Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Memories of the Edgewood Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Memories of the Edgewood Campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

The book mentioned above is in the library of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. It describes the transition from a whites-only institution to one fully non-racial. It is written from the points of view of persons working at a transforming college of education that was absorbed into a South African university as apartheid was dismantled.

In a sense it is a story repeated in many other South African institutions striving to achieve a non-racial future for the country. Some staff embraced the idea of transition, many did not. The book will be of use to anyone, anywhere in the world, engaged with the transformation of an institution with a racially-defined ethos to a fully integrated, non-racial, multicultural entity.

The present post appeared largely unchanged as the chapter  Recollections of Edgewood.   Alex Coutts 1970-1993.


Please bear with me as I romp through the description of a mis-spent youth, which might come across as a poor start for a teaching-college educator. I thoroughly disliked my early schooling because the experience often scared the wits out of me. Especially when quite small, I found most teachers to be threatening creatures. My father died when I was seven, and with my mother working through long days as a bank clerk, I had little parental guidance in matters educational.

Later at the Northlands Boys High School (now Northwood) in Durban, I settled down a bit, but at that stage of life still couldn’t see the point of education. I accordingly spent many happy hours body surfing amidst the occasional shark in ominously discoloured waters off the Durban North beaches, when my time could have been spent better by my studying for exams. It was not a good start for someone who later entered teacher education as a profession.

Having done a few modest sporting performances at school, I entered the Durban Teachers’ Training College (Dokkies) where I enjoyed Physical Education and did well in it. I later passed the specialist course in Physical Education with distinction at the Paarl Teachers’ Training College, and went on to teach the subject at Grosvenor Boys High School.

During a break in career prior to joining the Edgewood College community, I decided to get away from South African’s narrow social and political confines to see the wider world. I wanted to gain experience in self-dependence; to see if I could manage on my own. It’s of course something many young people do.

There followed a venture in deep-sea yachting which terminated when I left the vessel at Ascension Island in the mid-Atlantic. This followed an incident with the McCormac Cape, a freighter whose captain was docking her late at night in the presence of our small, intrusive yacht that had somehow wandered into the freighter anchorage. After this incident was settled, the yacht sailed on. I stayed put.

While on the island I worked for Gunn Plumbing of Miami for several months as a labourer. One of the more memorable incidents was a strike that turned nasty and culminated in injuries to two African-American workers and the pay-off of union members by a boss with a loaded revolver on his desk.

A period of teaching in Inner London schools followed. I then embarked on a six -week hitch-hike across North Africa sipping tea or coffee with the Bedouin and sleeping in the bitterly cold winter desert. My stores of experience were growing.

I also endured a harrowing week at Aberfan, assisting the mortician during the coal-mining disaster of November 1967. We worked in the small Barthol Chapel building which had been turned into a mortuary. Our team met the Queen and Prince Philip. More indelibly memorable yet, I was present when parents entered the small chapel to identify the clothing, possessions or bodies of their children. Many hurled oaths at the Coal Board and broke down in tears. At the age of twenty-four I was not prepared psychologically for the experience. The memories proved enduring.

Returning to South Africa, I joined the staff at Northlands Boys High School in Durban. The opulent socio-economic status of many parents meant that they could afford private swimming coaches and so our team did well over many years, while athletics kept up its long-standing tradition at the school. This implied winning competitions regularly.

Having done a reasonable job at Northlands, I applied for the job of lecturer in Physical Education at Edgewood College. I arrived as a bewildered youth, experienced in some of the more esoteric and even brutal experiences of life, but not particularly suited to the refinements of Academe.

I brought to the job a tinge of macho, a distrust of memorisation as the central pillar of education, a mind open to the non-racialism of many overseas countries and a sense of independence in thought and action picked up during travels through more than forty countries. Throughout, I had paid my own way and learnt that the main instrument in achievement was my own hard effort coupled to such integrity, knowledge and skills as I had garnered.

On arrival at Edgewood, I was met by strangers. It was a world different to anything previously experienced. During the 1970’s, the College was in its infancy, having moved to Pinetown from a previous Durban campus. The first students were all women.

The popular Eric Edminson, deeply experienced in primary schooling, headed the staff.  A few days after arrival, he gave me the best advice I ever received from anyone. “Think things through and look at all the consequences, then if you have a choice, rather be kind,” he said. “Be kind”.

Eric Edminson was supported by the awesome Sylvia Vietzen (History), and equally impressive Cynthia Scott (English language), Ailsa Mumby (Mathematics), Ingrid Machin (History), Rosemary Miles-Cadmin (English), Jill Kelsall (Religious Studies) and one or two others of equal eminence. I mean no cynicism here; for a callow youth these teaching academics brought an aura of intelligence and dignity that led to one conclusion; select your reference characters well, and learn from them. With a need to accommodate male students, Messrs Ken Tebbutt (Handcraft), Harry Getliffe (Physical science) and Gordon Morton (Geography) were appointed in due course.

