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Rhodes University appoints new vice-chancellor

Improving staff remuneration and helping to get the Eastern Cape education department out of its mess will be some of Rhodes University’s new vice-chancellor, Dr Sizwe Mabizela’s, priorities in his newly announced tenure … and getting the local municipality that services the student town to keep the water and electricity on, of course.

“Staff remuneration is something we have to grapple with … Higher education salaries are seen as being not competitive, and again this adds another very important [dimension] to transformation … We have to attend to these issues and be sure that we remunerate [academics] appropriately so that they stay,” he told the Mail & Guardian on Monday.

The chairperson of the university’s council Vuyo D. Kahla announced on Sunday that the university’s selection committee had “unanimously approved Dr Sizwe Mabizela as the sixth principal and vice-chancellor”, following the resignation of former vice-chancellor Saleem Badat in March this year.

Mabizela has been Rhodes’s deputy vice-chancellor since 2008.

Adding his voice to the controversial debate around how to increase the number of black academics in South Africa, Mabizela said universities need to attract and retain academics “particularly those from previously excluded communities”, but “we can’t change [the] composition of staff by simply crying that there are not enough black people in academia”.

Invest resources
He said universities needed to “invest resources in developing their academics”.

“We have an accelerated staff development programme which focuses on black and women academics. … we have to develop [black and female students] and give them the opportunities to become academics, we must make it attractive for them.”

But to scale this up, the university would need more resources. “We hope for more resources and are doing a lot of fundraising.”

He said universities also had to “create an institutional culture that is welcoming and affirming of all staff … Under the leadership of Dr Badat we have done a lot around that”.

To ensure that more poor, black students graduate, he said increasing their access to student loans was critical. “I believe that higher education institutions need to engage the department of higher education and training and persuade them and the Treasury to increase allocation into the National Student Financial Aid Scheme [NSFAS]”.

“I know [the allocation] has grown over the last few years but we must invest more. Without that there is little hope that we can make much progress in opening access to people from a poor background.”

Yearly funding protests
Every year universities brace themselves for student protests over insufficient NSFAS loans. This year was no different and saw widespread protests at campuses, the arrest of students, interruption of lectures and destruction of campus property at universities such as Tshwane University of Technology in Pretoria.

Mabizela said Rhodes had every year “for the past few years” had to use about R35-million of its own funds “to top up NSFAS loans that are given to students”. He said students who had benefitted from NSFAS “must pay back their loans and also pay into a fund that pays for other young people’s education”.

“There must be a culture which says that as someone who has had the privilege of benefiting from the sacrifice of others, I will also make a salary sacrifice.”

He told the M&G that South Africa must become “more caring, just, human and equitable”. It is one of the reasons that he has been chairperson of the board of several nongovernmental organisations including the Trauma Centre for Survivors of Violence and Torture and the Zithembe Career and Education Counselling Centre, both in Cape Town, between 2001 and 2003.

“Those various positions have meant a lot to me and have shaped the person that I am.”

He graduated with a master’s degree in mathematics from the University of Fort Hare in 1986 and went on to do his PhD at Pennsylvania State University in the United States. In 1992, he returned to South Africa to be a lecturer at the University of Cape Town and later became an associate professor in its mathematics department.

Engaging the Eastern Cape
As the outgoing chairperson of the Umalusi Council he says, “education is something that is very close to my heart” and believes Rhodes needs to “play a significant role in helping primary and high school education in the Eastern Cape”.

“The Eastern Cape is the poorest province and my own view is that the centrality of a teacher in the teaching and learning enterprise can never be overemphasised. I really would like us to engage Grahamstown and the Eastern Cape … and contribute to the production of a particular kind of teacher.”

He said Rhodes needed to do more research in education, produce education graduates who are “agents of social change” and work in partnership with nongovernmental organisations and other role players to give “free assistance to the province’s teachers” and school leaders.

“I want to look at school leadership and governance, start courses, offer them for free to teachers and school leaders …”

But these initiatives would only be successful if the university was able to keep its doors open. Keeping the water and lights on in the context of a local municipality that has allegedly struggled to maintain its infrastructure was a top priority for Mabizela.

“We are a residential university so we just have to work together with the municipality. We contribute 60% of the [gross domestic product] of this town, we are the biggest employer and consume the biggest chunk of resources so we are working with our local municipalities to ensure they are able to provide us with water, sanitation, electricity and so on.”

The M&G reported in August last year that the university was “on the brink of closure” because the municipality had failed to provide water to the campus

Systematic approach
Mabizela said the skills he obtained from years of research in mathematics, which resulted in him becoming a C-rated National Research Foundation researcher, would be useful in his new role. “With maths you must put together a logical, coherent argument to justify whatever claim you make. It’s not about some authority figure having said something and then you take that as a truth … Until you can prove an answer, you are not able to make a claim.”

He said he has used this approach in other areas of his life. “When I look at any challenge I try to be very systematic about it. In maths, you learn critical and logical thinking and how to approach a problem in different ways.”

Ensuring racial and cultural acceptance and integration among staff and students of different religions and cultures would be approached through open discussion, he said. “We do not want to close the space for open and robust discussion and so we try to take every situation as an opportunity for learning,” he said.

But not everyone is open to discussing their views, it seems.

In May last year, the M&G reported that graphic posters – apparently intended to expose Muslim homophobia – were displayed on campus, provoking the anger of university staff members, students and alumni, who said they were racist and xenophobic.

Mabizela said the university dealt with that incident “in the best way we could” but that “the meeting between staff and students from different sides to discuss the posters did not happen”.

“The unfortunate thing is that people were not prepared to come forward and express whatever views they had, which was a great pity. The other debate that we wanted to have related to Israel as an apartheid state but that did not materialise either because people were not comfortable discussing those things. But I’m very open to those things.”

Although Mabizela said he had not signed off any brand-new programmes or initiatives that would compliment this “open discussion” approach, he would be “continuing the good work” of his predecessor.

“Education does not only happen in the classroom but in engaging with each other on controversial and emotional topics. If we want to produce graduates that are engaged and critical thinkers, we have to make sure that there is open discussion and students from different backgrounds interact with each other.”

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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