I came to mock, but instead stayed to cheer
RAKPAN University” sounds funny, doesn’t it?
When Kwandile Sikhosana contacted the Stoep to tell of plans for the University of Brakpan, his message somehow bypassed my cranium and scored a direct hit on the funny bone.
I could not relate the notion “Brakpan” to the concept “university town”.
Kwandile and his partner in the Brakpan University Initiative, Ernest Waner, presumed this Joburg boy’s Brakpan geography was lacking. They said: “Let’s meet at the quarter no one can miss, Carnival City.”
Their reasoning was impeccable. You couldn’t miss it if you were on Mars. The paint industry recognises 500 colours, and the 300 brightest all feature on the walls or roof. Which merge with one another in a swirling ice cream cake, standing out like a shelf of children’s cereal boxes in a cabinet of law reports.
Ernest is a tenant, a distinctive one, with a cowboy shop. Cowboy suits, cowboy hats, cowboy boots, cowboy braces… Joburgers who think they’ve glimpsed images of the Wild West in the East Rand, are vindicated.
Striking as the surroundings were, they weren’t all that conducive to sombre discussion of improbable universities. I steeled myself to listen politely, inwardly certain that the case for Brakpan University was about as strong as Andile Mngxitama insisting he’s not a racist.
Then up came a surprisingly telling point. Ekurhuleni’s 3.2 million people contain a concentration of prospective students who live at home and can’t afford digs. Hmm.
Then another: Those who can afford digs, can’t find them. This very week, the Wits vice-chancellor was all over the media about thousands of missing beds for his students. Hmm.
Here’s another: Brakpan is sort of central (well, -ish) to the nine towns and 19 townships of Ekurhuleni. Hmm. And another: With half the nation’s factories and jobs, how weird that Ekurhuleni brain drains itself, exporting its youth for their education. Hmm. And more.
I could fill the page with “hmms”. When Ernest offers a tour of the prospective campus, my attitude of half an hour earlier is a bad memory. Can’t imagine who that was, some smug supercilious snob who thinks you must have spires and cocktail bars to deserve a university.
I tell Ernest his case is made, he needn’t push it. He’s crestfallen. I say okay then, thinking I’ll take the ride though it won’t make any difference.
And you can guess what’s next. I take the ride and it makes a difference.
Brakpan once had a delicious lake, sized to make the most of Joburg’s water points look like puddles. Now the lake is in disarray, gasping under sickly hyacinth the colour of burnt veld, shrieking to be restored to pride and beauty.
The disused lake is surrounded by 280 hectares of mainly disused municipal land. Alongside are unbelievable barely used stadiums, including an indoor one. And right before our eyes, echoing in hollowness, is what believers in a celestial plan would see as a readymade campus sent straight from heaven.
In the 1980s, when Brakpan was its own municipality and prosperous, it built magnificent civic offices. These included as classy a council chamber, now empty and desolate, as you ever saw. At the other several buildings, my mind’s eye’s leaps to the signs they will surely one day display: Faculty of Science, Faculty of Engineering, Faculty of Commerce… What a facility. What a waste. I came to mock, I stayed to cheer. For clinging to a valid cause despite turned backs, deaf ears, arrogant rudeness and smug superciliousness, Brakpan University Initiative scores a cum laude at the graduation ceremony of Valued Contributors.