IT is something of a mystery why South Africa has produced so few satirical writers: there is raw material everywhere. One of the best satirists of the apartheid years was Christopher Hope whose first book, A Separate Development, recounted the tale of Harry Moto, a pupil at a school run by Roman Catholic priests. Harry was a perfectly normal boy beset by bad luck. His downfall, in Hope’s words, was his terrifying tan and the texture of his hair.

This was the paranoid world of South Africa at the end of the 1950s. Harry had no identity document, the result of understandably evasive behaviour on the part of his father. After a series of mishaps at the matric dance Harry, disowned by both his school and parents, disappeared into a parallel world in which he was invisible to his erstwhile family and friends. He worked as a runner for a tailor, a driver for a traveller selling dubious potions, and the collector of trays at a roadhouse. He was finally detained by the police and interrogated by a self-made philosopher in the special branch who demanded that he write his life story, the ‘separate development’ of a person near-impossible to classify. Harry initially refused, but agreed after being hooked up to an electric shock machine that failed to work (the security state was less efficient in those days) because of rust.

Harry Moto’s story is fiction, but it bears heavy traces of real-life identity problems resulting from the insane philosophy of apartheid. His tale is one of keeping in touch with his own humanity, along with that of a myriad of other individuals, while coping with a system that made no logical sense, above all because it was based on such a self-defeating premise.

That world of apartheid, of disputed and contested identity, is something South Africans have supposedly dropped into the rubbish bin of history to be replaced by free and fair elections, freedom of speech, and probably the most progressive Constitution in the world. Harry Moto would no doubt regard this as a remarkable achievement, vindication of his struggle for reason in a demented world. Half a century ago he was too bronzed and crinkly-haired for the liking of some. Now he might find that he and his family are too white.

Assuming he survived the attentions of the special branch, he would now be retired. However, his son, let’s call him Denzil, is approaching middle age. He is a hard-working and successful lecturer in agriculture at Jabulani University in KwaZulu-Natal. His research on the improvement of subsistence farming involves work in impoverished rural communities, and his students are almost all black. A couple of years ago he was awarded his doctorate and he can reasonably anticipate promotion to a professorship in the near future. But to achieve this he might have to pack for Perth, or virtually anywhere.

For some years now he has been beset by something as irrational as anything his father experienced: his employer has classified him by so-called race, even though there is no longer any statutory basis for this and he is technically free to call himself whatever he wishes. Sensibly he regards himself simply as a human being. The Jabulani University authorities have decided he is white.

His classification is necessary for yet another exercise in social engineering. This one is called transformation. It is a particularly useful concept for the new rulers of South Africa because it has never been properly defined, and indeed never can be. The best efforts argue that workplaces in particular should reflect demographics, although no-one has a clue whether this is to be measured by national, regional or local norms. Leaving aside this crucial point, transformation is a splendid idea and in any case with encouragement and natural growth it will eventually emerge regardless.

The able, the intelligent and the energetic among the formerly disadvantaged all know this: the new South Africa is a place of marvellous opportunity in which they can pick and choose jobs and localities that suit them. But it does not fit the plans of the opportunists expecting an easy ride under a new dispensation. So they, in true Verwoerdian fashion, play the race card. History, it appears, has gone into reverse gear.

Thus Denzil Moto, declared white under protest, one of the ablest young academics at Jabulani University is faced by the bizarre possibility that he must forget promotion. His institution is seriously considering a document put forward by a racially-exclusive forum that has no official standing named the African Academic Renaissance Group. In a university, of all places on Earth, merit is no longer to be the major criterion for appointment. Jobs will be given only to applicants calling themselves Black African. Compliance will be guaranteed by the racial manipulation of selection committees and the import, if necessary, of suitably pigmented persons from other universities. Keeping an eye on proceedings will be full-time commissars, known in less authoritarian times as volunteer equity officers. In this way, experienced and well-qualified persons of other ethnic groups (some of whom are to be officially starred in university records as dinosaurs) will be effectively marginalised and divested of their subversive insistence upon high standards. Just to make sure that the spoils are spread around, any black academic offered a post elsewhere will be given a pay hike to stay at Jabulani; and the occupants of temporary equity posts will be guaranteed employment.

Why bother with excellence and hard work when skin colour is the real passport to success in a university? Is this another branch of the same asylum, under new management, in which Harry Moto so long ago struggled to make sense of the world?

