A rare photograph of the first building phase of Howard College in 1929.
A rare photograph of the first building phase of Howard College in 1929.

Intransigence, narrow-mindedness and entrenched colonial attitudes dictated the higher-learning landscape in KZN as far back as 1936.

While classes for African and Indian students were “tolerated” by the Natal University College (as the University KwaZulu-Natal was originally called), racial integration was non-existent.

To add salt to the wounds, African and Indian medical students were relegated to a campus site in Wentworth, while Indian students pursuing other studies were “camped out” on Salisbury Island, in line with government rulings on segregation.

Into this racially fractured structure came academic Mabel Palmer, brought to Durban in 1921 by the Durban Technical College and a founding member of the Howard College staff.

She was a contemporary of George Bernard Shaw, a first-class honours graduate from Glasgow University and the first woman tutor of tutorial classes at the University of London.

She soon established herself as one of the university’s first “rebel” thinkers.

While she lost the battle with the senate to dismantle the colour bar, she triumphed in her fight to allow classes for ‘non-white’ students.

From rare archival records contained in this 212-page glossy souvenir edition, we learn that Palmer’s efforts nearly 80 years ago laid the foundation for academic freedom in the province.

She recorded at the time: “A resolution was passed that ‘non-European’ classes could be established but only if they did not use the same buildings as Europeans and did not involve the college in any expenditure.”

Palmer suggested that those opposed to her “liberal” ideas believed that setting up such a structure would be “well nigh impossible”.

But Palmer was made of sterner stuff.

“I don’t like the idea of separate classes,” she told her contemporaries, “but it is better than having no education at all.”

The first lectures were conducted in her sitting room.

She managed to dragoon other university staff to give lectures at places like Sastri College. In the beginning there were only 19 students. By 1943 there were 130.

Dr Samuel George Campbell is perhaps the most underplayed of the early visionaries of higher education in KZN, suggests historian Edgar Brookes, whose early reports, opinions and recollections by leading personalities at the time, are documented in this publication.

According to Campbell’s daughter, Ethel: “My father was fighting for technical and higher education for the youth of Natal as far back as I can remember.”

When nothing was done, he called an historic meeting of 24 of his friends in his Musgrave Road home, where the technical institute was founded, starting what he called “a holy war against the powers of darkness which infested Natal”.

In a Natal Mercury article published on September 13, 1929, on the 23rd anniversary of the then Durban Technical College, the newspaper describes Campbell’s lampoon (of those who had thwarted his efforts to introduce higher learning to KZN), “which set all Natal laughing”, as the “effort that turned the scale”.

The Mercury further suggested that Campbell’s “joyous piece of doggerel should be one of the treasures of the college’s library”.

Campbell, records Ethel, not only saw the technical institute as a vital part of education, but “the thin of the wedge towards a Durban University”.

Campbell’s niece, Killie Campbell, is intrinsically woven into this century-old story. Her library in Muckleneuk mansion in Marriott Road, which houses the renowned Campbell collections, is the source of many of the early historical references and oral testimonies.

No one experienced difficulties as much as Ernst Gideon Malherbe. He was the son of an Afrikaans preacher who had paid for his doctoral studies in the US by shovelling snow, driving a New York taxi and looking after animals on a cattle boat.

Malherbe, who became principal of Natal University College in 1945, and the longest serving of all time, was, according to commentators, “astounded at the college’s financial weakness considering the wealth in Durban and the surrounding sugar-farming region”.

Malherbe concluded by saying: “Natal was the least university-minded” of all the provinces.

He attributed this lack-lustre response to “the harbour-city’s backwardness in recognising the importance of broad higher education.”

His efforts to expand and develop higher education in KZN led to the college’s fully-fledged university status.

At retirement he had earned a reputation as a staunch defender of academic freedom and university autonomy, as well as having saved the medical school from closure.

However, some have said that while he was active in opposing university apartheid, “he should have gone further and applied integration more robustly”.

Medical student Stephen Bantu Biko certainly tried to go much further during the violent and stormy period from 1966 when, as founder of the South African Students Organisation, he brought racial segregation to the centre of social and political life in the country.

The bond he struck with fellow student Mamphela Ramphele at the Durban campus, their passionate stance on equality and Biko’s torture and murder in a Pretoria prison changed the political landscape forever.

Another form of freedom was pioneered by Elizabeth Sneddon. She had a passion for teaching speech and drama and believed the performing arts could bring people together like no other discipline.

As the first head of such a department in Africa, Sneddon became the mentor of young black students, teaching them after hours.

Among those eager thespians were well-known personalities Alfred Nokwe and Mbongeni Ngema.

The birth of the new era and the amalgamation of five campuses into one have brought with them difficult and testing times, as described in the publication.

It has also brought to the fore a new chapter in research and the establishment of international research facilities to make an attempt at finding solutions to some of the most pressing issues facing mankind, including the devastating effects of HIV/Aids and tuberculosis.

Says vice-chancellor Malegapuru Makgoba in his foreword: “Despite the struggles, the book demonstrates a great story of success, a story in which the many forces that shaped higher education in the province can be found. In this story many profound ideas were born. It is a story of ‘good triumphing over evil’.

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