Poverty should be no bar to ed­u­ca­tion, says Muthwa

Business Day - - IN-DEPTH - Heather Dug­more

The world’s only univer­sity to carry Nel­son Man­dela’s name ap­pointed its first fe­male vicechan­cel­lor and its first black African fe­male vice-chan­cel­lor, Sibongile Muthwa, in Oc­to­ber.

Muthwa grew up in Um­bum­bulu, in south­ern KwaZulu-Natal.

“My love of read­ing came from my grand­fa­ther, who had taught him­self to read. My fa­ther was a teacher and my mother a nurse, but grow­ing up we spent most of our time with our grand­par­ents and I was par­tic­u­larly close to my grand­fa­ther,” Muthwa says.

“Um­bum­bulu was much more ru­ral then; today, like many ru­ral ar­eas in postapartheid SA, peo­ple have ac­cess to run­ning wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, tele­vi­sion and many forms of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy. But when I grew up, old news­pa­pers were our main source of news, and, as the say­ing goes, ‘news is not old if you haven’t read it yet’.”

Be­cause of the sac­ri­fices of her fam­ily and com­mu­nity lead­ers who be­lieved in her as a young child, she was able to ac­cess an ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tion, in­clud­ing school­ing at Sa­cred Heart Sec­ondary School in Veru­lam, KwaZulu-Natal.

“My jour­ney has in­spired my com­mit­ment to con­trib­ute to chang­ing the tra­jec­tory of ev­ery young per­son whose life I have the priv­i­lege to touch,” she says.

Muthwa holds a PhD from the School of Ori­en­tal and African Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of London, an MSc in de­vel­op­ment pol­icy and planning from the London School of Eco­nom­ics, a BA hon­ours from Wits Univer­sity and a BA in so­cial work from the Univer­sity of Fort Hare.

From 1999 to 2004, she was the di­rec­tor of the Fort Hare In­sti­tute of Gov­ern­ment. Muthwa served as direc­tor­gen­eral of the East­ern Cape gov­ern­ment from 2004 to 2010 and was deputy vicechan­cel­lor for in­sti­tu­tional sup­port at Nel­son Man­dela Univer­sity un­til 2016, when she was also act­ing vice-chan­cel­lor and demon­strated her abil­ity to man­age com­plex, volatile dy­nam­ics with skill, com­pas­sion and courage.

She takes over from Der­rick Swartz, who has served the in­sti­tu­tion for two suc­ces­sive terms since 2007. Swartz says Muthwa’s ap­point­ment is a his­toric mo­ment in the life of the univer­sity.

“It is an ex­ceed­ingly proud mo­ment for us all. Dr Muthwa serves dou­bly as the first woman vice-chan­cel­lor and the first black African woman vicechan­cel­lor in the his­tory of the univer­sity, and with­out doubt, will in­spire new gen­er­a­tions to rise to the high­est lev­els of achieve­ment. We are ab­so­lutely de­lighted with her ap­point­ment,” Swartz says.

An ex­pe­ri­enced strate­gist and in­ter­na­tion­al­ist, Muthwa is well placed to lead the univer­sity into the new era.

The sec­tor and coun­try are “at a crossroads. As a higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tion, we need to be acutely at­tuned to the is­sues of our coun­try in­clud­ing poverty and in­equal­ity, and to be com­mit­ted to im­prov­ing the lives and ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties of the marginalised in par­tic­u­lar. The calls for free ed­u­ca­tion for the poor have made this task ur­gent and crit­i­cal.

“At Nel­son Man­dela [Univer­sity], we are de­vis­ing means to in­crease our rev­enue through cost con­tain­ment and ef­fi­ciency mea­sures, new pro­grammes, a di­ver­si­fied stu­dent body and third-stream in­come,” she says.

“Cog­nisant of the im­pli­ca­tions of lo­cal and global eco­nomic and geopo­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments for the sus­tain­abil­ity of a mod­ern univer­sity, our univer­sity is se­cur­ing its place in the global arena by driv­ing in­no­va­tions geared to solv­ing cur­rent and fu­ture prob­lems, in­clud­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion, food in­se­cu­rity, rapid mi­gra­tion and global in­jus­tice.”

