News & Media

Unisa to take Mthatha back to the future

On Thursday, 16 August 2018, the diaries of the people of the Zimbane Village in Mthatha, in the Eastern Cape, were penciled in for a date with destiny. On this day, ordinary members of the community were set to bear witness to a ground-breaking sod-turning ceremony, presided over by their traditional leadership, delegates from the provincial and local government structures and a delegation of the University of South Africa (Unisa), led by the Chairperson of Council, Mr Sakhi Simelane, and the Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mandla Makhanya. This ceremony was set to usher in the dawn of a new era for higher education in Mthatha.

Representatives from Unisa, the Eastern Cape Provincial Government and the King Sabata Dalinyebo Municipality pose for a picture during the sod-turning.

The evening before, a menacing threat to what was envisaged to be a day of celebration loomed large in the sky above. Ominous black clouds began to gather just before dusk, conniving with the whistling wind and a cold drizzle that left one’s cheeks numb. ’Is this the cruel fate that will befall our planned celebrations tomorrow?’, we pondered as we retreated to our places of sojourn for the night.

Lo and behold, tomorrow came and the gods of hope and progress had different ideas altogether. Much as the morning arrived with remnants of yesternight’s inclement weather, the chill and gloom began to fade as the day grew older. Soon, the sun began to protrude from behind the dusky clouds, warmly embracing the Mthatha countryside with its radiance and beaming smile. Hope sprung eternal.

At the site of the sod-turning ceremony, staff members from Unisa worked closely with the local service provider to put the finishing touches to the logistics of the day. An ebullient, all-female choir of Unisa employees from the Mthatha Service Centre, clad proudly in IsiXhosa attire, filled the morning air with traditional song and dance. This was but a prelude to the musical display they were set to dish out as part of the formal proceedings later, a feat they achieved with admirable finesse and boundless energy.

A few hundred metres from the marquee where the festivities were set to take place, a herd of cattle and a flock of sheep grazed lazily on the minimal grass sprouting amid the yawning dongas of this sprawling habitat, oblivious to the imminent realisation of a dream on higher ground above.

This, as Prof Makhanya said in his speech, was a dream thirteen years in the making, with Unisa having occupied its current premises in Mthatha since 2005. Throughout this period, he said, it became increasingly clear that the current premises do not fulfil the needs of the university and its students, nor do they portray the image and brand of a university that offers its students service excellence and a quality learning experience. ‘As the years passed, with each visit we have heard first hand, from staff and students, about their concerns and challenges around the facilities and their inadequacy in terms of a safe and healthy working environment and a site for quality student support, particularly in the light of the growth in student numbers in this region’ said Professor Makhanya.

It was these concerns, coupled with recurring maintenance and refurbishment costs that made it necessary for Unisa to seek alternative premises, and ensure that this happens before the expiry of its current lease in 2022.

In the absence of a readily available and suitable venue, it was then that high level engagements between Unisa and the leadership of the Eastern Cape began. The eventual result of these engagements was the agreement by the Department of Public Works, the Regional Land Claims Commission, the Traditional Leadership of the Zimbane Community and Unisa to avail the land where Unisa will build a service centre for its operations and for the benefit of the community. The talks were concluded at the end of 2017 during a visit by a Unisa delegation led by the Chairman of the Unisa Council, Mr Sakhi Simelane and Prof Makhanya himself.

Prof Makhanya also highlighted that there has been a general sense picked up over the years that the Mthatha Service Centre was treated as a ‘stepchild’ of the Eastern Cape Region, neglected and downtrodden. Whilst pointing out that this new development is intended to correct this, he called on the community of Zimbane to take ownership of the assets and to guard them jealously and diligently; thus ensuring that the names of Unisa, the Zimbane Community and the region are held high for generations to come.

This sentiment was shared by all speakers who came before and after the address by Professor Makhanya. The Chairman of the Unisa Council, Mr Sakhi Simelane, particularly urged the local community to co-operate fully with the university and provincial and local government structures to ensure the successful completion of the building; and to put the needs of the community above personal interests. He reiterated the collective sentiment that through this structure, the university was also affirming its long-standing commitment to bring education to the doorstep of the marginalised communities in the country.

Other speakers who lent their weight to the project and assured the utmost commitment and support of their respective constituencies included the MEC for Local Government and Traditional Affairs in the Eastern Cape Provincial Government, Mr Fikile Xasa, the Deputy Speaker of the Eastern Cape Provincial Legislature, Mr Mlibo Qoboshiyane as well as the Executive Mayor of the King Sabata Dalinyebo Municipality, Councilor Dumani Zozo. The Vice-Principal Operations and Facilities at Unisa, Dr Marcia Socikwa, the outgoing President of the Unisa National Student Representative Council, Ms Zandile Sodladla and the representative of NEHAWU in the Mthatha Service Centre, Mr Thandanani Mdlalose also delivered messages of support for the project. The Zimbane House of Traditional Authority also sent a delegation to this august occasion, led by the Chieftainess, Mrs Nosizwe Maxwele (Ah Nosizwe!).

The festivities concluded with the actual turning of the soil and planting of two trees as a symbol of commitment by all stakeholders. As the participants to this ceremony departed for their respective destinations, they left behind great hope for the community of Zimbane and the people of the Eastern Cape.

By Martin Ramotshela