MOKOKO, THE MAKGOBA AFFAIR: A REFLECTION ON TRANSFORMATION. MALEGAPURU WILLIAM MAKGOBA. JOHANNESBURG: VIVLIA PUBLISHERS, 1997. XXIV+243pp.©
Arguably the premier academic institution in South Africa, the University of the Witwatersrand--popularly known as Wits--in Johannesburg, a bastion of white, Anglo-Saxon liberalism, prides itself in having practised "academic non-segregation" (i.e. admitting black students on merit) before the government's 1960 Extension of University Education Act forced it to comply with apartheid. Indeed, many African intellectual luminaries such as Chabani Manganyi, Vincent Maphai, Ezekiel Mphahlele, Njabulo Ndebele, Sipho Seepe, Robert Sobukwe and Herbert Vilakazi each studied or taught there at one time or another. Yet, between October 1995 and March 1996, what became known as "The Makgoba Affair" pitted the then newly-appointed Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs) and world-renown medical scientist, M. William Makgoba (an African), against thirteen of his liberal colleagues (all but one of whom were white) led by historian Charles van Onselen in a vicious and deadly power struggle for control of the agenda for change at the University and, ultimately, for the hearts and minds of its students and staff. It is the fascinating story of this epic battle between thirteen "conservative Eurocentric" scholars and a lone "Africanist Afrocentric" scholar (p. xxi)--in effect, a modern "remake" of the Battle of Makgobaskloof between his illustrious ancestor Chief Makgoba and the cattle-farming Boers of June 1895--that is chronicled in painstaking detail by and from the perspective of Makgoba the latter in Mokoko, The Makgoba Affair.
There are in fact two scripts, or sub-texts, to the book's main story. One is an intellectual autobiography of Malegapuru William Makgoba, admittedly a perilous exercise for someone who is only a few months shy of his 45th birthday. The other is a highly personal account of the recent process of transformation occurring at Wits written by one of its main actors-turned-victim. While the latter is to some extent informed by the former, the two sub-texts can be read separately as two distinct scripts. This confusion des genres is one of the book's main flaws and accounts for this reader's uneasiness in attempting to disentangle objective reality from opinion, and fact from fiction.
By any standards, Makgoba's academic credentials are impeccable, and his scholarly achievements most impressive. A graduate of the University of Natal's Medical School (then reserved for Blacks), Makgoba went on to study biochemistry and to research for a D.Phil. in human immunogenetics at Oxford University on a prestigious Nuffield Dominion Fellowship. After a stint as lecturer in Medicine at the University of Birmingham (1983-1985), he was selected to the National Institutes of Health's visiting scientist program in Bethesda, Maryland (1986-1988). From there, he moved to the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London as senior lecturer in molecular endocrinology. Finally, in October 1994, Wits, who had "head-hunted" him for some years, made him an offer that he could not refuse: Deputy Vice- Chancellor (Academic) and Professor Ornamentarius ( meaning "ornamental"?). William Makgoba spends an inordinate amount of time (and book space) expounding on his outstanding academic achievements, and has a full chapter (Chapter 11, pp. 142-170) which is nothing but an exhaustive resume detailing the numerous research grants and fellowships, honours and distinctions gleaned during his short, but eventful carrier. He even finds it necessary to throw in dubious distinctions, such as those conferred (usually for a price) by the International Biographical Centre or the American Biographical Institute.
Makgoba is justifiably proud of his considerable achievements as an African scientist, but the overkill leads him to sound intellectually pompous and arrogant and utterly self-centered, if not downright egocentric, as the following statement clearly indicates: "I am today a sophisticated man (...) who has earned accolades from some of the world's best and leading institutions, mainly because of my unquestioned brilliance as a scholar and pioneering achievements as a medical scientist, with few equals in my field and even fewer superiors" (p. 46). After all, he is not the first or the most prominent African geneticist (professor Pascal Lissouba preceded him in this field, but went astray as president of the Congo), nor the only world-renown African scientist (the achievements of Cheikh Diarra, a Malian-born American scientist at NASA who supervised the Mars Exploration Program and conceived and directed the recent Pathfinder Mission, comes to mind). What sets Makgoba apart from his fellow African scientists is the South African environment from which he originates and in which he must now operate, an environment pregnant with the legacy of apartheid in which considerations of race and color still prevail over intellectual prowess and academic achievement. It is because his thirteen colleagues had questioned his credentials, that he is forced to overstate his accomplishments in order to set the record straight, once and for all. That he has done so successfully is beyond question.