… the story continues …

Witness readers with good memories will remember the story of Denzil Moto, a senior lecturer at Jabulani University. Denzil comes from a family classified coloured by the apartheid regime, but is now regarded as insufficiently black for career advancement even though he has an excellent record as a researcher and teacher. This has not been an easy time for Denzil.

Some years ago his campus, as a result of the restructuring of higher education, became part of a mega university with components spread far and wide. What was worse, its rector declared that this monstrosity would be highly centralised, an organisational model that business experts derided as suited only to the military – in the nineteenth century. So many of the simple administrative functions with which Denzil’s campus had efficiently dealt for decades were transferred to headquarters at the Eastdorp campus in a coastal metro recently re-named KwaZuma.

Last year Denzil was awarded an impressive sum of dollars by a research funder for a specialised piece of equipment. With an understandable sense of accomplishment he duly placed the order, but it was blocked by the Buying Office at Eastdorp. When at last he managed to find someone who was not on study leave, in the pool of redundant employees, on sick leave or suspended to answer the phone, Denzil was abruptly told that he would need three quotes. His patient explanation that the world’s only supplier of his equipment was a scientific instrument firm in California was met by the suggestion that Makro should be approached and that financial regulations required that all possible South African sources should first be investigated. Where the hell was California anyway? This wrangle lasted four months, by which time the rand exchange rate had deteriorated so much that Denzil could no longer afford his equipment.

So when the staff of Jabulani went on strike early in the new academic year, Denzil took part in industrial action for the first time in his life. The strike lasted an amazing nine days and he was seen every day on the library lawn, on one memorable occasion moving around in what seemed like a vague attempt at a toyi-toyi. Another day he accepted an invitation to take the microphone and made a fiery statement about the lack of connection between performance bonuses paid to members of the Executive and the stunning inefficiency of systems for which they were responsible. A photograph of Denzil holding a banner proclaiming ‘Fair deal for scientists’, with another poised just above his head saying ‘Restore academic standards’ appeared in the local paper.

Some months later Denzil and a small group of about a dozen concerned academics called a meeting to encourage wider debate about the issues raised during the strike. When they scheduled a follow-up for a wider audience the rector of Jabulani accused the facilitator, a friend of Denzil’s from the Middletree campus, of wasting university time and encouraging its employees to meet at seaside resorts, a puzzling reference since their chosen neutral venue had been nowhere near the coast.

For Denzil the repercussions were alarming. Called in by the Dean of Agronomy, Professor Shisa Amanzi, he was treated to a diatribe about his behaviour as part of a group of reactionary conspirators with a colonial intellectual mindset hell-bent on subversion. Amongst other personal information, the dean demanded from Denzil details of his national service and military record during the apartheid years, to which his only response was an appropriately hollow laugh. Accused of attempting to bring Jabulani into disrepute, Denzil replied that university spokespersons were doing that perfectly well without the help of an amateur like him. The enraged dean threatened that such independent thought was highly dangerous, an insult to the victims of apartheid, and would probably result in disciplinary action and possible dismissal.

This threat continues to hover over Denzil’s head. But even more alarming for his future is the faculty equity plan recently adopted by Jabulani’s rubber-stamping Senate. Over the next five years it states that it will appoint and promote no fewer than 67 black African academics in order to reflect provincial demographics (including children under 15.) Denzil, whatever his achievements, seems fated to remain a senior lecturer under this regime, especially since selection committees are now constructed around racial representation rather than academic competence. He was not amused when the university’s Public Affairs Division came up with a new marketing strategy under the slogan ‘Reach high for the sky with Jabulani’, the result it was rumoured of the combined efforts of all 37 members of staff (working overtime.)

This week Denzil participated in a colloquium at Boschendal University and was invited to lunch with Professor Theuns Goedgesindig, the vice-chancellor, who had made contact on a number of occasions to express an interest in his research and congratulate him on his appointment to the executive committee of an international agricultural research organisation. Rumour has it that Denzil will be offered a chair and there are few prepared to bet more than ten cents on the chances of his staying much longer at Jabulani.

Another exemplary member of staff down the drain, but at least the demographics will be that much closer to perfection. The Jabulani bureaucrats will be able to sleep more soundly at night; and Denzil will be spared the journeys to Eastdorp for meetings cancelled at the last moment because of crises created by the latest commission of enquiry. 

