Labour of love


South Africa’s lowest paid rector is a humble man who will leave a phenomenal legacy— the establishment of Africa’s biggest and most advanced academic life sciences building.

Professor Brian O’Connell has spent many years in the field of education and has been one of our transformation icons who dedicated his life to the improvement and emancipation of the lives of many young South Africans on their paths to empowerment. Recently, he has received an honorary award for his achievements in linking business and academia. 

O’Connell is well-known in the South African education arena. Being rector at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), chairperson and patron to a long list of community and charitable organisations, as well as a role model to the youth, O’Connell continues to be a champion of transformation and an asset on the South African road to emancipation and empowerment. 

His commitment to his work and the institution has reaped the rewards of a hard-earned “labour of love” (as he calls it), and has recently earned him an honorary decoration from Her Royal Highness Princess Astrid of Belgium on matters connecting business and academia after a Belgian trade delegation visited UWC in an effort to explore new ways to link business and academia across the two nations.

Next year, the University of the Western Cape will say farewell to one of its most prolific characters — the man who has brought the establishment out of the clutches of bankruptcy and well on its way to becoming one of South Africa’s top ranking tertiary education institutions. 

O’Connell shared with us some of his views on education and transformation in South Africa and adds hopeful insight into dilemmas we are currently facing as a nation. 

Brian O’Connell was born in Roger Street, District 6, and spent his younger days attending the Holy Cross Catholic family school and attended high school at Columbus High, a Catholic school in Athlone. He recalls his time there as being surrounded by a wonderful assortment of people. “District 6 was a wonderful place to grow up — I’ve learnt so much there. Across the road from us there was a very pious man and he taught us about piety and about caring. Next to him was a butcher shop. Next to him was a brothel, so you learn to live in that space and you learn to not make judgements about people and embrace them as they are. So the neighbourhood was relatively rich. It was a wonderful, warm environment.”

A man with insight

The nuns and proprietors at these Catholic schools instilled in him a deep rooted love of discipline and also provided him with good insight into the world. This experience was coupled with an enthusiastic and successful sporting career in his younger days when O’Connell  among others, played for the provincial under 15 and under 17 soccer teams. He was also a Western Province School’s discus campion and captain for Western Province cricket back in 1967. He jokingly adds that, “Wherever there was a ball or something that was moving, I would chase it.”

Though his love for sports was a prevalent pastime in his younger days, today we would seldom find him watching sport. “I used to be a sport fanatic when I was growing up. Part of my current understanding of sport is that if you attach yourself too much to a particular side, you’ve got to invest that energy. It’s 90 minutes of agony, so I decided to dispense of 90 minutes of agony, and read books instead,” he says. 

Spending a lot of time in front of his books, O’Connell confesses to being a literature lover of various genres ranging from Agatha Christie’s mystery novels to more serious reading focussing on the understanding of communities and risk, among others. 

As for other pastimes, he says leading UWC is a “full-time job”, but that he also takes up the role of chairperson for a number of organisations and societies including the Institute of Justice and Reconciliation and the Local Community Chest. His humanitarian side also shows here as he tells us about the work he has been doing as patron for Dignity South Africa, an organisation that provides support to those who are in pain or dying. He also mentions being a patron at PAL, an organisation that provides training for principals, a role he is all too familiar with having been a teacher and principal himself back in the day. 

O’Connell describes his family life as very grounded. He refers to his wife as the rock of family and regards his two children as respectful, considerate youth. “I like my children,” he adds with a grin that betrays a father’s affection.

He makes no secret of his passion for engaging with people — especially the youth. Although he is delighted at the culture that is arising from the post-94 group in terms of their newfound confidence to assert themselves, he believes the education system is still severely lacking in properly equipping them with the relevant skills to function in today’s world with all its challenges. 

As the author of quite a few published works, he makes reference to one piece of writing that he feels has significance in terms of reflecting on our education system through the eyes of transformation. In 1989 he wrote a paper entitled Education and Transformation, for a conference in England organised by the ANC. He argued that when looking at the current state people find themselves in, they often look at it from “a view from the ground”. He feels that this creates a skewed image of how things truly are.

“If you believe that looking at SA, it’s a whole new conception of caring that is being fashioned in the form that the struggle took, and a whole new understanding of the significance of knowledge is being fostered among the masses, you would be completely wrong. The reasons are that schools were not operating and there was no respect any longer for the learning process, because we were in combat with the apartheid schooling system. So what we were doing was simply iconoclastic, we were simply breaking down,” he adds.

O’Connell says we have not yet developed a culture in education that can make its way in the 21st century, as we still need to embrace current issues such as global warming, for starters. He says we should place more emphasis on intellectual, moral and ethical caring in a humanitarian way as the world is expanding, if we don’t want to end up facing a war against ourselves. 

“Schools are not able to give the students the stimulation and perhaps the right mindset. They are not connecting the knowledge project with the project of life.”