In those days, a frontier spirit prevailed as the college buildings were completed. It was fuelled by the noise of frogs at night (an obsessive talking point for some) and the occasional discharge of dynamite when protruding rocks were to be removed. For someone who had hitched the coast of North Africa, bathed with whales on a yacht somewhere in the South Atlantic Ocean, and watched the Israeli army in action on their border with Jordan, I couldn’t quite catch the prevailing spirit. It was all so terribly civilized!  And if this was a frontier, a frontier to where? And who lay beyond it?

The staffroom dynamics were interesting. In my naive view, status was determined by proximity to the tea things. The staff members of the most highly regarded subjects were in closest proximity, with a long chain of status down to the ‘practicals’ where I seated myself respectfully. 

Language was especially interesting, with second language experiencing refugee status in a predominantly English-speaking college. They were seated a long way from such critical survival resources as tea and coffee. I noted that, when we moved to our grand new staffroom a year or two later, the second-language department had seated themselves close to the urn and refused to budge. Main language took to the opposing corner, gloves off and glowering. 

But, lest I give the impression that departments were habitually at war, I must hasten to add that usually everyone got along fine. During the twenty or so years I spent at Edgewood, apart from understandable intrigues and tiffs here and there, the staff members were remarkably combined in their social interactions and common pursuit of excellence. Many members became my firm friends.

There were many remarkable and engaging characters. Our new rector, Professor Andre le Roux, became known for his brilliant, humorous and athletic public speeches and presentations. I say athletic because Andre was known for his remarkable agility in bobbing up and down with sheer excitement as he regaled us with educational insights, anecdotes, homilies and missives. One could establish the import of a speech quite accurately by recording the height to which his heels left the stage floor. Andre established a firm leadership based on a brilliant mind, wide knowledge of many things, basically compassionate nature and insistence that Edgewood was to become a family to all who operated there. It was clear that he had distinct visions of a non-racial future.

I also recall Gordon Morton. His love of Geography (how I had relied on his textbook Man’s environment years earlier while at school!) was only exceeded by his love of motor bikes. There was also Rosemary Miles-Cadman, known for her exceptional intellect, Cynthia Scott who was a leading academic but also known for her compassionate care for the college cats, for whose benefit she solicited funds (we called it putting something in the kitty). Jan Forbes was well reputed for her creative dancing, Hugh Thompson for his brilliant play productions, and Brian Reid for his insightful, Catholic (with a capital C) views on History. Brian trained later at the Beda in France for the Catholic priesthood.

There are so many others, united in the quest to maintain Edgewood as a centre of excellence. I plodded on steadily, establishing Physical Education as a component of the broader curriculum, editing The Natal Physical Educator, and working to transform the subject from a rather limited physical training, so prevalent during the post-war years, into something thoroughly grounded in education. This implied giving full vent to a participant’s cognitive, emotional, social, health, psycho-motor and knowledge capacities. In due course Jan Forbes and Bob Rottcher took the work forward brilliantly as I moved more deeply into administration and general education.

I was asked to Head a range of subjects, and Physical Education, Art, Handcrafts, Speech and Drama, Needlework, Health Education, Electrical Technika, Electronic Technika, Technical Drawing, Computer Studies and Business Economics were part of what became known as ‘Alexander’s empire’. 

Darryl Houghton was so successful as senior lecturer in Art that he became subject adviser. Carolyn Higgs and Lorna Shadwell ran Speech and Drama very capably, while Mike O’Neill did a fine job with the Technical subjects. Ken Tebbutt managed handcrafts creatively, ensuring that Saturday ‘handcraft fairs’ became a regular feature of college life. My main job was to assist with critical administrative jobs while ensuring that my own lack of experience in some of these subjects didn’t destroy the natural capability and creativity of the specialist staff. It was a great learning experience.

I also served on the College Council, was Secretary to Senate, managed Practical Teaching, organised or helped organise conferences, served as college examinations officer, ran the so-called Civil Defence programme, managed the Grounds and Buildings Committee and supervised the residences. At one time or another I was on sixteen committees and chaired six. So I kept out of mischief.

Having entered the college with two teaching diplomas it was clear to me that I was formally under qualified, so over the years I found time (often two o’clock in the morning, and most weekends) to do a B.A., B. Ed., Masters and D.Ed. Not being sure of the first doctorate’s value, I did a second. This was a D. Phil. Having struggled at school, I found these degrees increasingly easy with practice and maturity. I funded them myself, with no financial sources other than my salary. There was a measure of pride in doing that.

The second doctorate enjoyed the encouragement of the rector, Prof Andre le Roux. He was engaged with the Council of Rectors and Deans of KwaZulu-Natal (CORDTEK) initiative. It was an endeavour to draw together rectors and deans of universities and colleges, to establish a closer symbiotic relationship on an equitable, non-racial basis.

My D. Phil. study was based a four-year longitudinal study of the New Era Schools Trust, an early attempt to explore strategies for implementing a system of non-racial schooling in South Africa. The idea had incubated for years. I understand that my study was the first of its kind in South Africa to explore non-racial schooling. Titled An exploratory Study of the New Era Schools Trust, it was done in 1989 through the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal). It traced the development of a system of non-racial schooling that could be a model to guide future endeavours at the national level.