The univer­sity’s new Ocean Sciences cam­pus and new in­ter­pro­fes­sional ed­u­ca­tion health sciences strat­egy, which in­cludes the de­vel­op­ment of a new med­i­cal school — SA’s 10th — po­si­tions the univer­sity to at­tract strate­gic part­ner­ships and to se­cure the tal­ent of world-renowned aca­demics, schol­ars and re­searchers.

“We see our­selves as a driver of change in Africa and the global south. The chal­lenge, one that is fac­ing all South African uni­ver­si­ties, is to de­velop a strong stu­dent and post­grad­u­ate pipe­line.

“Univer­sity first-time en­trants in SA are of­ten ill­pre­pared for ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion due to the gen­er­ally poor school­ing sys­tem. This re­quires of the univer­sity to strengthen our in­struc­tional sup­port and foun­da­tional pro­grammes, as well as en­hance our ex­ist­ing early warn­ing sys­tems to en­sure that all our stu­dents are in a con­ducive en­vi­ron­ment to com­plete their qual­i­fi­ca­tions on time,” Muthwa says.

The univer­sity is com­mit­ted to im­prov­ing ed­u­ca­tion in the East­ern Cape from the first day of school through its fo­cus on the foun­da­tion phase.

Muthwa says that foun­da­tion-phase teach­ers guide the de­vel­op­ment of each child from grade R to grade 3, de­vel­op­ing their math­e­mat­i­cal abil­ity, lan­guage and lit­er­acy, self-con­cept and self­con­fi­dence. How and what they teach has a pro­found in­flu­ence on the rest of the pupil’s live, in­clud­ing their abil­ity to get a univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion.

She is un­equiv­o­cal that every­one with aca­demic abil­ity should have an op­por­tu­nity to at­tend univer­sity. If they can­not af­ford it, it must be free.

The post of vice-chan­cel­lor at any South African univer­sity is one of the most com­plex and dif­fi­cult jobs in the land, and Muthwa is un­der no il­lu­sions. Dur­ing the 2015-16 #FeesMustFall protests, she played a prom­i­nent role in man­ag­ing the volatile en­vi­ron­ment, as stu­dent af­fairs was part of her port­fo­lio and she was act­ing vice-chan­cel­lor for part of 2016.

“While the con­tes­ta­tion of ideas, and par­a­digms, and con­stant en­gage­ment on is­sues of change and trans­for­ma­tion in par­tic­u­lar, are hall­marks of a learn­ing in­sti­tu­tion, at the same time we need to care­fully man­age the dy­nam­ics to en­sure that these con­tes­ta­tions hap­pen within the frame­work of mu­tual re­spect, re­spect for hu­man rights and hu­man dig­nity,” she says.

“This univer­sity has long em­barked on coura­geous con­ver­sa­tions about the na­ture of the in­sti­tu­tion we want to be­come. Hav­ing been part of this jour­ney, and in var­i­ous ways in­flu­enced many of the po­si­tions that have been adopted, I have par­tic­u­lar affin­ity with our vi­sion to be a dy­namic African univer­sity, recog­nised for our hu­man­is­ing ped­a­gogy and lead­er­ship in cut­ting-edge knowl­edge for a more just, sus­tain­able fu­ture.

“I am in­debted to Prof Swartz for his ster­ling and vi­sion­ary work in lay­ing these foun­da­tions and for his in­spi­ra­tional lead­er­ship over the past decade. We will con­tinue to strive, with great pride and hu­mil­ity, to live up to our re­spon­si­bil­ity of lead­ing the only univer­sity in the world that car­ries Nel­son Man­dela’s name,” Muthwa says.

/Brian Wit­booi

Ex­pe­ri­enced: Nel­son Man­dela Univer­sity vicechan­cel­lor Sibongile Muthwa played a cen­tral role in man­ag­ing the 2015-16 no-fees protests.

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