New VC at WSU aims to restore tarnished jewel

The new vice-chancellor of Walter Sisulu University, Professor Rushiella Songca, is unapologetic, bold, courageous and does not mince her words. Songca had been at WSU for a year as deputy vice-chancellor for academic affairs and research when she applied for the top job of vice-chancellor. 

“I just felt that somebody has to be bold enough and try to change this place …  It is like a jewel that is not being taken care of or exploited in proper ways,” she says.

“And I felt: ‘Ha-a, I want to do this and I know that I cannot fail. I will try and make sure that I do not’.”

When the Mail & Guardian spoke to her, Songca was two weeks and two days into her new role. 

Before joining WSU, Songca — who has a long record of working in academia — was employed at Unisa in various capacities. Early in her career, in the 1990s, she lectured law at the then University of Transkei, which is now WSU. 

Finding herself back at the institution that “nurtured” her academic career was purely by chance. 

Songca says at the time she applied for the deputy vice-chancellor post she did not even know who the vice-chancellor was. She never “took too much interest” in the affairs of the institution at the time except for snippets she read from time to time in the media. 

“You know when you are applying and you just say:‘Ah, let me apply’ and you think to yourself, ‘Ag, they won’t even respond’.”

But the university responded.  

“I said: ‘Yho, ha-a, this might actually happen.’ So I started doing my homework. I realised that it’s like a jewel and it has a great potential and it needs someone that is stubborn like myself. But also someone who knows a thing or two about higher education. Lucky enough I got the job,” she says. 

Songca says what drove her in her job as deputy vice-chancellor and still drives her in her new role is her passion for the academic project. 

“I am very passionate about [it],” she says. “I just believe that if it does not work it is an injustice not only to the country but also to the kids who go there. 

“In most instances there will be first-generation graduates and their parents are piling all their hopes on these kids, and then we give them a raw deal. It cannot be. And they are black children.”

Songca believes she owes it to herself and WSU students to change the university’s fortunes around. 

“Where we are now we have a mixed bag of reactions — those who are excited about the change and those who do not want change for their own reasons. But I think it is time for change and we owe it ourselves, also, to drive that change.”

With change comes resistance, but she is prepared for it. 

She has already been challenged for the changes she wants to bring about.  

But she says: “I am here and you [the university] need to deal with me. I know that there is a lot of undermining. I have seen; it happens, whether consciously or unconsciously. 

“And there is a lot of patriarchy. But for me, I forget that I am a woman when I do my job. I am a human being and I want to do the job, and I will not be hesitant to tell you what you need to do because you are a man and I am a woman. 

“I do not mind going toe to toe with you if you think you can, perhaps, not do what you need to do because you regard me as inferior. I do not think I am inferior to anybody.”

What Songca has found to be the “main, main, main challenge” at Walter Sisulu University is a culture of nonaccountability. 

“People do not do their work, disappear without applying for leave and still expect to be rewarded for not doing the job they are employed to do.”

Songca says she has had to make it clear that if the institution wants to excel, then people have to do their work and, if not, must be held accountable or be provided with assistance if needed. 

One of the “soft” challenges she wants to tackle is to have continuous engagements with students, because they are an integral part of the university and it is important to make them feel that. 

“Trying to engage them, trying to hear them when they raise issues, trying to acknowledge them, trying to say to them you are important, you are a stakeholder. So if you make them stakeholders hopefully they will also be protective of the university and its property, and by extension also change the perception around our students.

“But I think it comes with us doing the work and saying let’s engage. And engaging does not mean we have to agree on everything! At times we are not going to agree, but at least you have the space to exercise your agency and that is what I think is very important.”

She says engaging with students and labour is also a way to try to stop the culture of strikes at WSU, which not only has an impact on the academic project but also on the university’s reputation. 

She says it is when people feel that they are not appreciated that they do things that are not in line or might compromise the image of the institution. 

Songca comes from the Eastern Cape but grew up in exile in Lesotho. She says because of her Eastern Cape roots and having once worked for the then University of Transkei,  she has always had a sense of pride about WSU. 

Now that she is at the helm, she wants to change the image of the institution so that students and staff will pride themselves on Walter Sisulu University, and that prospective academics and students would “want to work and study here”. 

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

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