UWC History

UWC History, the University of the Western Cape has a history of creative struggle against oppression, discrimination and disadvantage. Among academic institutions it has been in the vanguard of South Africa’s historic change, playing a distinctive academic role in helping to build an equitable and dynamic nation. UWC’s key concerns with access, equity and quality in higher education arise from extensive practical engagement in helping the historically marginalised participate fully in the life of the nation.

Early Days

In 1959, Parliament adopted legislation establishing the University College of the Western Cape as a constituent college of the University of South Africa for people classified as “Coloured”. The first group of 166 students enrolled in 1960. What they were offered was limited training for lower to middle level positions in schools, the civil service and other institutions designed to serve a separated Coloured community. In 1970 the institution gained university status and was able to award its own degrees and diplomas.

A Freer Climate

Protest action by students and black academic staff led to the appointment, in 1975, of the first black Rector. The new, freer climate under the leadership of Professor Richard E (Dick) van der Ross was hospitable to intellectual debate and internationally respected scholarship.

In its mission statement of 1982, UWC Objectives, the university formally rejected the apartheid ideology on which it was established, adopting a declaration of nonracialism and “a firm commitment to the development of the Third World communities in South Africa.” In 1983, through the University of the Western Cape Act of 1983, the university finally gained its autonomy on the same terms as the established “white” institutions.

Towards Democracy

The term of Professor Jakes Gerwel, who took office as Rector in 1987, saw an unambiguous alignment with the mass democratic movement and a new edge to the academic project. Under the banner of “an intellectual home of the left”, space was created for curriculum renewal and for innovative research and outreach projects. Important social and policy issues, which had been swept under the carpet by the government of the day, thus received attention.

The university also formalised its “open” admissions policy, providing access to a growing number of African students, and paving the way for rapid growth. Despite severe constraints, students from the disadvantaged communities graduated in increasing numbers, equipped to make a professional contribution to the new South Africa. President Nelson Mandela lauded UWC for having transformed itself “from an apartheid ethnic institution to a proud national asset.”

New Order

The 1990’s were characterised on the one hand by a sense of rich achievement. UWC was able to play an impor tant role in the emergence of the new democratic order. It provided opportunities for many people to prepare for a wide spectrum of higher-level careers, and played a leading part in policy research and formulation.

UWC takes pride in the fact that so many of its senior academics and alumni found themselves in public office at all levels, a number in the national cabinet.

On the other hand the decade was marked by a strong orientation to the future. There was increased concentration on teaching and learning excellence. UWC’s research productivity now places it in the upper group of universities and technikons in the country. A thorough- going review of structures and academic programmes was also begun in the 1990s.

This has led to decisions on consolidation of effor ts, to a more interdisciplinary thrust, and to the development of programmes which offer better access to the job market and show a more direct responsiveness to issues of national importance. In the words of Professor Cecil Abrahams, Vice-Chancellor from 1995, UW C is committed to being “a Place of Quality, a Place to Grow.”

Vision of the Future

Towards the end of 2001 former UWC rector Professor Brian O’Connell assumed the Vice-Chancellorship amidst a plethora of processes to restructure the higher education system in South Africa. In 2002 the Minister of National Education mapped the future higher education landscape. One of the outcomes of the restructuring process was that UWC would retain its status as an autonomous institution.

Under the visionary leadership of its new Rector, the University is now, more than ever, challenged to demonstrate that it is capable of competing with the best and of playing a prominent role in the intellectual, social and economic life of the nation.

One of UWC’s primary concerns for the future is to use its mandate to create and maintain a sense of hope for the nation whilst helping to build an equitable and dynamic society.

A second concern is with its role in the knowledge economy. It remains committed to creating, preser ving and disseminating knowledge that is dynamic and relevant to the challenges of a modern world and a transforming society. A third concern, which is inseparable from the notions of hope and knowledge, is a concern with agency – the will and the ability to act, to be an agent of change.

A dynamic future beckons as UWC strives to remain a vibrant institution of high repute, in pursuit of excellence in teaching, learning and research. UWC believes that its strength will come from its ability to provide a nurturing space for its staff and students to grow in hope and to create and share knowledge to inform agency. ​​​​