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Puleng LenkaBula: The ‘tipping point’ leader is Unisa’s first black woman vice-chancellor

On 2 September the University of South Africa (Unisa) inaugurated its first woman vice-chancellor, Professor Puleng LenkaBula. She is also the first black woman to lead what is Africa’s only mega-university. 

About one in three tertiary education students in South Africa are enrolled at Unisa and the rest are from around the world. Unisa has more than 400 000 students. 

Although it is easy to think of Unisa as a bureaucratic dinosaur, it is the product of a great innovation — the first university in the world to teach exclusively by distance education. 

If it is to achieve its full potential for world-leading excellence, the university must continue to innovate in open, distance and e-learning. The urgency is marked by how all other higher education institutions are now also offering digitalised and blended education that increasingly resemble the Unisa model.

To remain the leading provider of open distance-education will require an openness to hold discussions with multiple stakeholders, and to promote and adopt innovations on small and large scales. 

This challenge is unnecessarily more difficult because there have been detractors who have opposed the appointment of LenkaBula, seemingly because they have little faith that a black woman can do the job. But, Unisa’s vice-chancellor has long developed a reputation for being a fighter. She was on the front cover of Destiny Magazine’s January 2020 edition, which recalled that she was once labelled “the academic smiling assassin”.

For a woman to fight in any way is considered unladylike by patriarchal logic, which works to keep women subjugated. The condemnation and related disadvantages are doubled when the woman is black — as I point out in a chapter of my recent book, Ubuntu for Warriors, which discusses the condemnation of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. With this in mind, I am keen to cheer for LenkaBula being a fighter, a smiling assassin who knows what to fight for and who is careful about what she hits and does not hit.

Having worked under then deputy vice-chancellor LenkaBula at the University of the Free State, I can confirm that she is steely in her determination to achieve great and creative outcomes. She is dedicated to feminist ideals of gender-justice that she ties together with valuing the decolonisation of humanity — not just of universities. 

Unisa has a vice-chancellor who comes from a liberation tradition that steadfastly seeks to use African strengths to build competitive advantages for all who live on the continent. I cheer this while noting that Unisa has tremendous influence on the South African and African innovation economies. Its academics educate skilled workers and entrepreneurs. They also produce innovative research that is vital for how the country sustainably makes the most of available people and natural resources.

A revealing window into LenkaBula’s commitment to scholarship that makes the most of Africa’s knowledge and resources is her transdisciplinary doctoral thesis. It shows her interest in enabling African development. She wrote it in search of ways to prevent the neocolonial theft of indigenous African knowledge. 

The thesis draws on insights from botho/ubuntu, Christianity and the law as it theorises how Africans may escape cycles of exploitation that see traditional knowledge patented and commercialised by Western interests, for Westerners. 

Her interest was not to cut Africans off from the rest of the world but to understand how they can sustainably be involved with the rest of the world, and with the environment, in non-exploitative ways.

Looking at her research can also say something about her commitment to decolonial imperatives. In 2008, in an article titled Beyond Anthropocentricity — Botho/Ubuntu and the Quest for Economic and Ecological Justice in Africa, before it was fashionable to speak of decolonisation in South Africa, LenkaBula was calling for “an ethics of life that is not built on the predominant belief in super-humans who dominate the earth and creation, and who claim they are given dominion over creation”. 

She was calling for movement away from the extractive logics that say the powerful are those who are best at extracting and using valuable things and people for their own economic gains. Instead, she proposed an ethic that draws on ubuntu “for the fullness of life for African people”. 

Without disavowing the personhood or individuality of African people, she appeals for people to “embrace positive human qualities of care, compassion and solidarity with others”, saying that this will enable people “to become humanised and humble beings that seek to, at minimum, create and maintain harmonious relationship in the community and in the world”. 

A major point she was making is that “precisely because Western notions of a human being discount the full humanity of Africans, and that such views have paved the way for colonisation, subjugation, oppression and enslavement of the colonised, it has also imposed and sanctioned exploitative and extractive economic conduct towards Africa”.

In the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have seen women-led countries deal better with the crisis than those led by men. This has led one Bloomberg news headline to declare that “2021 is a tipping point for female leaders”.

Beyond the headlines, what is evident is that societies that are most inclusive also enjoy the most sustainable development. 

The evidence from South Africa is that universities have enjoyed remarkable growth in research outputs with success in teaching and learning even as student numbers have increased. 

This evidence is to be expected by anyone who looks at how universities have been an excellent story of how inclusive practices of leadership at all levels are conducive to transformative development. 

In this context, as Oliver Seale, Patrick Fish and Birgit Schreiber infer in an article, titled Enabling and Empowering Women in Leadership in South African Universities, the story of women rising to lead South African universities is crucial for the furtherance of institutional transformation that is pluralistic and capable of achieving unprecedented excellence that impacts positively on societies that invest hugely in education.

LenkaBula will be a tipping-point leader for Unisa. As W Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne wrote in 2003 for the Harvard Business Review, the theory of tipping-point leadership teaches that great and fast organisational change can be affected by leaders who make strong calls for change, concentrating their resources on what matters and mobilising organisational resources to the change agenda. 

LenkaBula will be a consequential leader for Unisa because she has the requisite deep convictions to speak authentically and therefore powerfully in this moment of change. She will lead well because she has contemplated on and dedicated herself to the feminist and botho/ubuntu ethics that is needed at this tipping point. South Africa and Africa should celebrate that Unisa is led at this turning point by such a strong and visionary leader.

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Colin Chasi
Professor Colin Chasi is director of the Unit for Institutional Change and Social Justice at the University of the Free State. He is a widely published scholar. Chasi's most recent book, Ubuntu for Warriors, draws on the histories of figures from King Shaka, to Presidents Nelson Mandela, and Kenneth Kaunda.

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