North-West University

Founded Date

The North-West University (NWU) came into existence in 2004 following the university merger process under the direction of the then Minister of Education, Dr Kader Asmal.  NWU comprises the Mafikeng campus of the former university of Bophuthatswana, later renamed the university of the North-West, and the former Potchefstroom University for Christian Higher Education, (Afrikaans PU vir CHO) together with the Vaal Triangle campus in Vanderbijlpark, which was established in 1966, largely in response to requests by the business and industrial operations in the region.  

The Potchefstroom campus of the NWU is by far the oldest of the three merged institutions. In 1869 the Gereformeede Kerk in the small town of Burgersdorp opened a Theological college.  However, it was not restricted to aspirant minsiters. It was the Arts Department of this college opened in 1877 that was to be the forerunner of the  PU vir CHO. In 1907 this department was transferred to Potchefstroom. In 1917 thought was given to merging the college with Grey University College in Bloemfontein, which at the time was one of the constituent colleges of the University of South Africa (Unisa), but this course of action was never adopted.  In 1918 the Arts department  separated from the Theological Seminary but incorporated in its title the phrase "For Christian Higher Education". It was now independent from its parent Theological seminary in Burgersdorp.

The institution was not able to enter the federated university structure under the umbrella of Unisa as it [Unisa] was strictly non-denominational-in fact Unisa did not even offer exams for Theology. The Potchefstroom college was obliged therefore to establish a relationship with the Transvaal University College in Pretoria in order to get its syllabuses and degrees recognised. This was not a satisfactory arrangement and a lot of students went elsewhere for their studies.    If the university were to become a member of the federal system it would be necessary to relinquish its title. Therefore, in 1920 the matter was debated at the Gereformeerde synod in Colesberg and permission was given to drop the title 'For Christian Higher Education'. Consequently, in 1921 the college was incorporated with Unisa and known as the Potchefstroom University College/Kollege  (PUC-PUK) 

The  PUC   enrolled 115 students in 1921, a figure that rose in 1929 to 257, indicating the progress made. It was not all plain sailing however.  The van der Horst Commission, appointed to investigate higher education in South Africa in 1922, found that some of the faculties of the university were not up to standard (especially in the sciences). The PUC thus embarked on an ambitious programme to bring them up to the required standard.   

The PUC revealed it support for the segregationist policies of the day from an early stage-in 1944 for example, it did not support an application for an Indian applicant to study pharmacy.Many academics also helped to provide intellectual and theological foundations and arguments in favour of segregation and, later, apartheid.  

In 1951 Unisa abandonned its policy regarding strict non-denominationalism and the college was reconstituted as the PU vir CHO.   One of its academic staff members, Professor A.H.J. van der Walt went on to found the Division of External Studies at Unisa and was subsequently appointed as Principal of Unisa.  Another leading figure was Ferdinand Postma. who championed the use of Afrikaans in university circles and was a staunch member of the Broederbond-the secret society founded to advance Afrikaner political and economic interests.

 After the merger, Dr Theunis Eloff became Vice-Chancellor of the merged institution.  A graduate of the Potchefstroom institution, he was a liberal Afrikaaner with a credible political background having led the secretariat at CODESA in 1991 and 1992 and being appointed  head of administration for the Multi-Party Negotiation Process between 1993 and 1994. Eloff was responsible for the very delicate process of merging essentially a traditional and conservative Afrikaaner university with a largely dysfunctional and discredited homeland institution. (see below).

The University of Bophuthatswana (Unibo) was founded at Mafikeng in 1979 by Lucas Mangope, the then President. It had the backing of mining  corporations such as Impala Platinum operating in the homeland, but many individual residents of Bophuthatswana contributed from their own pockets to establish Unibo.  Initially, Unibo was under-resourced; many lecture rooms and offices were merely porta camps in the open veld nearby the developing town of Mmabatho.   However, the govenment later invested heavily in the university, partly to present it as a showpiece for Bophuthatswana, which was considered an illigitimate surrogate of South Africa by its many critics.  Yet  Unibo attracted a variety of staff distinctly different from those found in South Africa's universities at the time. A number of black non-South African academics (including a few South African returning exiles from African states), some post-colonial mainly British academics looking for new opportinities and a number of more radical white South African academics attracted by the possibility of a more progressive and open agenda all found employment at Unibo.  

Courses at Unibo were designed to service the Bophuthatswana civil service and educational system. They were thus practically orientated-students spent a large part of their courses engaged in work practice, which was assessed by academic staff. Further innovations included  compulsory courses in practical English and Development Studies.

The positive reputation Unibo was gaining as a more open and progressive institution began to crumble from about 1988,  coincident with wider political currents of change in South Africa.  Fundamentally, the contradictions of the homelend were becoming more glaring and academics and students began to probe and expose the liberal facade of Bophuthatswana's alleged liberal constitution. This led to protests by students which in turn generated a violent reaction from the state's security apparatus. Students were beaten, imprisoned and deported and those staff members deemed agitators were similarly deported. The campus was regulary closed and/or occupied by the police. In the end, Perhaps Unibo's only real legacy was the part  it played in the downfall of Mangope's regime; its initial and potentially important pedagogical aspects were ignored by the new government.   

The university adopted the name University of the North-West after 1994.   It was found by the new and unified Department of Education to be radically overstaffed which led to wide-scale retrenchments often of the most experienced and active lecturers and researchers.  Those few progressive academics who had not left during the 'troubles' of 1988-1994 mostly returned to South Africa to seek new opportunities and  key administrative positions were frozen. Academic life was muted; the university's publications shrank from  63 in 1996 to 4 in 2000 to 12 in 2002 and it only produced four doctoral graduates in 2000 and none in 2002. Despite the Department of Education's 'deep concern about its very small postgraduate component, its very low acredited puiblication output  and concern over the administrative viability of the institution' it was decided that it should  be kept functioning and merged with the former PU for CHE (see above). Despite many misgivings over the merger and a sense of having been relegated to a subordinate position, the incorporation of the UNW  probably saved it from closure and/or reconstitution  as a college of higher learning with no university status at all.      

In 2016 the Mafikeng campus of NWU was engulfed in violence surrounding the 'Fees Must Fall' campaign. Radical student were held responsible for unwarranted and senseless arson and destruction of property that amounted to millions of rands. In 2013  Professor N.G. Kgwadi, was appointed as Vice-Chancellor the first black incumbent in the post.    


South Africa's North-West province: A Guide to its History and Heritage. © 2017

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