What is questionable is his resort to some unorthodox--and, possibly, unethical--methods of struggle, such as his surreptitious access to his adversaries' personal files and resumes (as he himself admits on pp. 123-126), or his consultation of traditional healers for "protective medicines" designed to scare his enemies (recounted in minute detail on pp. 137-139), a most intriguing practice coming from a world-renown medical scientist. There is also a distinct paradox and inherent contradiction in the fact that on the one hand Makgoba craves for international recognition as "a first rate, world-acclaimed African scientist" (p. xix) trained in "some of the world's best and leading institutions" (p. 46), while on the other hand he advocates a distinctly Afro-centric vision of South African education which, in his view, "must take into account the primacy of Africa and what it embodies in its history, philosophy, identity and culture" (p. 206).
The second sub-text of Makgoba's story relates to the debate around the process of transformation occurring in South Africa's institutions of higher learning in the new political dispensation of the post-apartheid era. Organised within "Transformation Forums" representing all the stakeholders--students, lecturers, top administrators, as well as general administrative and technical support staff--this process is supposed to progressively change the structure, composition and orientation of all tertiary institutions so that they adequately reflect the interests, priorities and needs of the African majority in the country. Starting from a Pan-Africanist position grounded in the Black Consciousness Movement, Makgoba claims, with justification, that the liberal lobby within Wits--epitomized by the "Gang of thirteen"--was hell-bent on slowing down and derailing this transformation process in order to maintain their power and privileged status within the system. Indeed, Makgoba clearly implies (as on pp. 172-173) that it is because he was perceived as a potential contender for the top job of Vice-Chancellor (soon to become vacant) that he had to be destroyed by the still-powerful conservative lobby within Wits. While the ultimate settlement of the dispute through legal mediation resulted in Makgoba staying on at Wits as ad hominem professor of molecular immunology, it effectively put him out of the race for the top job.
While the author's argument is morally, legally and politically sound, the rather inelegant and shoddy manner in which it is put forward is highly questionable. Throwing together a series of articles on the subject of transformation in South African higher education written between 1995 and 1997 (Chapter 12) with minimal editorial work leads to tedious repetitions and results in a severe lack of focus and clarity which considerably weakens the overall argument. Likewise, the author's crude and uninspired broadsides against Marxist ideology confirm the overall impression that if he is indeed a reputable medical scientist, he is a rather mediocre social scientist. For whatever else may be said of Marx, he most certainly was not "(...) a distorter, misrepresenter of information and facts"(p. 101), "reputed to have cooked (sic) his facts to construct his theories" (p. 55). And no political historian in his right mind would dare venture the view that "The great Marxist disciples, Mao Tse-Tung and Stalin, have both provided the world with unquestionable evidence of the limitations and fallacies of Marxist theory." (p. 55). We are left to surmise what that "unquestionable evidence" might be...
Based on solid moral and legal grounds, Makgoba's rather vague and ill-defined Afro-centric approach also happens to be politically correct in the sense that it adequately and genuinely reflects the views of the formerly excluded and marginalised but newly-empowered majority African population in post-apartheid South Africa. Who, for instance would take issue with his view that
"The African university must not pursue knowledge for its own sake, but for the sake of, and the amelioration of, the conditions of life and work of the ordinary man and woman. It must be fully committed to active participation in the social transformation, economic modernisation, and the training and upgrading of the total human resources of the nation" (p. 176)?
Herein lies the book's greatest strength and its intrinsic value as a significant piece of evidence to be added to the already voluminous dossier currently being compiled by various educationists on the subject of transformation in higher education in South Africa.
As a sad footnote to this story, one should mention the fact that after a grueling selection process, Wits appointed a renown U.S.-based South African political scientist, Sam Nolutshungu as Vice-Chancellor-designate on October 27, 1996. In January 1997, already suffering from the dreadful multiple myeloma that would take his life on August 14th, 1997 Nolutshungu politely declined the offer. Barely a week after Noluthungu's death, Wits officially announced that Colin Bundy, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Western Cape and radical scholar of some repute, had been selected as the University's next Vice-Chancellor. Is this a case of history repeating itself? As the French saying goes plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose!