Farewell to UCT's ambassador-at-large

10 January 2014
Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo.
Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo.

Known for his ability to charm a room, disarm a conflict, open doors and mend bridges, UCT's envoy of internationalisation and Afropolitanism Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo reflects on some of the most memorable moments from his time as deputy vice-chancellor.

Eight days after starting at UCT in 2004, Thandabantu Nhlapo was called out of a high-level meeting; the students resident at Liesbeeck Gardens were marching to Bremner. "So what's that got to do with me?" he asked the message-bearer.

"You're the DVC for students," came the pithy reply.

Unsure of the crowd's mood, Nhlapo and those escorting him were persuaded to take a back route to Bremner (there was some foliage involved).

"I'd never met a situation like that before. I didn't know what to do... " he remembers. "But I decided, what the heck, I speak African languages and these were mainly black students. And I'd never really been afraid of my own people.

"But I'd never seen a toyi-toyi before - I come from a different era. And they were carrying placards that amused [former DVC] Martin West; one read: 'West, look East, the black man is coming'."

Nhlapo greeted them in isiXhosa and isiZulu, squatting on Bremner's steps. Their issues were about the delay in outfitting laboratories at the residence; they felt that because they were black, they'd been neglected.

His diplomatic skills - which had stood him in good stead while working at the South African embassy in Washington DC - helped defuse a tense situation.

"So, what are you doing tonight?" he asked.

That evening Nhlapo and a team from ICTS and Student Housing met with all the residents of Liesbeeck Gardens. Wiring up the computer labs would be difficult because of physical limitations (the railway line, which separated the residence from campus), but there were other matters they could resolve.

"All that it needed was to sit down in a non-rowdy atmosphere and explain that."

Nhlapo's willingness to talk and to see both sides has seen him home in many negotiations.

One involved an issue of SAX Appeal with blasphemous content. No sooner had the edition hit the streets than it elicited a backlash, a massive outcry from Christian and other faith communities that jammed Nhlapo and the Department of Student Affairs' email accounts for weeks. Prominent donors and long-standing benefactors threatened to pull the plug on funding.

Nhlapo brokered a tense meeting between the groups. The magazine's editors were persuaded to write a public letter of unconditional apology, and bridges were mended.

"At the end of the flap, I had personally written 632 emails responding to angry people."

Now, in his office, Nhlapo is reflecting, sitting against a backdrop of photographs taken in the company of leaders: Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel. That's the diplomat.

The other side, represented by the law degree certificates, belongs to the scholar.

How does he think he'll be remembered by his colleagues?

"Friendly, approachable, humorous ... that sort of thing. But in their more serious considerations, I think they see me as a calming influence." West called Nhlapo the "Mr Cool of the team".

"I think that's probably correct," he muses. "I am genuinely unflappable; I don't like drama... my ability to non-quarrel is probably my most disarming characteristic."

What will he miss? Senate meetings? He gives a wry smile.

"Graduation. It always brings a lump to my throat. What cheers me up [during officiation] is seeing the diversity of the graduates, and the diversity in the demographic of the people in the hall."

His favourite place on campus?

"This office. I'm usually here at 04h00; I spend so much time here."

With a portfolio coupling internationalisation and Afro-politanism as its main thrust, Nhlapo believes he got the best deal in terms of strategic goals. Ever since Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price first articulated the concept in his 2008 installation address, the academic community has had to process the implications, and, in some cases, overcome some scepticism.

Nhlapo has never had any doubts.

"It's given me a great opportunity to work on the corporate mindset of UCT as a community, in convincing us that one has nothing to be afraid of in venturing into the continent. Our position behoves us [to embrace it] if we're going to place ourselves in a position of decent and constructive continental citizenship.

"The links have always been there, but Afropolitanism has allowed us to exploit the relationships more consciously, and it has a policy behind it."

Funding from the Vice-Chancellor's Strategic Fund has given birth to a host of agreements and alliances on the continent.

"We've been able to send people out to link with colleagues around Africa on projects ranging from curriculum reform to student and staff exchanges, to joint research and publications.

"That's been beautiful; I could have done the work with no salary."

What are the main challenges facing the executive team? Nhlapo approaches his answer thoughtfully.

"I get the sense that the challenge is really how to help steer a good institution in a way that preserves all that is good, while avoiding perceptions that what is good about UCT is also exclusionary, elitist and unwelcoming to everybody else from the cultures that have not been dominant cultures at UCT. It's not just about admissions, it's not just about the rankings ... More concretely, it's about trying to maintain a well-run institution in the face of political and other pressures to do stuff that will compromise excellence and good governance."

And transformation?

"This is where I evangelise. It's very simple; it's transformation of a meaningful and sustainable kind. For me, that means an institutional culture that is genuinely laid-back about diversity, has no more hang-ups about difference, and is positively curious about change instead of being scared by it. "Right now the tension is about transformation, and the danger of being stampeded into ill-considered changes is one of the challenges one faces as a member of a team of this kind."

His role models were not liberation heroes, or the glitterati in the social pages of Drum, but his parents - his father, "quiet, humble and laid back"; his mother, "noisy, assertive, out there, larger than life - and way ahead of her time".

"If I said something that smacked of tribalism or racism, I'd get her famous backhanded slap across my cheek.

"And then she'd sit me down and give me the 'this is how the world works' lecture. In my home there was no such thing as boy's work or girl's work."

As a result, he learnt to polish the stoep. And he cooked. He was sensitised to issues such as gender long before most.

"My mother just didn't believe there was anything to applaud in helplessness."

Former VC Dr Stuart Saunders appointed Nhlapo to a racial harassment panel with Frank Molteno while Nhlapo was still new to UCT. That was very validating, he says. At about the same time the report from a study on sexual harassment at UCT was released, occasioning Nhlapo's first scholarly article at UCT, in which he tackled the report's findings on the cultural habits of white and black students. He was incensed by the reported views of some interviewees, who claimed that ill-treatment of women was part of African culture.

"I just saw red," he recounts, adding that he should write more when angry. The feminist magazine Agenda quotes him on the issue to this day.

But there is a way of influencing institutional culture without alienating people or making them defensive. When his nephew graduated LLB, Nhlapo applied for permission to hood him. It took careful negotiating and explanation around cultural diversity and the African definition of family before his request was accepted.

The future lies in his study in a bedroom at his home in Kirstenhof (the family will move from Linkoping in December). There he will return to his first love, customary law, in which he plans to continue his research.

"I'd also like to travel, to India, Japan and Las Vegas, in that order."

Las Vegas? The lure of the lurid?

"That's it. I'm curious. I just want to spend a week walking the strip and reliving all the bad movies about Las Vegas that I've seen."

And there's a lot he'd like to revisit. He's keen to start a library of old movies starring Humphrey Bogart and Richard Widmark, and a collection of old BBC TV series such as The Sandbaggers and Upstairs Downstairs.

"And I must redo my textbook on Swazi customary law of marriage and divorce - I wrote that when Swaziland had no constitution."

Then there's the book that's been in his head for 20 years: how to make sense of the intersection between modern constitutions and traditional values when it comes to a country such as South Africa, where both culture and human rights are recognised by the Constitution.

The third book is what he calls his "frivolous biography".

"That's really got to be done. I would haunt you all from the grave if I died without getting to that one."

Story by Helen Swingler.

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