MACE 2010

Features

Bridge builder

Yunus Ballim By Tara Turkington

Professor Yunus Ballim, Wits University’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, grew up on the streets of Kliptown, Soweto, in the days before forced removals in the early 1970s displaced coloured, Indian, Chinese and white families from the area.

Born in the 1950s to a mother classified as coloured and a father classified as Indian, Ballim had a tough early life – but it left him with some useful, if quirky, skills. “I’m still a competent chopstick-user, which I learnt in Kliptown (due to the Chinese influence),” Ballim laughs, sitting in his Senate House office, which overlooks Johannesburg’s leafy northern suburbs.

Ballim was the only one of four siblings to be educated past Standard 8 (Grade 10). Although science was not part of the curriculum at his school, he knew he wanted to be an engineer from an early age. “They said I stayed in school because I was scared of the streets,” he jokes. “It was a very violent environment – you had to have a knife in your pocket and you fell under the protectorate of a gang.”

He partly educated himself through reading. “There was nothing called a library in Kliptown, but there was always a supply of good books,” he remembers. “Although education wasn’t rich, politics was.” Black Panther literature was always available to those who sought it out. He also read Angela Davis, Eldridge Cleaver and Mao’s Little Red Book, among others.

“I grew up with bright people,” says Ballim. “I also grew up with an abiding sense of the effect that social conditions have on one’s life, and on people’s ability to make choices, and the fact that intellectual achievement is not influenced by race. Given half a chance, many of the people I grew up with could have become brilliant academics.”

No doubt Ballim’s hard, early years on Soweto’s streets helped make him the people’s person he is today. His personal assistant, Thulisile Mbatha, says, “It is a privilege for me to work with Professor Ballim. To me, he is more of a mentor than a boss. He is not a formal person – we always laugh in our office. If someone comes to our office in tears, they always leave laughing!”

Mbatha says Ballim still has a yearning for learning. “Learning is an important part of his life – he always encourages me to read, read and read!”

Her boss is a conciliator, she adds: “He puts people at ease and makes it comfortable for you to express your misgivings. He is a humble man with an inviting spirit.”

So is there anything that makes the easy-going Deputy Vice-Chancellor angry? Ballim thinks hard about the question, then answers, “My pet hate is the abuse of power. I don’t take kindly to purist arguments – ones that push my race, my culture, my gender. I am an enemy of the pure.”

On completing school, Ballim worked as a button-dyer at Rand Buttons in Fordsburg while studying science from textbooks and with the twice-weekly help of a Wits tutor, Mr Cohen. In this way, he passed his National Senior Certificate exams in science and was subsequently accepted into Wits.

Ballim had worked in his grandmother’s grocery shop since the age of 11 and the earnings he had saved paid for his first two years at university. He won a bursary for his third and fourth years from D&H Construction (now Group 5).

But true to his Kliptown upbringing, Ballim also learnt plenty outside the classroom at Wits. He was politically active and was arrested in 1981 for burning the South African flag on campus. “Two young white policemen banged on the door at 2.30am, handcuffed me and put me in a car,” he says.

The policemen conceded to cuffing his hands in front of him rather than behind his back because, they said, he looked like a decent guy – a judgement based purely on the fact that he had short hair. He has kept his hair short ever since.

He was jailed for a few days. “It was a frightening experience,” he recalls. “But it left me with a sense of how much we had overestimated the security forces. The security apparatus was all about sheer brutishness and not intellectual thought. In some ways, (those policemen) were reluctant fascists. There was a sense of the Pinkster kerk (a Calvinist offshoot of the Dutch Reformed Church) about them.”

Ballim did not let his political activities distract him from his studies and, after graduating with a BSc in civil engineering, he worked as a site engineer on bridges and projects like the Daspoort Cutting near Hartbeespoort, which he can now see from his office window on a clear day.

Ballim returned to Wits for a Masters degree in engineering, followed by a PhD in cement-based materials, a subject he continues to research. After graduating, he spent some time in the corporate sector, but was offered a job as a lecturer in construction materials in 1992, becoming an Associate Professor in Construction Materials in 1999, and later head of the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He was appointed to his current position in 2006.

Ballim still maintains a research laboratory at the University, supervises postgraduate students and teaches occasionally. He has strong research relationships with the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, and the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Cape Town.

While a postgraduate student, Ballim met his wife, Naseera Ali, who was also a student at Wits and is now an advocate.

“One of the first things that struck me about Yunus when we met was his focus – and that has not changed,” says Ali. “He has worked very hard consulting, lecturing and working in his lab. Time spent with his family is pure quality time, and our kids look up to him as a role model. Through him, they see that you have to work hard in order to achieve success.”

Much of Ballim’s recent work revolves around the University’s strategic Teaching and Learning Plan, which he developed in 2009 in consultation with his colleagues.

The South African educational landscape is troubled, he notes. “There is a strong need to improve both the quality and quantity of graduates.

“The high demand for greater access (to university) is beset with problems – our high school education ranks among the lowest in the world. The minds are fine, but the preparedness is not good. The content is not bad, but the habits of mind are not adequately developed: critical reasoning; reading; engaging critically with everyday experiences; seeing the unfamiliar in the everyday – we have an inability to deal with the unfamiliar.”

While noting that universities could better prepare students for the workplace, he argues that “the purpose of university education goes beyond access to the middle class, jobs and skills. It is also about developing citizens. Part of being a graduate is the opportunity to engage with others and see the world through the eyes of the other. New students are expected to arrive with old prejudices, and we will have failed them if they leave with them.”

In response to pressure to provide access to more students, Wits has been through a period of remarkable student growth which has seen enrolment increase from 18 000 students in 2000, to 28 000 in 2009. This is expected to level off at 29 000 in 2014.

The growth in student numbers has necessitated R1,2-billion being spent on expanding the University’s infrastructure.

On the home front, Ballim says he often finds inspiration in nature. He loves hiking and enjoys fishing, birding and germinating acacia trees from seeds he picks up on walks (although he confesses he’s had less success with these than he would like).

He has an eclectic taste in music (often played at high volume – his family is grateful for his recent acquisition of an iPod), reads widely (the way religion shapes society is a particular interest), and he is passionate about cricket.

Ballim also loves spending time with his family: his wife, daughter Faeeza, who has just won a scholarship to Oxford University; son Imraan, who is in his first year at Wits; and younger daughter, Razia.

Faeeza is gently mocking of her father. “His outlook on life was partly formed, I think, by the Westerns he watched as a child,” she says. “Some of his ideas sound like they could have come out of the mouth of a character of one those films. For example, he places high value on property, even when demand for it is otherwise low. This makes me think of the dusty pioneer in the midwest staking out a piece of barren land which, in later years, eventually becomes a town. I also remember him building things like furniture or fixing things around the house for us, which fits in with scenes of people building their own houses and other equipment they might need in Westerns.”

While Ballim’s passion for construction may amuse his daughter, it is one of her father’s core strengths. For Yunus Ballim is a builder of bridges – of both the physical and the people kind.