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Recreating Cape Town

Margo Russell talks to Robin Cohen about the changing face of Cape Town University

The door to the dean's office stands open. Accessibility is one of Robin Cohen's strengths as the new dean of humanities at the University of Cape Town. He is busy dashing off an email to the finance office urging the immediate release of funding to pay for extra staff for the unexpectedly big intake of first-year students - about 1,000 on the humanities foundation course, almost 300 more than expected. Students are sitting in the aisles of the lecture halls. "It's madness and furthermore it's against fire regulations," he says.

The overcrowded classes, however, are more a cause for celebration than concern. The unexpected bulge is of students who, in their school finals, all bettered the minimum that guaranteed them a university place. It is also an indication of the university's pulling power against regional competition from the glamorous University of Stellenbosch (25 miles away and still 84 per cent white) and the radical University of the Western Cape (15 miles away and 1 per cent white). Just over half the students at Cape Town are white, down from three-quarters in 1988, but still well above their fair share since they represent only 11 per cent of the population.

Despite a university recruitment team working full-time at black schools in an effort to redress the imbalance, Africans (as distinct from coloureds and Indians) still constitute only one-quarter of the student body. And recently, whites, pleading non-racism, have been gate-crashing the alternative admissions scheme designed for disadvantaged blacks.

Cohen has been dean at Cape Town for 11 months, on loan from the University of Warwick where he has been professor of sociology for the past 20 years. Born in Johannesburg in 1944, he is the second son of an uneducated but successful Lithuanian immigrant father and an educated Afrikaans-speaking Jewish miller's daughter with a law degree. His elder brother is Stan Cohen, the distinguished criminologist. He graduated with a first-class politics degree from the University of Wi****ersrand in 1964. At Wits he helped to run the progressive campus night school, teaching everything from literacy to A levels to some 300 African workers. It was "a powerful experience" and a stark contrast to his first job in London in 1965 teaching drama to resentful working-class boys in East Ham. Why drama? "I had aspirations to be an actor," he confesses, claiming to be "a bit of a drama queen" on the lecture platform.

After two years doing a masters at the London School of Economics, he decided in 1966, as a "committed pan-Africanist" and a Commonwealth scholar, to study the African working class in Nigeria for his PhD. Despite the war there, he found Nigeria "wonderfully liberating". Nigerians were, to his surprise, "very comfortable with their skins", although initially suspicious of him as a white South African. It was an intellectually stimulating time. He got his PhD, on the role of Nigerian labour in politics, from Birmingham in 1971 and his thesis was published by Heinemann in 1974. Over the next five years, his reputation as an informed radical analyst of labour in Africa grew with a string of papers in prominent journals and collections.

In 1977 he was appointed professor of sociology at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, but says he was too young and found it difficult to carry authority with his elders, who were in more junior positions. He had a British passport, but people could see from his CV that he was South African. "Once again I had that initial problem - 'What the hell is this person here for?' It took a little while for people to accept me. They were anxious until a colleague from Tobago, very into Black Power, legitimated me."

It was in Trinidad in 1979 that Jack Butterworth, then vice-chancellor of Warwick, recruited Cohen to a chair in sociology. "He was out for some Commonwealth do and knocked on my door."

Cohen says of Butterworth: "He was a visionary with tremendous power and authority. He was not particularly liked - E. P. Thompson denounced him as a capitalist hyena - but he was able to establish Warwick on business principles, maximising income and selling services. I was very much part of that period, very much pioneering. It suited my personality."

Cohen's recent writing has been dominated by a passionate interest in international migration, about which he has written three books and more than a dozen major papers. His latest publications are on the sociology of globalisation. He argues that discussions of globalisation are often dominated by "inconclusive and boring trade flow data" that are "sociologically inert". "Global sociology will come alive when we get rich descriptions of transnational communities, diasporas and global social movements," he says. He has also just published an edited collection on cosmopolitanism, which he calls "the opposite of multiculturalism". "Strong assertions of cultural identity are uncomfortably like the old apartheid with its ethnic segmentation. It's time historically to say what people share, not how they differ," he says. "One of the limitations of the South African settlement is the notion of the rainbow nation."

After 20 years at Warwick, Cohen was looking for a change and a challenge. South Africa - never far from his thoughts (he worked on three books on the political struggle in the 1980s) - was now a possibility. Since his brief attachment at the University of Cape Town in 1996, he was pining to return. To his delight Warwick said: "Go for four years and we'll keep your job open."

He notes with a wry smile that he started work on April Fool's Day, 2001. He found a faculty demoralised and disheartened by the many changes that had been foisted on them, not least the merger of five previously small, coherent faculties to form the new faculty of humanities. The most distressing aspect of the merger had been the requirement, with almost immediate effect, to introduce new vocationally focused "programmes". This mammoth task had absorbed hundreds of ultimately futile hours designing new curricula, most of which nobody wanted. Most programmes are now being phased out in the face of falling student demand. Had programmes been a directive from the government?

"Not exactly," Cohen says. "It was more a sort of hint from the government. It is something very bad in the university system here. There is an attempt to try to second guess government hints. Part of the old apartheid logic has been carried over: they pay our wages, they can tell us what to do. There was a kind of obedience level that certainly would not be acceptable in the United States, although British universities were quite compliant under Margaret Thatcher."

This stance is changing, and decisions such as the merger proposals are being questioned. Jobs have been explicitly threatened by changes to the university's structure, particularly by pressure to change the university's racial profile. This is not an easy problem to solve, given the shortage and the mobility of black staff.

"We've lost 18 key black staff - and I refer here to very senior people - in the past three years," Cohen says. "We just cannot hold on to them."

To cap it all the faculty had been without a permanent dean for a year, the first appointee having resigned after 13 months in the face of the staff's mounting anger and management intransigence. Cohen sympathises with his predecessor's "impossible situation", saying he tried to deliver to both sides.

Cohen has chosen instead to declare his hand. "If it is a choice between what is in the faculty's interest and what is purported to be in the university's interest, I take the faculty's side. What is good for humanities is good for the university."

But is a short-term outsider such as himself the best person to run the university's biggest faculty? Yes, he says, precisely because he has neither obligations to those in power nor personal long-term ambitions to rise in the system. He is free to put the faculty first.

He is happy to be in what he thinks is the best university in South Africa - "judged on their research output" - but scoffs at the idea that it comes anywhere close to Oxford or Cambridge or Princeton. "The Harvard of Africa, maybe. But I'd say it was like a good civic university in Britain - better than Bradford, not as good as Bristol."

Harking back to his drama days, he says he wants his legacy to the university to be the film school, but he recognises that, as the "new kid on the block", he is having to be pushy to leave his mark. "I have to elbow out some who have been in the queue for years. I have to stamp my foot. But I like that part of the job."

Margo Russell is a retired sociology lecturer.

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