Mr Nice Guy with a big mission

Professor Tawana Kupe appears to be cautious and reserved — until he begins to speak about his collection of books and his new job as vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria (UP).

He is the first black vice-chancellor of the university, sort of. He points out that, in his view, this is incorrect because, in South African parlance, his predecessor, Cheryl de la Rey, is a coloured woman.

He is aware of the pressure of being a black, foreign man in one of the most powerful positions in South African academia, but he appears to be undaunted. His excitement is contagious.

With a grin, he explains how he vacillated between strong doubts and bouts of confidence about his chances of landing the job. He was the only foreigner and the other candidates had advantages, such as speaking Afrikaans and having roots in the culture, which would be perceived as more fitting in Pretoria, he says.

So the competition was tough, with another five vying for the position. But his foreignness did not appear to hinder his chances. And it seems not to have been an obstacle throughout his career. Not that it doesn’t happen, he says with a laugh.

“Nobody has ever denied me a job here [in South Africa]. I have had six. The first was at Rhodes. Inside Wits, this is my fourth position. Now this one at UP. No one has ever said ‘foreigner’. But that doesn’t mean it [discrimination] doesn’t exist.”

Ultimately, however, it is probably because his roots lie outside of South Africa that suits Tuks’s ambitions.

“If you look at UP’s mission statement, they don’t say a ‘South African university’. They say a university in Africa,” he says, punctuating his words by prodding a desktop with his forefinger. “You really get the sense that they wanted an African, but not necessarily an African South African.” Popular perceptions of Tuks as decidedly white, male and Afrikaner are unlikely to change, but the reality is quite different, he says.

“Funnily enough, when you look from outside, you would say the majority of the students are white. Actually, they’re not; 59% of the students are black. Fifty-nine percent of postgraduate students are black and female. Often you will find people who want things to remain as they are and others who want things to change, and there will be points of contestation. I think they’re in that space now.”

He believes there is a critical mass of people who do want change.

Increasing the number of academics and students from across the continent is what Tuks sorely needs, Kupe says. To achieve this, he would like the university to bring in African business, governments and donors.

He seems to be saying that there should be a more thorough approach to achieving transformation. Though he is loath to use the phrase “African solutions for African problems”, he adds that “transformation is not just more black people in academia, [but] are you transforming the kind of research that you do?”

Kupe, currently the deputy vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, overseeing the daily running of the university, has travelled a long road to Pretoria. He is the son of two Kalanga teachers from Plumtree, a town in southwestern Zimbabwe. His paternal uncles were migrant labourers. They were gardeners in Parktown, he says, with a little smile.

READ MORE: Tuks appoints Kupe as new VC

In 1994, he also left for South Africa to see for himself how this “big democracy” would work.

As a student, Kupe was something of a rabble-rouser. He landed his first radio interview with the BBC on the back of the notoriety he gained at the University of Zimbabwe. Focus, his campus magazine, was not beloved by all, especially the university management. The student-run publication, which was transcribed and typeset from handwritten notes, gave him insight into how students think, which he thinks came in handy during the #FeesMustFall protests.

He quips he’s not as revolutionary as he once was because he “sold out”. But that experience, and his time as the dean of humanities at Wits, allowed him to bridge the gap between students’ grievances and management’s concerns.

Between 1999 and 2001, Kupe lectured at Rhodes University where he had acted as the head of the department of journalism and media studies. He went there from the University of Zimbabwe, where he had worked in various academic capacities, including one as chairperson of the department of English, media and communication studies.

It was under Wits’s first black vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Loyiso Nongxa, that Kupe’s leadership qualities were further drawn to the fore, first by advising management on how to counter negative media coverage about Wits and, later, as the dean of humanities.

Kupe served as the executive dean of the Wits faculty of humanities for six years between January 2007 and December 2012, following his role as head of the Wits school of literature and language studies from 2004 to 2006.

While he was dean, the Wits Arts and Literature Experience, a major annual arts festival that took place over several days at the university, was established. A new institute and several centres were also created and the faculty experienced a complete turnaround.

“He is very charming,” says Nongxa, adding that Kupe’s energy while revitalising the faculty of humanities was palpable. “I was quite impressed with his leadership skills and literary experience,” Nongxa says, recalling the establishment of the arts festival.

Nongxa holds the outgoing chancellor in high regard, and he believes Kupe’s ambitions to turn Tuks into a world-class African university can only succeed. The relationships Kupe has fostered, and the increasing enrolments and broadening partnerships with other institutions on the continent, will probably rank high on his agenda.

Though the response to Kupe’s appointment has been largely positive, Nongxa is aware of some dissent because Kupe is from Zimbabwe, which he says concerns him. Nongxa recounts how he once taught in Lesotho and how important it was to remember the shared histories of countries in the region, countries that had supported South Africa through apartheid at great cost and had assisted the liberation organisations.

It’s not all serious, though.

“Have you ever sat in on one of his lectures? He’s very funny,” says Wits’s head of communications, Shirona Patel. She has worked with him for the past “six or seven years”. Though he is professional and expects his staff to go beyond the call of duty, his firm management style is tempered by a wicked sense of humour, she says.

She adds, whether it’s a security guard, a student or a lecturer, Kupe is the same person. He’s just a nice guy.

Kiri Rupiah
Kiri Rupiah is the online editor at the Mail & Guardian.
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