UJ Vice Chancellor Professor Ihron Rensburg during the interview in his office on the Kingsway campus. Picture: Simphiwe Mbokazi/ANA Pictures

With a klipgooier at the helm, who in 1976 was a 16-yearold activist in detention, there was no way the University of Johannesburg – once a bastion of narrow Afrikaner political interests – could not have transmogrified into a model South African tertiary institution where colour was not the primary criterion for enrolment. 

In its former guise as the Randse Afrikaans Universiteit (RAU), not a single one of its black students, who comprise 92% of the student body, could have got within a whiff of being admitted to this onceproud white university. Under the stewardship of a Korsten, Port Elizabeth boytjie, Ihron Rensburg, began the almost impossible task of amalgamating RAU with the then liberal Wits Technikon and the black township university Vista, in Soweto.

It seemed the ultimate litmus test to the transformation ideal. What stands today is an institution of academic excellence untouched by the stench of separate development, as apartheid was euphemistically called. 

Rensburg laments the loss of “a critical mass of white South Africans” who left at the demise of RAU. So, logically, as “the demand for Afrikaans had fallen”, the language was gradually phased out as a medium of instruction in the varsity’s courses, its vice-chancellor says. 

The University of Johannesburg is rated among the top three percent in the world and within the top 10 percent on the African continent. Hard as he tries, it is not easy for Professor Rensburg, the vicechancellor and principal, to be modest. He is a soft-spoken man, but the numbers he crunches make for fascinating reading. The Soweto campus, where the Vista University used to be, has grown from 1 000 students to 6 000.

There’s currently a large number of student residences on the campus which once had none. “Together with the state, we invested between R700 and R800 million on that campus to build a world-class university.” Of a student population between 50 000 and 52 000, a quarter come from the poorest of the poor. 

“I’d say 60% of them are firstgeneration university students in their families,” Rensburg says. A further 8 000 of these students receive meals on campus that they would not normally have anywhere else, he says. “We need to be able to support 20 000 students.” The university grew its Quintile 1 and 2 Schools intake from eight to 31 percent this academic year.

From what he says about this development, it is clearly a matter of importance to Rensburg. Three thousand of these first-year students receive free iPads: “If they do not have books, they’re never going to flourish; so we load books on those iPads, for free.” 

This academic year sees about 42 000 undergraduate classes get under way. A far cry from the myopic Afrikaner nationalist outlook of RAU, UJ now boasts well over its target of 40% black staff, which they’d hoped to achieve by 2020. “We exceeded that,” Rensburg says, with not a hint of pompousness. They now sit at 41% “and our revised target is 50% by 2020”. When he says “at UJ we don’t engage in rhetoric; we walk the talk”, one is left no choice but to believe Rensburg.

These are not token numbers as revealed by the university’s 500% increase in publication output, says the vice-chancellor. 

One number they were able to curtail was what in one year became an eight-kilometre queue for spaces at the university. To this day, the vice-chancellor still speaks with a lump in his throat when he recounts the sad tale of how 47-year-old Gloria Sekwena died in the arms of her son, Kgositsile, a prospective student at the time, as she was trampled in a stampede queueing to get space for her son.

The January 2012 incident is always on his mind. What is even sadder for Rensburg is that Sekwena, a psychiatric nurse who had been based in Britain, together with her husband, were alumni of UJ. “Both completed Further Higher Education Diplomas in Nursing at this university.” 

The university has subsequently done away with walk-in applications “to ease pressure on the gates”. After the incident, Rensburg says: “We said to ourselves that we need to find a solution, a technological solution. “We then designed a late registration model. It is the world’s most advanced late application system that we have since made available to our peers.” 

On Monday, the university, whose complexion Rensburg says is truly representative of the demographics of the country, achieved something of a miracle. It said in a statement: “UJ remains resolute in its determination to support its ‘missing middle’ students, and in just five months, the university has already raised R147 million, exceeding its 2017 year-end target of R120 million.” In 2015, the money raised was R38 million, then R101 million in 2016, Rensburg says.

A hefty 14 000 of Rensburg’s students come from the so-called missing middle families. Like all institutions of higher learning, UJ was not spared the #FeesMustFall protests: “We’ve had our moments with student protests, starting from around the time of Polokwane 2007. It was also about fees.” They moved quickly to set up an SRC Trust Fund – at R10 million initially “to assist pay the fees of those students unable to do so”. 

This foresight seemed to have worked as they experienced a hiatus until late 2015 when the protests broke out again. But in that time the SRC Trust Fund had grown to R20 million, says Rensburg. His stay in the corner office at the university comes to an end on March 31, 2018, after which “I will then take a sabbatical for a year to write a book and contribute to journal publications”. 

Whatever the former youth political activist writes about his time at the university will indeed be revealing. One gets a sense that the book will be a technical treatise on what he calls the project of transformational change, not his own life story. It is such a pity, as his biography would make for compelling reading. 

The child of a domestic worker mother and a father who was on the factory floor, the maths and science A-student who hated physics but nevertheless passed it well, Rensburg should serve as an example to any student keen to become the “change agent” in society. Any student who’d look up to Rensburg as a role model can only do well in his chosen career.

* The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Sunday Independent