… and again …

 It’s been two years since Witness readers were last brought up to date with the highs, and frequent lows, of Denzil Moto who is (still) a senior lecturer on the local campus of Jabulani University. They will recall that Denzil’s father, Harry, led a chequered life under the apartheid regime. His family was – to all appearances – white; but he was clearly coloured. Denzil, a well-respected teacher and highly qualified agriculture researcher, has experienced the opposite. He, although obviously from a disadvantaged background, is too pale for a liberated South Africa.

By now Denzil, somewhere in his mid-40s, would expect to be a professor. Last year his supportive head of department persuaded him to apply for promotion, so he polished up his impressive CV, had his suit cleaned and presented himself for interview at the Eastdorp campus. Having been kept waiting for nearly two hours without apology (it later emerged that the equity commissar had rolled his new BMW on the way to the interviews and a substitute could not be found) he was finally summoned. To his horror, the committee chair turned out to be not the head of college, but the dreaded Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Political Correctness and Transformational Guidance, and former dean of Agronomy, Professor Shisa Amanzi.

Two years ago Amanzi had threatened Denzil with disciplinary action and possible dismissal for the newly instituted offences of thinking too much and consorting with journalists. Since then Amanzi’s career had been meteoric – and controversial. The rector, recognising a kindred spirit, fast-tracked him onto the Executive, a body whose attrition rate rivaled that of coach to Bafana Bafana.

Amanzi’s management record is extraordinary even by the bizarre standards of Jabulani’s Executive. The university’s (acting) director of safety, Guy Chappell, had been forced to ban landlines in Executive offices after Amanzi had tried to strangle a secretary with an extension cord. Amanzi resorted to throwing his cellphone instead and a succession of secretaries was sent on a military-style training course on dodging flying objects. NOSA subsequently removed a star from the university’s safety record; as a result of which the KwaZuma campus branch of the ANC Youth League demanded an investigation, accusing it of being a counter-revolutionary company.

Amanzi’s dictatorial management style attracted the derision of former colleagues elsewhere. Angered beyond reason, he sued a professor at Livingstone University for libel after he had been accused of behaving like an apartheid-era security cop. The magistrate dismissed the case with relish, labeling Amanzi a man clearly unfit to manage a barrow load of water melons at a Saturday morning market. Amanzi rashly appealed to a higher court with the same result; except that now the judge thought retailing melons might be too exacting.

The whole exercise cost Jabulani thousands in wasted legal fees. An alert Council member asked for a report on litigation, a task so vast that it caused the pale male legal advisor to suffer a nervous breakdown and take early retirement. Although regretting this, the rector issued a triumphal notice announcing another red letter day in the history of Jabulani: its demographics were now, according to his calculations, perfectly balanced. Exactly what this meant no one ever discovered, but the following month the university department of propaganda announced that the rector had received yet another award.

Sadly, this had not helped Denzil at his interview. Fired up and ready to answer questions on research into small-scale organic farming and the work of his half dozen PhD students, Denzil was amazed to see Amanzi consulting a chart clipped to his application. Well practised at reading upside down at a sequence of disciplinary hearings (all submissions had been declared highly confidential and available only to the prosecution), Denzil made out the words Educon Pigmentation Chart (deluxe version, fifth edition) above an array of boxes coloured from ebony through chocolate to dirty-white.

Comparing his chart to the latest faculty equity plan and subjecting Denzil to close scrutiny, Amanzi wasted no time in uttering the words Denzil now anticipated: ‘application rejected’. Asked for an explanation, Amanzi told Denzil that this was confidential and he would have to lodge an appeal. About a year later, after many letters and emails, Denzil was told that he was pigmentation code 19G(i), and his faculty already had enough of those.

He’s still at Jabulani, working hard and doing his best to contribute to academic life, but understandably demoralised. Recently, however, in an interesting twist that lifted his spirits, he was contacted by Theuns Goedgesindig of Boschendal University with an invitation to deliver their annual academic freedom lecture. The local paper ran a short news item and asked Jabulani for comment. Media spokesperson Hetty Rathdas said the term academic freedom was new to her, but she would respond when the office dictionary could be found. Nothing further has been heard. 

  • Note: resemblance to any institution, group or person (living, dead or half-sane) is purely coincidental.

This was first published in The Witness in three episodes on 30 May and 7 December 2006 and 16 December 2008 that were entitled ‘The new separate development’, ‘Ongoing dramas at Jabulani University’ and ‘Latest developments at Jabulani’.

BACKGROUND READING: Christopher Hope, A Separate Development (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1980).