As for UWC, there seems to be a lot of hope. He points out that the students, and especially the women, are getting ahead and setting the example for others to follow. 

“They are open, they are easy to speak to and speak with, and they are not hesitant to express their opinions. But they are also beginning to learn that the acquisition of knowledge is very hard work. So they are beginning to put in the hours, they are signing up for extra courses and for extra hours of teaching. All those kinds of things are beginning to happen — and it’s being led by the women. 

“The problem with the male students seems to be that they are too concerned about each other. The women simply get down to it and regardless what the issue or problem is, they tackle it. And they tackle it. If you look at our graduations and you see a masters in physics, cum laude, 9 out of 10 times it’s a women. So the women are getting it,” O’Connell adds. 

When reflecting on how today’s environment has changed compared to his own experience when he was a student, he could not deny the fact that the technological advances of the last 30 years have made what is experienced today vastly different. 

“The pace at which development is taking place, demands of us to be very different and very special in today’s world, because we are sitting in a space where a significant transition is taking place. From a world in which we have a fair amount of control, to a world where everything is dark and puzzling. There are seven billion people on the planet and we are struggling with water. How do we understand this? How are we going to deal with global warming? What are  the dangers there, what are the warning signs — and are  we preparing for that? 

“We are the generation that has to make the transition. So we are the third most important generation that has ever lived. Yet now, everything is suddenly becoming very complicated and we find ourselves in a position where we need to be as great as those generations who made the transitions before us — the hominids and the scientists of the 16th and 17th century, otherwise we are going to kill each other.

“People need to hold onto what it means to be human. That majestic thing that we embarked on, to not be at odds with one another, to care about other humans — without that, the only power that matters is raw power, the strength that we have, the guns and knives we have. We are on a trajectory to that end, if we don’t find ways to remain humane, while we also find innovations to help us deal with these matters. Can you imagine that mankind in the future, if we have a future, depends on how we handle this transition? On this campus, here on this planet, we have a very special role,” says O’Connell. 

As for the legacy he will be leaving behind, it must rightly be acknowledged as one of Africa’s jewels. O’Connell has had great success in securing the university with one of Africa’s top life science centres. He places a strong emphasis on empowering the youth through science and today the centre, which cost a shy R500 million, has some of the continents top students engaging with science on a level that has previously been but an ideal. 

“I said I wanted to build the largest life sciences building in South Africa. It had to be for science and it had to be large. When we started, I said the centre has to speak to us. My vision was to get thousands of young people into these buildings so that they could leave with good degrees and go back into the community with knowledge. The next time a virus like HIV comes, we do not have to listen to politicians or to the press. We can listen to our own brothers and sisters explaining to us what the virus is. They will be empowered with knowledge and  will be able to take full ownership of the space we’re in.

“This space is our space. We are speaking of a feud in space. And I will refer to black, and white, and coloured as adjectives. I want to say, why can’t you think of yourself as someone who occupies a particular space and align yourself with that particular space? So this here [the life sciences centre], this is for the students, and this is my space too. 

“For ownership of space, it should not be about skin colour — whether you’re black or coloured, it is about who is in that space. If you live in Mannenberg, why can’t it be clean? Why can’t we say we will not litter in Mannenberg? Why can’t we find ways to engage with the gangs in Mannenberg as a community? 

“We can tell them that we know what they are doing. We can tell them why they are doing it (because they want to get resources) and we can tell them that although they might not have an education, we can all still work together.”

Brian O’Connell is not only an orator when it comes to innovative solutions, but he has also been involved with numerous programmes that have successfully borne fruit during this time of global instability.

“Humankind has always been in the business of exchanging, be it bartering or capitalism. Without the best possible knowledge, you can make very, very bad mistakes. It is the saddest thing imaginable to have passion, and to commit to the wrong thing because you don’t know. What Belgium did for us, was give us ten years of support — R7 million a year to develop our Humanities and our Social Sciences, in collaboration with five European universities. They have become part of us. 

“They are now also moving into the arena of business and looking to see if what works educationally can work for business as well. They have helped us become the university we are now, and we can take that further and also translate that to the business side of things. Thereby we grow the economies between Belgium and South Africa,” he says. 

Though he acknowledges that there will be no hesitation from his side to assist the university should he be asked, after his retirement, to do so. He says one of his biggest strengths are project fund raising and believes he will be able to continue adding value to the university in this capacity. 

His insights and role as leader and role model is today seeing the rise of a new breed of qualified South Africans from groups that would never have claimed this title before. 

O’Connell stands firmly behind his ideals of ownership and non-conformity and believes that we are one of continent’s last hopes in the quest for establishing a grounded African identity.

He concludes our interview with a few words of wisdom to bear in mind when looking at South Africa and the issues we are dealing with:  “Fighting is not the answer, and you have to remember, you are never alone in what you are trying to achieve.” 

Michael Meiring


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