It investigated such concepts as race, ethnicity and socio-economic class. As a result, Marxist theory was brought into the Bachelor of Primary Education classes, which I taught.  Although I personally found flaws with the Marxian analysis, Marx helped to sensitize me further to the travails of the impoverished and disadvantaged in South Africa. Thereafter, there was a rapid awakening.

Whilst doing the doctorate and after its completion, during the 1980s I embarked on a series of perhaps sixty public addresses throughout KwaZulu-Natal and (occasionally) Gauteng. It was an attempt to convince educators in schools to brave the emerging new world and become accepting of transition to a modern non-racial democracy. It involved the dissemination of strategies for transformation that would lead to a more socially, economically and politically just society.

Probably the most interesting presentation was done at an educational institution in Dundee, while apartheid was still fully in force. After a long drive, I arrived to find a considerable audience, prepared my slides and engaged with those present. I explained the evolving historical context as best I could while exploring strategies to accommodate cultures equitably as a foundation for shifting to a new non-racial dispensation.

 And then, whilst in full flight I noticed (one could hardly ignore them) a phalanx of fourteen brown-shirted men striding into the hall. They sat down as a tight group. Their shoulder insignia were those of the AWB. Grim faced and tense, at question time they rose as one man and distributed leaflets warning of sex across the racial lines, negative happenings in other countries and the demise of white privilege.

Their questions were direct and probing. This lead me to explain that, as far as I was informed the term kaffir (kafir) was derived from the Arabic word for unbeliever. Did they want to discuss religion? I asked. To their credit there were no direct threats or aggressive behaviour, but it did alert me to the prospect of difficult times ahead for us all. I saw them as ordinary people whose upbringing and political views were radically different to my own.  

I found the doctoral studies through the University of Natal particularly helpful as Edgewood College began to accommodate the staff and students of Bechet College, which was being closed.  We also took in an initial intake of several hundred African students.  The transition went as well as such things can, when one takes our benighted history and socio-economic disparities into account. The Bechet staff, led by Lawrence Samuels, was magnanimous in coming from their previously ‘secure’ home to adapt to an alien environment.

Regarding the students, we had to manage matters as fairly and equitably as we could, including their understandable anger at the disparity in loans occasioned by Edgewood moving too quickly, ahead of the state’s capacity to catch up with enabling legislation. The College had summarily ‘jumped the gun’. White students got R4500 yearly, Coloured students R2800 and Africans R2200. The figures were the cause of enduring distress.

We had cultural differences to accommodate, also allegations of discrimination levelled at the house committee members, accusations of academic bias and much more. But, none of it was in any way as intense as one might have anticipated, and the newcomers to the campus as well as the existing community behaved with considerable decorum and restraint.

The Doctorate also no doubt helped my wife Memory and me when we first took on and raised four abandoned Zulu children as our own progeny. There were eventually fourteen, albeit at different times. One has lived with us for twenty-odd years, others for lesser times. For more than thirty years they have been our sons and daughters. 

As each became capable of earning a living, so the next arrived. Several went through schooling under our care and financing, then proceeded to higher education. Three have degrees, and four others have diplomas achieved or pending. One has been ordained a Catholic priest. It was all funded from our educator salaries. But we, arguably, have been enriched more than they.

Looking back, the most difficult task I had as vice-rector occurred in the early 1990s while Prof le Roux was in the Drakensberg foothills attending a conference. As usual, I was asked to assume responsibility for the College for a few days. At about 5 p.m. on the first day, just after arriving home, I received a call from a residence staff member warning of a vehicle accident involving some of our black students who were returning from our College to their University residences.  Unsure of what was happening, I drove to the casualty department of the King Edward V111hospital, closest to the accident site. My actions were based on a simple assumption.

Our students were there, bloodied and mainly unrecognisable. I comforted them as best I could, consoled the parents and phoned Prof. le Roux. I learnt that the driver had died and a student had been injured critically. He was not expected to survive without serious brain damage. On the following morning it was necessary to brief Mr Attie Ohlmesdahl, then director of education, Prof Piet Booysen, vice chancellor and principal of the University of Natal and Prof Berndene Nel, Dean of the faculty of Education.

A sorrowful memorial service was thereafter held in the Margaret Martin Theatre at Edgewood. It was lightened only slightly by the tributes of various members of staff and beautiful, if mournful, singing of the assembled throng. The week that followed was an understandably tough one. It culminated in the death of the injured student who had suffered head injuries and brought tangible sadness that seemed to touch all staff, black and white.  

The journey through Edgewood over twenty years was a daily educative experience. I feel privileged to have made superb friends irrespective of their race or ethnicity and to have served there. I look on the experience largely with affection, and trust that the present staff will strive constantly to exceed what we achieved in the service of the children of KwaZulu-Natal.

No race is free of racist behaviour to others. More than ever, South Africans need integrity, service orientation, generosity of spirit, tolerance and mutual respect if we are to progress. Only then can we claim to be a light-infused ‘rainbow nation’.