75 momentous years...a snapshot of the University of the Witwatersrand


The birth of the University of the Witwatersrand was nothing if not laboured...from the time that the South African School of Mines moved from Kimberley to Johannesburg in 1904, it was to be another 18 years before the burgeoning 'Transvaal University College' was finally granted university status. The inauguration ceremony on 4 October 1922 was star-studded with the Chancellor, HRH Prince Arthur of Connaught, officiating and an honorary degree conferred upon General Smuts, among others.

Academic recognition came early on; it was at the beginning of 1925 that Professor Raymond Dart was congratulated "...on the valuable services rendered by him to Science in connection with the discovery of the Taung Skull...".

From the 1932 appeal...

"The University is the creation of the citizens of Johannesburg, of the Witwatersrand and of the country as a whole. It exists to serve those citizens. It has a proud record of achievement despite its brief history. Its hopes for the future justify it in asking, without apology, for your help in its important task."

  The 1930s

The 1930s saw both construction and destruction. The well known facade of the Central Block already dominated the top of the campus but behind lay 'makeshift constructions' which housed the library. A fire on Christmas Eve in 1931 destroyed "...a library of almost priceless value...and irreplaceable documents and research material vanished for ever." An appeal to the public for 80 000 pounds for 'YOUR UNIVERSITY' led to the relatively rapid construction of the William Cullen Library. Once again the Johannesburg community had opened its hearts - and purses - to the University.

In spite of these setbacks notable academic activity continued unabated. Bernard Vilakazi was the first black person to be awarded a DLitt, and was described as the greatest of Zulu poets.

The 1940s and the 50s

South Africans from all walks of life were welcome at the University - moving on to the 1940s, the LLB class of 1949 included many luminaries, not the least our President.

People will remember too the opening of the Great Hall and the Hillman Building - and the wartime years. The Bernard Price Institute of Geophysical Research was placed under Defence auspices and invaluable research on the use of radar completed. An elite force of women soldiers trained on the campus, marching near the swimming pool which had been built the decade before. Student numbers swelled dramatically after World War II and great development took place, from the construction of the Faculty of Architecture's building in 1951 to the Dental Hospital and the Physics Building.

Wits in the 1960s

The 60s dawned with enforced racial separation at universities. Students and staff protested continually, many being arrested or banned. As part of its sustained and public protest, the University community gathered for the unveiling of a plaque dedicated to the restoration of autonomy. "...It is our duty to uphold the principle that a university is a place where men and women, without regard to race and colour, are welcome to join in the acquisition and advancement of knowledge..."

This decade also saw the University achieving another first - the installation in 1961 of the first IBM mainframe computer at a South African University.

  The 1970s

With the 70s came more protest. A stark reminder of the nightmare of Sharpeville was constructed on the Library Lawns. Staff and students demonstrated their abhorrence of the sweeping apartheid laws.

The University was 50 years old in 1972. At this time both Jubilee Hall and the Wartenweiler Library were constructed. There were also further technological developments including the opening of the Tandem Accelerator, the first - and only - nuclear facility at a university in South Africa.

And so to the 1980s...

Apartheid laws began to show chinks in their armour and slowly students of all colours were being admitted. As early as 1981 bridging classes were being run. The Wits Theatre saw the light of day in the 80s. And the University doubled in size with the acquisition of the Showgrounds. There was a flurry of activity as pavilions became lecture theatres and hamburger stands were demolished. Public generosity led to the erection of the Chamber of Mines Engineering Building - and the East and West campuses were united by the AMIC deck constructed over the motorway.

The changes and challenges of the 1990s  

Now the University is in its 70th decade.

The 1990s will obviously be remembered as a time of great change. The President found himself on the Wits campus after a long absence - he was awarded an honorary degree in 1991. Students still protest; their actions are now focused upon the universities themselves, but may they continue to be the conscience of the nation.

And what of the future? Wits will continue to be one of the world's great universities and will continue to seek the support of its community, support that has seen it through so many tumultuous years. We intend to showcase our efforts, research and endeavours at an Open Day celebration to be held on 10 May 1997.

We invite you all to share our history and our vision for the future.

Placed December 1996. Enquiries about this page to 086wits@atlas.wits.ac.za

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