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Kaluke Mawila: The university campus principal who leads from the heart

Leading from the heart and being mindful of other people’s struggles is what has characterised Kaluke Mawila’s leadership as the principal of the George campus at Nelson Mandela University (NMU). 

Mawila arrived at the university just days after the level five Covid lockdown started in March last year. She was in a new town and did not know anyone but she says it is the support from people on campus and how they opened their hearts to receive her that has been at the centre of how she manages the campus. 

 “I mean, they went all out without knowing me. They checked in: ‘Campus principal are you fine? Do you have this, do you have that? What can we do?’ that to me shows that there is a lot of heart.

“If I closed my mind to that and pretended that I did not see that, I did not experience that warmth then I would have missed out on an opportunity to travel the journey with everyone else on the George campus. 

“I think that it is the important part — travel the journey with the people — come with an open mind and connect with their hearts because that is what is going to make the difference,” says Mawila. 

The George campus, one of the NMU’s seven campuses, is at the foot of the Outeniqua Mountains on the Garden Route

It is here that Mawila — born to parents who were teachers in Tzaneen in Limpopo — is working to make a mark and expose the country and the world to what she calls a “hidden gem”. 

Mawila says that when she was growing up she did not envisage a career in academia but knew that she wanted to be of service to people. 

“I always wanted to see my own humanity expressed through others and landing a hand to other people always gives me the greatest reason for living,” she says.

Mawila says her teachers at Isaac Kheto Nxumalo Agricultural High School in Giyani encouraged her to pursue a career in academia because they had seen her interest in reading. 

“My parents always encouraged us to read quite a lot and extensively and they had books all over, everywhere in the house. I remember the little bookshelf full of books in the bedroom where I slept, so when I could not sleep, that is what I did, I read books.”

Long after she left high school, Mawila says life presented people and jobs where there were mentors and coaches who brought her to where she is. 

She obtained both her masters and a doctorate in higher education from the University of Michigan in the United States

When she joined the university she was a month short of finishing her ninth year at the National Research Foundation (NRF) where she had worked in different capacities, with her latest role being executive director of planning and development in the strategy planning and partnerships division. 

Mawila says she put up her hand to lead the George campus because she felt that she had achieved what she needed to achieve at the NRF. She says she needed to apply the knowledge she gained at the foundation. 

“It is important in life that we are able to grow. Everywhere we are placed we plant a seed. The seed grows and there comes a time where we have to go and contribute elsewhere,” she says. 

She has found that the George campus has great potential but it is hidden and not given the attention that it should be getting at a time when there is an attempt to open new careers for young people and opportunities for researchers to expand their research in forestry, food security and how climate change bring constraints on water, land use and energy. 

Mawila says it is an incredible time to be a leader in higher education considering the demands of managing a pandemic. Not even textbooks prepared her for the magnitude of what comes with leading during a pandemic. 

“You find that university leaders are beginning to think: ‘How do we sustain universities and how do we sustain our workers and our students in this time when there are so many limitations to what used to be normal?’ ” 

She says she is leading at a time when people are feeling isolated and disconnected. Students have to cope with being stuck indoors and learning new ways of managing themselves. Staff members have had to learn how to use technology to fulfill some of their functions. 

This is a time when leaders have to think differently about how to support employees — something she says it is critical to achieve. 

Mawila says managers need to see people as more than just workers but as people who have families. 

“A person must be able to take a pause during a meeting and attend to their child. We should be able to do that as a matter of course without having to make people feel very awkward and it is important. 

“I think as a mom I feel supported when I know that people understand that I have a child who might buzz in and just go “mommy” and support that. 

“It is very important to understand that the context where we do work has changed and once we take that to account we become more mindful and a lot more accommodating and a lot more supportive.” 

Mawila also believes this is a time when universities have to offer a lot of psychological support to staff members and students who may be battling with mental health. She added that it is important to also work to destigmatise mental health so that people can thrive in their studies and working lives. 

“I don’t think there has ever been a time that has made this challenge as acute as this period when we are going through the pandemic. So we are going to have to learn a lot about … mental health.

“So there again, if we do not connect with the heart with the people that serve us and the people that we are serving, if we do not serve one another first, it will become more difficult for us to serve society. So that to me is critical.”

Mawila is deliberate about the kind of campus she wants to lead. Without discarding the history of the institution, she is intent on building a campus that is a reminder of what it means to move deliberately from the past and to intentionally support a culture that is open and engaging.

“If we see each other’s hearts and we are more mindful we can move mountains.”

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

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