South Africa: Strong‚ qualified and able: Two women battle it out for UCT top post

- in World News


One is a professor of mathematics education and is already a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of Cape Town. The other is a professor of law and a deputy vice-chancellor at the University of the Western Cape.

Both are formidable‚ practical and forward-thinking‚ and in the second half of this year one of them – either Mamokgethi Phakeng or Vivienne Lawack – will occupy the UCT vice-chancellor’s office currently occupied by Max Price during what’s been one of the most tumultuous eras in the institution’s history.

On Wednesday‚ the two women gave it their all in a presentation to a small audience at the university…and a much larger one through live-streaming.

Whichever of them gets the nod‚ the university will be in for an interesting journey of transformation – one which walks the many tightropes in higher education today‚ between the global and the local‚ teaching versus research‚ funding versus academic freedom‚ and processes versus speed.

Lawack‚ who joined the University of the Western Cape in 2015‚ is no stranger to university protests‚ saying that in her first year at UWC she experienced a “quick process of learning‚ growing‚ and stepping up to the plate”.

She said it “felt like five years in one year – it was a baptism by fire”.

On the all-important issue of transformation‚ she said UCT “cannot be a Little Oxford in Africa”. She said that UCT needed its own “distinctive character” which looked to both Africa and the more local context.

“Every core function” of the university needed to be transformed‚ and she was happy to see this as “an underlying theme that goes through the strategic plan” because UCT needed to rethink its identity from being a “white liberal institution” to one which has a “committed and collective leadership” that looks forward instead of back.

Lawack was the brain behind the Courage Cafe Conversations at UWC – events which brought together people of wildly opposing views to sit and discuss face to face what was on their minds.

She said these conversations brought in the alumni who had been “very isolated during their protests”‚ with their voices not being heard.


Lawack also emphasised the importance of not setting people up for failure by fast-tracking them too quickly in the name of transformation.

She said that anyone who was promoted should “given support” so that you “don’t set them up for failure”. It did not do an individual‚ or a project‚[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“any favours” if people were promoted prematurely without the necessary mentorship.

Transformation was a process‚ she said.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“You can pace the process‚ but you can’t wish it away‚” she said‚ giving the example of how‚ during the Courageous Cafe Conversations‚ it was important to go in with an open mind.

“You can’t already think of someone as a racist before it starts – it has to be a safe space in which people can open themselves up‚” she said.Her presentation was followed by that of Phakeng‚ a lively orator who sent out a call to look forwards.

“Universities are generally change-averse‚” she said‚ reflecting on UCT’s global ranking status and its reputation for being a “world-class institution”.

She said the notion of “world class” could mean legacy issues in which the past could hamper innovation and reform.

Through this‚[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“we look back with greater enthusiasm than we do looking forward”.

She also called the global-local divide a “false binary” and added‚[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“Local is the new global.”

Phakeng said:[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“Problems of Africa are problems of the world. We need to bury the notion that global is not African‚” calling on UCT to be a “leader not a follower”.

She said the term “world class” was often “thrown in” by marketing machines to attract students‚ but in the week leading up to her presentation she had asked 100 people – including activists‚ scientists‚ business people‚ academics and ordinary people – what it meant to them.

She got a “range of responses” but a “running thread” was the idea of “the local context” and “the continent”.

“A generic idea of ‘world class’ won’t cut it for UCT. When we have challenges with students‚ what we need to deal with is not to say‚[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]‘what is wrong with them’? We must ask ourselves how we can challenge ourselves to adapt our strategy to those we lead.

“We have to make sure that UCT becomes an international experience that is uniquely African‚” and although we needed to “rethink curricula”‚ we should also not see curricula as “everything”.

There should be no antagonism between the local and the global‚ she said.

Another main point she raised is that UCT needs to show more agility.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“I am not saying throw out governance. Governance is key. But within it‚ there are things that can be done faster.”

She gave an example of how long it took for a student simply to register for a master’s degree‚ and another of a student who had funding for a PhD‚ who applied months ago to join the university‚ and was told last week:[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“No‚ we can’t take you”. This was after they had said no to other institutions.

“That doesn’t require governance‚” she said‚ adding that many processes needed to simply be sped up.

Members of the university had until 4.30pm on Wednesday to e-mail feedback and comments on the presentations. Thereafter‚ according to UCT spokesman Elijah Moholola‚[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“the selection committee must interview each candidate on the final shortlist. The structure of the interview is determined by the selection committee and HR may advise the selection committee on appropriate selection methodologies to use.

“The selection committee then makes a recommendation. It must make every effort to reach its decision by consensus. Failing this‚ a recommendation requires at least two-thirds of the members present to be in favour of the decision.”

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