/ 21 February 2021

Ngcukaitobi, the new sheriff at Walter Sisulu University

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(John McCann/M&G)

Tembeka Ngcukaitobi’s name is synonymous with being one of the best legal minds in South Africa. He enjoys a successful, busy career as an advocate. Why then would he be bothered by the affairs of his alma mater, an institution that he left more than two decades ago? 

Ngcukaitobi graduated with a law degree from the University of Transkei (Unitra), now Walter Sisulu University, in 1999. In 1997 he was the president of the student representative council (SRC). 

He said after he left he did not bother about what was happening at the university. It was only when the institution started losing accreditation for some of its qualifications — including the LLB degree — that Ngcukaitobi started following affairs of his alma mater with interest. 

“I thought, actually, the tendency of former graduates not to pay attention to their former universities may threaten the validity of their qualifications,” he says “So I became interested in what was happening, but at that time I did not stand for any position but was part of the activities of the alumni association.”

In 2017, the Council for Higher Education stopped the university from offering law degrees when, in its assessment, it had found that the university had under-qualified lecturers and its lecturer halls were not suitable for use. The council re-accredited the qualification in 2019 after the institution had satisfied it that it had met the required standards. 

In June 2019, there was an election for new leaders of the convocation and he accepted nomination to become the president and was elected. “I was happy to accept the nomination because at least it would give me an opportunity to play a role inside rather than as an external observer,” he says. 

He does not see it as giving back, because people who have graduated from previously disadvantaged universities do not have that “luxury”. 

“The fact of the matter is that if it was not for a university like Unitra, at the time, many of us would simply have not got a university education at all, either because we would not qualify academically or we would simply not be able to afford fees,” he says. “So if you want to sustain accessibility of higher education in the former Bantustans then you have to keep a functional university even if the focus of that university is teaching and not necessarily research.”

For him, not having a functional Walter Sisulu University means that students who can’t go to the affluent universities are deprived of a chance to get a higher education.

“The truth is that in this country without a basic degree your prospects in life are rather bleak. So I do not see myself as giving back, I see myself discharging a responsibility of being a graduate from a black university.”

As the president he could assess the difficulties facing the university. He lists three that stood out.

One of the problems, which he says is structural, is how the university has struggled to shift from being an institution created to serve a Bantustan civil service to become a modern developmental university. He says the merger between Unitra, Border Technikon and Eastern Cape Technikon to form Walter Sisulu University also complicated things. 

“So combining those two things has really been a structural problem for how the university will model itself in a development setting.”

Ngcukaitobi says the department of higher education’s funding formula is “largely biased against black universities”, because most of these institutions are not research intensive. The department might argue that there are grants targeted at previously disadvantaged universities, but he believes that is no match for the funding that universities that produce research receive. The funding formula needs to be significantly revised, according to Ngcukaitobi. 

The third problem was: “On the internal side you have a problem of poor leadership, poor financial management, a problem of lack of vision, lack of direction, poor qualifications of lecturers and also poorly prepared students.” 

One of the things that shocked him was the poor state of student residences, describing them as “slum conditions”. (New residences are now being built.) 

He says more than 60% of lecturers do not have a masters and the curriculum is not aligned to the needs of the country. “People are still being taught about cheques; cheques have been discontinued for years …”

But there is a new sheriff in town and the university is about to be shaken up. Not only was Ngcukaitobi appointed the chairperson of council — the highest decision-making body — in December, but the university also has a new vice-chancellor in Professor Rushiella Nolundi Songca, who took over the reins from Professor Rob Midgley this month. 

“It is very exciting. New vice-chancellor, new chair of council. It is truly an exciting moment to watch the progress of the university and also do something about it,” says Ngcukaitobi. 

He says he is well aware that some of the difficulties the university faces might not be resolved now — especially the structural ones — but part of the reason he agreed to stand for the position was he agreed with those who said the university needed energy, leadership and vision. 

One of the things he hopes to do in his tenure as the chair of council is to make sure that the systems of the university work. 

“It is a very modest goal but very crucial for a place like Walter Sisulu University in order to ensure it runs smoothly.”

Ngcukaitobi says that because most of the systems at the university do not run well he is finding himself, as council chair, having to deal with mundane issues that he should not have to deal with at his level. 

“I was entertaining an issue from Sasco [South African Students Congress] the other day in Mthatha, about the allocation of seats [in the SRC], and the problem was that management was not allowing them to have a meeting. 

“So in a different place like UCT [University of Cape Town] there are systems; those problems do not go to the chairperson of council. But I do not have the luxury of refusing to entertain them on the basis that they belong to a lower level, because we are fixing the deep-seated structural problems, and that is why I want to place emphasis on getting the systems to run without the intervention of managers and without the intervention of leadership.”

Another one of his goals is to stop the corruption where staff or members of council are found to have business interests with the university. 

“We need to make sure that the money of the university is spent on what it should be spent on and is not stolen.”