By Hancu Louw
Michael Whisson: in-depth
“I think I became involved in local politics and civil matters by accident – I wasn’t looking for trouble,” says Prof Michael Whisson, perched upright, hands folded neatly in his lap.
Whisson, now retired and happily enjoying not having to keep his ear to the ground – all the time – spent the past four decades as an active citizen, involving himself in matters ranging from education to labour relations.
“I was never really a labour relations guy,” he says referring to his time working with the Institute of Race Relations in the ‘80s on codes of conduct for international companies wanting to expand in South Africa.
“Other than wanting to find a job in an interesting place, I came to South Africa from England with a clear idea of wanting to civilize the country from what it was at the time,” Whisson says, explaining his then youthful ambition to contribute to society more than by simply “doing your job.”
It’s an attribute which he developed throughout nearly 40 years spent in the Eastern Cape. It is this tendency to want to help, and get involved which he suggests fosters active citizenship.
“The ‘80s was a hot decade, and much of what I was doing was applied anthropological work in the Eastern Cape,” Whisson says, recounting some of the social issues which kept him busy over and above his official positions as Head of the Rhodes University Anthropology Department and Deputy-Dean of Arts (now Humanities).
“Well, yes, I was busy but at the time it didn’t occur to me – keeping busy in some ways may be the secret to dealing with stress,” he chuckles.
Continuously mentioning names of people he encountered along his way, he attributes much of his success to those around him. “I had a wonderful team working with me over the years,” Whisson says, emphasising the support not only of his colleagues, but also his wife and children.
“I think my involvement in the Anglican Church and the example set by my father is what inspired a sense of civic responsibility in me,” he says.
“Living as a paying guest in the rectory of an Anglican church in Woodstock while working in Cape Town I was fortunate enough to see the lives of people – very different from me – unfold in front of my eyes.” It is this interest in people and their lives which seems to underpin all of his tales.
“For my PhD field research I lived on the grounds of a school in Kenya. I offered to help, and all of a sudden the principal came to me and told me to teach the top English class with almost no resources,” he says, chuckling at the madness of it.
“A few years ago I was fortunate enough to travel around the world and managed to meet up with some of the students I taught back then.”
Officially having stepped down from all positions of office in 2012, Whisson has served in both the municipal as well as district councils and at one stage was almost elected as the Mayor of Grahamstown, losing the vote on an extremely thin margin.
He credits his close involvement in civic matters to two “big issues” in local government while he was a member of the Grahamstown Ratepayers Association. The first was the “retrench and rehire scam involving the top-brass of the Municipal Council during the transition years of 1994–1996 in which council members ensured large financial pay-outs and secured their positions in the transitional council. “I was alerted to the issue by Mike Earl Taylor, the whistle-blower, and got involved,” he says.
“The second was the construction of the by-pass (now the road connecting the N2 on the southern side of Grahamstown) along a route vastly more expensive than would have been the case had it been put on the northern side of town,” he says, labelling the debacle as a scam on the part of local government.
“There were a couple of times that I was publicly accused of being a communist,” says Whisson who when asked to define himself in one word replied: “Retired! Maverick, maybe? Dr Henderson (vice chancellor during most of my active years at Rhodes) referred to me as ‘Leader of the loyal opposition?’ on Rhodes Senate and Council, and gave equal emphasis to the adjective and the noun. He was also an excellent municipal councillor who served ‘under’ me for a brief period.”
Offering a perspective on the current state of local government, Whisson is quick to acknowledge that many of the problems are due to a severe lack of resources available to public servants. “But what worries me the most is the prevalence of a self-serving attitude amongst many public servants,” he says referring to Makana and South Africa as a whole.
“If I wasn’t retired, I’d suffer from insomnia,” this in reference to the various issues plaguing Makana Municipality; “service delivery as regards roads, water, electricity, rational/honest financial management in Makana.”
Michael Whisson: in his own words
How long have you lived in Grahamstown and what brought you to the city?
“From 1978 to date. I was invited to apply for the HOD of Anthropology. My wife had plenty of family links here, so I was happy to leave Cape Town and my position at the University of Cape Town (UCT).”
What has kept you busy over the past few years?
“Prior to real retirement in 2012, I was leader of the DA on the Makana Local Municipal Council (LMC); main party participant of the DA on Cacadu District Municipality Council (DMC); Cathedral Warden, lay minister (special duties at Fort England hospital chapel) and editor of the parish magazine; regular columnist in The Makana Moon (under the pseudonym Cock Robin) where I wrote 100 or more weekly columns; HoD of Anthropology, Dean or Deputy Dean of Arts (later Humanities); father of two bright children, now both in the media business and husband to a social worker/ nurse who is an active Quaker and serves on the Hospital Board, the ‘Half-way house’ committee.”
What motivated you to get involved in community issues?
“Long story – but the trigger was the ‘Retrench and Rehire’ scam which the Grahamstown Council tried to pull shortly before transformation and another scam which put the by-pass along a route vastly more expensive than would have been the case had it been put on the northern side of town.”
How do you think others can get involved similarly?
“Probably by progressing from ‘useful’ community involvement, of which there are many possibilities today (many within church communities), and active membership of a political party. It helps to have a secure income and family support.”
How would you describe an active citizen?
“One who is involved, and prepared to work and take office in useful organisations.”
How would you describe yourself in one word?
“Retired! Maverick maybe? Dr Henderson (vice chancellor during most of my active years at Rhodes) referred to me as ‘Leader of the loyal opposition?’ on Rhodes Senate and Council, and gave equal emphasis to the adjective and the noun. He was also an excellent municipal councillor who served ‘under’ me for a brief period.”
Who/what inspires you?
“Dunno really! Two super parents who always had confidence in me; two outstanding school teachers during my “A” level years; a bunch of great colleagues in the Anthropology Department here; some very fine clergy throughout my life; my wife, who has been a devoted community worker, and my gorgeous children who inspire me to be what they seem to believe that I am! Maybe, I’m just a lucky guy.
What’s your keep-awake issue in respect of public life in Makana?
“If I wasn’t retired, I’d suffer from insomnia – service delivery as regards roads, water, electricity, rational/honest financial management in Makana.”
Best decision you’ve made relating to this issue?
Joining the Ratepayers Association and hence the Transitional Local Council which became Makana LMC ….
What’s the one thing about you few people know?
“That I have no secrets.”