Above is the full, 28-minute podcast, and below is the edited, five-minute interview that was broadcast on SAfm.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Every Wednesday I have what I call the Wednesday conversation. This time I had a chat with Professor Adam Habib, who is the vice-chancellor at Wits University.
ADAM HABIB: There is no doubt that my arrival as vice-chancellor at Wits was largely fortuitous and by chance. If you like, my career is one by accident.
I land up in a position. My whole CV is of historical circumstances, some of which may be because of hard work, but much of it has to do with chance and circumstances at a particular moment.
I started off studying at Natal University in Pietermaritzburg, and came to Wits for my Honours. Really I came to Wits largely for a personal reason. My family didn’t like the woman who is currently my wife, and her family didn’t like me. So we effectively went to Johannesburg, and Wits seemed to be the logical place.
Then, after we studied here, we went back and got married and she went to work and I went back to Natal and started working at the University of Durban-Westville. That, if you like, politicised me about universities, the great potential of universities to transform people’s lives. But the big challenge is around transforming universities. That’s how I became an academic.
I had my Masters, was teaching, went to the United States to do a PhD. I think that was very important in broadening my horizons and making me think about these challenges, which are not local, but global, and the importance of being part of a global community.
I returned and worked at the University of Durban-Westville. Then I went to the University of KwaZulu-Natal and led the sector for civil society as a research director.
After that I went to the Human Sciences Research Council and led the Democracy and Governance Programme there. Then I became the deputy voice-chancellor at the University of Johannesburg. I then came to Wits University.
So if you like, it’s quite a fortuitous route, some of it by chance, some of it by design. But that’s how I came to Wits University. It wasn’t planned in any way. When I was entering university, initially I was going into medicine. Then I decided that actually wasn’t for me. I went into a Bachelor of Arts programme with a view to becoming a lawyer, and got put off that because I had to learn Latin, and particularly Afrikaans. So I didn’t do that and I landed up doing Honours in political science.
So half of it has been by chance, half of it by how things evolved. But it was by no means in any way a planned arrangement.
NASTASSIA ARENDSE: Wat was your childhood like? At that time it was a different dispensation, a different South Africa. What are some of the fondest memories that come to mind when you think of your childhood?
ADAM HABIB: My childhood was kind of odd in a lot of ways. I grew up in a kind of middle-class Indian family in a little town called Pietermaritzburg. Pietermaritzburg in those days was a little town.
Perhaps one of the most traumatic things in my earlier childhood was the fact that my mom died when I was ten years old. So that actually meant that I grew up without a mother. You sometimes only realise in later life how that impacts you, the little things of not having a mother, not being able to talk to her, without her being able to look after you. It’s fair to say that my extended family, my father’s sisters, etc, did a lot to bring me up, and they went out of their way to be fantastic. But the fact that my mother died at such a young age scarred me in ways that I only understand now. I was always worried when my kids were born that what had happened to me mustn’t happen to them. They mustn’t have to grow up not having a parent from the age of ten years. It haunted me for a long period of time. So that was kind of the one scarring.
The positive side was it was lovely to grow up in a small town. If you grow up in a small town, you know everybody, everybody knows you. There is no anonymity. But it was also extenuated by the fact that we also grew up in racialised communities. So when I grew up as a young man in my school there wasn’t a single person other than Indians, and that’s with whom I interacted. The first time I met students on equal terms who were white or African was largely at university. It completely created a racialised environment. You lived in a cocoon. You didn’t know the world existed.
The most dramatic political episode in my young life was in 1980, when I went to high school. We had a massive boycott, largely protesting with students in high schools in the Western Cape and in Natal – largely coloured and Indian students. That was the first time I became political, the first time I learned about Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko. I suddenly began to realise that the world we lived in was not a real world. Large parts of our population were separated from each other. It was my first political conscientisation experiment.