JOHN TEEGER – WITS FUND PRESIDENT – VISITS WITS 50 YEARS AFTER GRADUATING
Recently my wife Reina and I visited the Wits main campus in Johannesburg (better known as Jozi today!) after a many-year-hiatus. It was Friday December 15, 2017: the date is important, as any alumnus worth his salt knows, as in South Africa most business activity, especially on campus, stops after the second Friday in December for several weeks. December 16 marks the public holiday Day of Reconciliation, formerly Day of the Covenant, formerly Dingaans Day … interesting how the history of a country can be traced by the names of its public holidays!
For me it was not just a pleasure trip down memory lane: I am the President of the Wits Fund headquartered in New York, and a registered charitable institution under Regulation 501(c)(3) of the US tax code. In order to meet US Revenue requirements, my job includes conducting due diligence to ensure that funds raised in the US are spent appropriately by Wits. By encouraging and providing financial support to Wits, we believe we are assisting South Africa to become a mature and thriving democracy.
The first surprise was a literal fire drill – the alarms went off as we entered the administrative building and, contrary to the normal practice worldwide of ignoring the warning, this time we joined about 200 Wits employees scampering from the building and hanging out in the outdoor quadrangle – an unplanned “Pleased to Meet You” welcome for overseas visitors—False Alarm—back to work.
Tawana Kupe, the Vice Principal (the Wits Number 2, or Chief Operating Officer in US corporate parlance) and Peter Bezuidenhoudt, VP of Development, responded to my due diligence inquiries, and necessary paper work, and then it was on to the campus tour.
Changes in 50 years – wow—here are just a few for a quick perspective:
- Previously 6,000 students, now 38,000.
- There are now 4,700 academic staff, spread across 5 faculties!
- Before, as an accounting student I remember car cruising the campus even up to the steps of the Main Hall – no more – now its stop at the gate, and parking extremely limited.
- Then, the old main campus was bounded by Jan Smuts Avenue and Yale, De Korte and Empire roads. Now, it is three times larger including the whole of the former Rand Easter showgrounds and several tentacles into Braamfontein.
The guided tour by Peter B blew us away:
- The Wits Art Museum is located at the old Lawsons corner, former filling station and SA’s premier Volvo Agency – Leslie Cohen and Julia Charlton, senior staff of WAM, guided us around the architecturally-stunning building, showed us the permanent collection, many pieces of which are in storage through space limitations, and the current exhibition, a unique collection of disturbing photos demonstrating the harsh impact on humanity of floods worldwide.
- Professor Bruce Rubidge, head of the Centre of Excellence in Palaeosciences, showed us around the world’s largest active research lab and permanent museum examining recent finds of hominid skeletons. Wits is a leader in this research, a huge addition to the late Professor Philip Tobias’ discoveries at Sterkfontein in the fifties and sixties.
- At its just completed open-plan incubator suite in Braamfontein called Tshimologong, Wits provides gifted engineers, students from other faculties and schools, as well as other talented unemployed youth, facilities to research and develop new applications of technology. It shares the building and ideas with the 13th global IBM Research Lab – the first in Africa – a great partnership.
We rounded off our visit with a late lunch on campus with Peter Maher, VP of Alumni Affairs and the editor of the outstanding WITSReview which is published quarterly. As you can read in the pages of the magazine, Peter is very knowledgeable about Wits and is full of ideas for capitalizing on its strengths and long history as the leading university on the African continent.
To appreciate Wits, consider what would the country be like without it.
Was I surprised by my visit 50 years later ? – Absolutely.
Am I pleased to be so surprised? – Absolutely!
President The University of the Witwatersrand Fund, Inc.
Take a look at what’s happening at Wits: