand homes and large oak trees.

"Wits faces the challenge of conserving and celebrating the past while at the same time adapting old buildings to suit modern educational purposes. We would like to further develop the Parktown Campus as a premier South African management education campus to shape global leaders in African in the 21st century," says professor Katherine Munro, acting dean of the faculty of commerce, law and management.

One of those grand old homes, Savernake, was made available as the official residence of the vice-chancellor, still used for that purpose. The faculty of medicine had moved to a new building in Esselen Street, Hillbrow, but in 1982 the medical school moved to Parktown too, where it remains in York Street.

Parktown has cultural significance which Wits is keen to preserve. "Wits believes that old houses, outbuildings, servants quarters, coach houses, a block of flats, and even boundary walls, trees gateposts can be saved and imaginatively included in plans for new activities," says Munro. To this end the university commissioned two conservation architects to research the history and buildings of seven of the original Parktown campus stands.

The most significant Parktown stand is the historic piece of land once known as The Oval, originally surrounded by eight stands, and the meadows where local residents' cows grazed. Nowadays only a small portion of the original oval meadows remains, the rest having been taken up with residential buildings in the 1980s.

A building, built in 1926 in Early Modernist style, can be seen from St Andrew's Road, and although used now for student accommodation, in future it will become the new home of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies.

Another structure built on the Oval is Beaulieu or Annie's House, built in 1901 in late Victorian style. Three years later a Cape Dutch gable was added and in 1972 Wits acquired the house. "The house is of importance because it was the first of two residences built next to the Oval," explains Munro.

Other significant homes on the business campus are Outeniqua, built in a mix of arts and crafts and art nouveau styles in 1904 and acquired by Wits in 1964. Later additions and alterations have "compromised the integrity of the original design of the house" but it retains its beautiful glass panes and Burmese teak staircase.

Another important house is North Lodge, a house completed in 1908 in the Free Renaissance style. With fantasy features echoing its neighbour across the road, Dolobran, like a Gothic roof, turrets and a conservatory, the house has had a varied history – a mansion for Henry S Wilson, a school, a boarding house and a private hotel. The university acquired the property in 1964 and in 1982 it became a national monument.

"However, the integrity of the original design was lost with the changes to the roof and the demolition of the turrets of the original house and the coach house and stables," laments Munro.

The house was restored in 1996, its stained-glass fanlights a reminder of its faux Gothic design.

Two other homes, Trematon House, built in late Edwardian style as a modest home in 1902, and Mwalimu House, built in art deco style in 1938 on the site of an original 1918 house, are being given special attention as buildings of heritage significance.

"Wits is currently exploring a range of development and planning options in light of the historical age and importance of the Parktown campus. Despite so much being lost in the past, there is much to preserve, celebrate and enjoy," Munro enthuses.

In 2002 Wits took over the former Johannesburg College of Education site on the eastern edge of Parktown, a spacious, attractive space.

Other expansions
Wits also expanded into Braamfontein. In 1976 the building on the corner of Jan Smuts Avenue and Jorissen Street, Lawson's Corner, was acquired, and renamed University Corner.

The Milner Park showgrounds, used for years for the Rand Show of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society, were acquired from the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society in 1984, and renamed West Campus. A brick-paved bridge over the M1 was erected in 1989, linking the two campuses.

Further afield Wits acquired the farm Sterkfontein near the Magaliesberg in the 1960s. In 1968 the neighbouring farm, Swartkrans, also a rich source of archaeological material, was acquired. In the same year Wits bought excavation rights to caves at Makapansgat in the Northern Province. Meanwhile, vice-chancellor Nongxa says one of his favourite places on campus is Hofmeyr House, where he'll have breakfast or lunch. Otherwise, he can be spotted walking through the Matrix, the student centre and the popular chill place for students. "Students come and greet me," he says, "but I need someone to come with me because I end up making promises to students . . ." he laughs.

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