For The People

SELATA: Sol Plaatje University is Five years old – but you ain’t seen anything yet!

By Patrick FitzGerald (Prof), Executive Director: Special Projects

The mandate given to me by the editor was to talk about how the Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley has progressed over the first five years of its operation. More specifically, what impact it is making on the area where it has been established – Kimberley and the Northern Cape.

As the Sowetan noted “in 2013 Professor Yunus Ballim [the current Vice-Chancellor] was the only employee… The University had no bank account… A few months before the University opened its doors in February 2014 he had to design the application form for students and employ 10 academic staff that would teach three academic programmes… He had to buy two buildings and turn them into residences and refurbish a building donated by the provincial government into teaching and office space.”

The situation in March 2019 seems a world apart. From an initial intake of 125 students in 2014, enrolment has now grown to over 2 000. The University currently employs over 400 staff (academic and support staff) and has graduated students in the degrees of Bachelor of Education, Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Commerce, Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Data Science (a unique SPU degree), as well as a number of Diploma and Certificate Programmes. In 2019 the University received its first post-graduate students entering into honours degrees and into a ground-breaking Postgraduate Diploma in Public Management aimed at empowering serving public servants in both Provincial and Local Government.The progress in terms of infrastructure is just as spectacular. The University has established three campuses in easy walking distance of each other. The North Campus, which will be primarily administrative and post-graduate, is represented by Luka Jantjie House and forms a key part of a civic precinct, including the law courts, the municipal headquarters, the art gallery and the Theatre sited on the TVET city campus. In time, the University will build on a section of the Oppenheimer Gardens creating a Great Hall and a civic square. At this point the University already provides open Wi-Fi access across the gardens which any member of the public is free to use.

The old Hoffie Park has now become SPU’s South Campus which will focus on Student Residences and sporting facilities. Sporting fields are already being redeveloped, partly with the generous assistance of Lotto funding, and the old clubhouse is being extensively refurbished to provide student community facilities as well as a multi-purpose hall.

But of course, the jewel in the crown, is the Central Campus where the bulk of the academic operations are situated. The site of the historic William Pescod School and adjacent land parcels are now beyond recognition as state-of-the-art building after building have sprung up – and more are still being built as this article is written. The flagship Moroka building, which houses student accommodation, academic offices, teaching and seminar rooms, an examination hall and academic offices, has now been joined by the customized Teaching Practice Building, the Humanities Building, the natural Science Laboratories Building and the iconic and prize-winning Library Building. Currently under construction are the laboratory buildings for the applied sciences and a further academic Science building. This completed and ongoing construction represents a significant contribution by the national fiscus and South African taxpayers to the University, to Kimberley and to the Northern Cape.

So has the University lived up to its promise in terms of a significant developmental contribution to the town and beyond? What is the impact of the University to date on the social, economic and cultural fabric of Kimberley? This impact is recent, it is changing on an annual basis and would at some stage need to be thoroughly researched and quantified. However we can already see a number of key trends emerging.

Firstly, the University had an option to establish a consolidated campus on the outskirts of Kimberley and a land parcel had been offered for that purpose – similar to the choice made by the newly established University of Mpumalanga. Instead the decision was made to integrate the University into the urban fabric of Kimberley, especially including the Central Business District – in order to enable the infrastructure and operation of the University to become a significant urban renewal project for the City. The first five-year strategic plan of the University accepts that Kimberley will not overnight become a ‘University Town’, but sets out how Sol Plaatje University will aim to become ‘a University in Town’ – enhancing the economic prospects and social quality and cohesion of central Kimberley.

Secondly, the University is on its way to becoming a major employee in the area. In terms of the political economy of a University’s operations, around 50% of the budget goes to salaries. Thus, through its employees, the University significantly contributes to the local economy in sectors such as retail, services and housing. It is sometimes forgotten that students, although not usually possessing huge disposable income, also contribute a not inconsiderable spend to local retail.

Thirdly, what remains of the operational budget after salaries, municipal rates and taxes, electricity, insurance and after other essential expenses have been settled is modest. Nonetheless there is an ongoing local spend on many smaller items such as office supplies, bottled water, accommodation of guests, functions, printing, cleaning materials and so on. Nobody is going to get rich quick from these kind of spends but they are constant and ongoing – and will gradually increase over time as the University grows to an expected 7 500 students by around 2025.

Fourthly, despite the spectacular infrastructure progress more SPU infrastructure will follow in time. Infrastructure development leads to local employment, local sourcing of materials, skills development and incubation of two local black-owned and managed construction companies, and one garden services company.

Fifthly, it should be noted that a University is always a national asset and will always benefit the country as a whole. Already at Sol Plaatje there are numbers of students from every singly province in the country. In terms of its research thrusts however, as well as in its social and community engagement, the University will primarily focus on Northern Cape challenges and issues. An exciting development is the decision to open an SPU rural centre of applied research at Carnarvon – for which purpose the provincial government has already allocated a suitable land parcel.

Sixthly, the University has already begun contributing to the cultural and intellectual life of Kimberley and environs. The regular writer’s workshops over the past few years for creative writing in local languages are a good example of this. The public lectures which increase every year and the level of analysis and debate brought about by SPU academic staff and students facilitates a new critical citizenship in the region.

Not everything that SPU had hoped to achieve has as yet been accomplished. The planned qualification in Agriculture is not yet on offer – although this is in the planning stage. On the other hand, some sectors have exceeded expectations, such as the remarkable sporting achievements of SPU teams in several of the 14 sporting codes now practiced at SPU.

From an overall perspective however, the good news is that the establishment of a University in the Northern Cape has gone much better than many people expected. The really good news is that if you think the University has already made an important contribution to the social and economic life of Kimberley and the Northern Cape – then you should strongly bear in mind that Sol Plaatje University is only just starting out. Actually, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

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