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Unisa appoints its first woman vice-chancellor

Unisa has appointed Professor Puleng Lenkabula as its incoming vice-chancellor, the university announced in a statement on Thursday night

Lenkabula will start her term in January, but will officially take over from outgoing vice-chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya in April. 

Unisa’s council — the highest decision-making body at the university — said it had decided to extend Makhanya’s term for four months to allow for a “smooth hand-over”. 

He has been at the helm since 2011 and was meant to finish his term at the end of this year.

In a statement, Unisa said Lenkabula’s appointment was made at a special sitting of the council on Thursday. 

“The unanimous decision by the Unisa council follows a rigorous selection process to fill the position, including the requisite consideration and recommendation of candidates by the executive committees of the Unisa Senate (Senex) and the Unisa institutional forum (IF),” reads the statement. 

Two weeks ago, the Mail & Guardian reported that Lenkabula was one of two shortlisted candidates for the position. The other candidate was University of KwaZulu-Natal’s deputy vice-chancellor for teaching and learning Professor Sandile Songca. 

Lenkabula — who is currently the vice-rector for institutional change, student affairs, and community engagement at the University of Free State — will be Unisa’s first woman vice-chancellor since its establishment 148 years ago. Her appointment also makes her the fifth women vice-chancellor in the country. 

In August the M&G reported that, since 2015, there have been 20 vacancies for vice-chancellors and that only four women have filled those positions. 

At a webinar hosted by Higher Education Resource Services (Hers-SA) — an organisation dedicated to the advancement and leadership development of women in the higher education sector —  and Universities South Africa (Usaf), the chair of the transformation managers forum at Usaf, George Mvalo said this picture should not be normalised and that it did not represent the demographics of the country or the higher education sector. 

Mvalo said there were 12 women deputy vice-chancellors, out of about 30 positions. He said it was troubling that men have filled all vice-chancellor posts vacated by women over the past five years. 

Unisa also said in its statement that Lenkabula’s appointment was indicative of its transformation agenda. 

“This appointment is further testimony of the commitment of council to the transformation project it introduced and drove relentlessly in the university over the years, as well as ensuring that its workforce is alive to and reflective of the demographics of the country and the gender-empowerment wave sweeping the country.”

Chairperson of the Unisa Council, Sakhi Simelane, said Lenkabula is the “right calibre of a leader” for the university and fits well with the vision of the institution. 

Lenkabula is no stranger to Unisa, having worked at the institution as an associate professor of ethics, as dean of students, as well as having worked in Makhanya’s offices as a director and adviser. Before moving to the Free State, she was the dean of students at the University of the Witwatersrand. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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