Varsity druks 'n pit to Verwoerd with new faculty
In a step towards correcting racist spatial planning, UWC opens a building in the Bellville CBD
The footprint of apartheid spatial planning in Cape Town is alive and kicking, with the vast majority of the workforce living in far-flung areas away from job opportunities. A strained public transport system and infuriating congestion have for decades had planners scratching their heads and asking: is it feasible to bring housing closer to the city centre, or is it better to create housing and job opportunities closer to where people already live?
That’s where urban renewal comes in, and this week Bellville in Cape Town had a major milestone laid down when the University of the Western Cape opened its new health science building in the very heart of the community.
The 10-storey state-of-the art building is in Bellville’s central business district, in the old Jan S Marais Hospital.
For now, the building is only an educational space but will later offer healthcare services to the public. It has four nursing laboratories that simulate hospital ward environments, a rehabilitation gym for the occupational therapy and physiotherapy departments, and natural-medicine labs with treatment rooms and dispensaries.
There are also top-of-the-range computer labs, a staff canteen and multifaith prayer rooms.
“There are many examples of universities that are embedded within communities or occupy a central status within a town,” said UWC vice-chancellor Professor Tyrone Pretorius.
“These universities and their towns feed off each other, and their fates and fortunes are interconnected. This is what we envision for UWC, and this is therefore a significant milestone for us.”
This comes almost six decades after the university’s first students stepped onto the main campus during an era in which that seemingly indelible footprint of apartheid was the main policy of all planning behind the doors of government offices. The university was built in an area as disconnected from the city’s hub as the University of Cape Town was built right by the slopes of the iconic mountain.
At the opening was minister of higher education and training Naledi Pandor, who told those gathered: “The opening of this building provides a strong lesson for all of us: you don’t have to let your past determine your future. We determine the fate of our lives, and of our country – and when we own that, we can achieve great things. I see this university owning its fate.
“The first students to enroll at the University College of the Western Cape (as it was then known) would almost certainly be watching us in awe. And the apartheid architects who dreamt up a university for coloured people and stuck it on the Cape Flats could never have imagined your spirit and resilience. I’m sure, wherever he is, Dr Hendrik Verwoerd must be turning in his grave.”
According to faculty dean Professor Anthea Rhoda, the new campus in the heart of Bellville not only fuels urban renewal efforts, but also encourages students to “become better community partners”.
The former Jan S Marais Hospital itself had an interesting history. It was the first private hospital built in the Western Cape, and it went on to become the first private hospital that would admit people of colour during the entrenched racism of apartheid.
For the architect, Lisa Doucha, the nature of the existing building necessitated an innovative approach to repurposing every space.
“We had to find creative solutions to fit in all the areas from the brief.”
The building will house four UWC departments: physiotherapy; occupational therapy; the school of nursing; and the school of natural medicine. Several classes still be given on the main campus on Robert Sobukwe Road.
Warren Hewitt, CEO of the Greater Tygerberg Partnership, which is spearheading urban renewal in the area, said: “With this step we are moving away from the old ivory-tower model of universities, where the activities of academics take place in their own world, far from regular people. We are taking a step outside, a step to what we might call an open campus.”