A short history of the University of Natal

This article was originally written for our ratepayers' magazine Metrobeat.

By Allan Jackson - August 2006

Howard College and Memorial Tower Building - Pic courtesy UKZN Archives.


From 1 January 2004, the University of Natal merged with University of Durban-Westville to form the University of Kwazulu-Natal. In a fascinating visit to University archives in Pietermaritzburg, I learnt that the University of Natal started out in life in 1906, when Natal University College opened in Pietermaritzburg. Lectures were held at Maritzburg College, the City Hall and the Natal Museum.

There were initially 57 students, including 8 women, and eight professors who lectured the students in classics, English, philosophy, law, modern languages, botany, geology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and zoology. In August 1912, the NUC moved into what is now known as the Old Main Building, which had been built on 16ha of land donated by the Pietermaritzburg City Council.

In 1923 the NUC began offering lectures on commerce and engineering at the Natal Technical College in Durban and these were so well attended that the NUC almost immediately realised that it would need its own premises in Durban.
In 1926, in honour of his son Howard who had died in the Battle of the Somme in World War I, prominent Durban businessman TB Davis donated £140000 towards the building of premises for the NUC.

The Town Council of Durban donated 50 acres of land in the Stella Bush for the purpose and, in 1931, Howard College was formally opened by the Earl of Clarendon, the Governor General of the Union of South Africa. All classes were soon transferred there from the Natal Technical College.

Above: Howard College on its own in the middle of the Stella Bush. Pic Courtesy Director Survey: Ethekwini Municipality.

Left: The opening of Howard College in 1931.
Pic Courtesy UKZN Archives.

Click images to view enlargements.

An aerial picture of Howard College, taken during the first air survey of Durban in early 1932, shows the building located in splendid isolation in the middle of a large bushy area. This is a far cry from the situation today when only a small remnant of that bush survives in the form of the Pigeon Valley Park.

In 1936, student numbers stood at 744, with 417 attending the College in Pietermaritzburg and 327 in Durban. By 1939 there were 858 students at the university and, for the first time, student numbers in Durban exceeded those in Pietermaritzburg.

In 1948 the NUC became the first South African university to have a full-time student advisory service. On the 15th March, 1949, the institution was accorded the status of a fully-fledged university and named the University of Natal with its first chancellor being Dennis G Shepstone.

The procession inaugurating UND as a fully-fledged university in 1949.
Pic Courtesy UKZN Archives.

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By 1953, there were so many more students attending the University in Durban, that the administrative functions were moved from Pietermaritzburg to Durban. Many of the academic staff taught in both centres and it wasn't until 1973 that the single academic departments were split and fully independent departments of law, humanities, commerce, science, education and social science, were established in each centre.

In 1959 the university had 3122 students and, by 1984, the numbers had risen to over 10000. The university became the first in South Africa with a female chancellor when it appointed Professor Brenda Gourlay to the post in 1993.
The story of the university has many threads but one of the most important was its continual struggle to be free of governmental control and to decide its own admission policies.

This picture was taken outside the City Hall at a ceremony in May 1948 in which black graduates of the university were awarded Bachelor of Education degrees. Seated in the centre in front were the Principal Dr. E.G. Malherbe and, next to him, Dr. Mabel Palmer.
Pic Courtesy UKZN Archives.

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From 1936, under the tutlelage of Dr Mabel Palmer, Black education students began to attend the NUC, although their classes were separate from those of their white fellow students. There were initially 19 black students and the numbers rose to 900 by 1960.

In 1951, the University of Natal Medical School was established but legislation was introduced by the recently-elected Nationalist government which closed it to whites. The government attempted to wrest control of the medical school from the university in 1957, but backed-off when staff threatened to resignen masse.

The opening ceremeony of the Medical School.
Pic Courtesy UKZN Archives.

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The Extension of Universities Act of 1959 limited future enrolments at the University to white students, except at Medical School. The ruling was overturned by the supreme court in 1983, and the university was once more able to enrol students of all races.

I began to attend the university the following year, when there were growing numbers of black students to be seen, and I remember the process being very smooth with no tensions or stresses evident. In my graduation year, which must have been one of the first at which blacks again graduated from the university, a popular black student, an older school teacher, received a standing ovation from the crowd when it came to his turn to receive his degree.

From the initial 57 students in 1906, the University could boast an enrolment of 27500 by 2002, of which, black students made up 80%. The university had grown into a huge institution and was soon to merge with Durban-Westville, the other university in Durban, and become even larger.

On 9th December, 2002, Kader Asmal, the minister of education, announced a plan to merge a number of higher educational institutions and thereby reduce the total number of such institutions in South Africa from 36 to 21.

Among the affected institutions were the University of Natal and the University of Durban-Westville, which were to merge. The effective date of the merger was 1st January 2004, but pre-merger planning began immediately.

It was eventually revealed that the new institution would be called the University of Kwazulu Natal and, after extensive consultation, Professor Malegapuru William Makgoba was appointed as the first Vice-Chancellor. He and Chancellor, Dr Frene Ginwala, were installed in a ceremony on 30th September 2005.

A certain amount of shuffling of departments has already taken place and more is yet to come, with the departments of Humanities, Law and Engineering to be based on the Howard College Campus, while the departments of Management Studies and Science are to be located on the Westville campus.

Among the great and the good who attended the University of Natal are Alan Paton, Steve Biko, Alec Irwin, Fatima Meer, Shamila Batohi, Jerry Coovadia, Ina Cronje, Omar Essack, Albertina Luthuli, Mamphela Ramphele, Jonty Rhodes and, of course, myself. Honorary graduates include Nelson Mandela, Roy Campbell, Abdullah Ibrahim, JM Coetzee, Helen Suzman, Mirriam Makeba, Max Sisulu and Simon Wiesenthal.

The armorial bearings of the University of Natal
Courtesy UKZN Archives.


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