/ 30 September 2022

Despite gender progress, African men are shaping the future of higher education

Graphic Edu Gender Website2 1200px
(John McCann/M&G)


Despite a professed commitment to gender equality, African men are in the driving seat when vice-chancellors are appointed in South Africa. 

Far from women being at the forefront, it is the men who are calling the shots when it comes to gender politics in South Africa — and on the continent. Their influence extends across the higher education landscape. To be blunt, there is a bias towards African men running institutions of higher learning. 

The appointment of Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, vice-chancellor designate of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), continues a pattern where women candidates have failed to make it beyond the short-list at most of South Africa’s top universities. 

It’s not that there are no capable women around. Internationally respected researcher Zodwa Dlamini, director of the Pan African Cancer Research Institute at the University of Pretoria, was said to have strong support on and off the UJ campus. But she didn’t make it. 

Executive dean in the faculty of science at UJ, Professor Debra Meyer, boasted the highest Scopus h-index of the four shortlisted candidates, meaning her research was most cited by her rivals. Before a selection was made, there were already rumours she was not going to get the position. 

It was deemed to be a tussle between Mpedi and strongly favoured Professor Saurabh Sinha, the deputy vice-chancellor: research and internationalisation, who apparently received the highest number of senate votes. Still, he could not topple Mpedi, despite claims he was the personal choice of the outgoing head Professor Tshilidzi Marwala — which Marwala denied. 

However, when legal expert Mpedi takes over from Marwala, he will have an executive comprising seven women, with the next layer below made up of five women deans. That might suggest several women candidates will be ready to replace him when it is his turn to go. 

But just as at UJ, when the vice-chancellor role became vacant at the universities of the Witwatersrand, Pretoria and KwaZulu-Natal, women made the final cut but it was men who triumphed. Professors Zeblon Vilakazi, Tawana Kupe and Nana Poku, got the nod, respectively.

At UKZN in 2019, Poku, a health economist, faced competition from Professor Nora de Leeuw, pro-vice-chancellor of Cardiff University in Wales. But Poku replaced Dr Albert van Jaarsveld, who left prematurely to take up a post in Austria. 

Senior deputy vice-chancellor: academic, Professor Ruksana Osman was described as a “makeweight” on the shortlist at Wits when she lost out to Vilakazi in January last year. 

UJ’s Sinha was also on the shortlist at Wits. But the world-renowned scientist Vilakazi was considered the natural successor to Professor Adam Habib. Osman, however, is not the only woman on his executive. Four out of seven on the Wits management committee are women. 

Axed Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) vice-chancellor Professor Nthabiseng Ogude was among the six candidates running for the UP role, which went to respected Zimbabwean-born media expert Kupe in November 2018, replacing Professor Cheryl de la Rey, who left to become head of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. 

Ogude had no chance after her horror show at TUT, where she was castigated for her poor handling of student protests over fees. Was she shortlisted to make up the numbers and tick the gender box?

In recent times, men have ruled the roost elsewhere. North-West University made headlines earlier this year when former council chairperson Dr Bismark Tyobeka, a nuclear power expert, controversially resigned and applied for the top job. This was not for the first time a chair of council had contrived to become vice-chancellor — the most notable being pharmacist Professor Ihron Rensburg at UJ.

In February, Dr Ndanduleni Nthambeleni became vice-chancellor of the University of Venda (Univen), where there’s only one woman, Professor Nosisi Feza, the deputy vice-chancellor: research and postgraduate studies, in the senior executive team of six. 

Also in February, religion and politics scholar Professor Tinyiko Maluleke became vice-chancellor at TUT. Former Univen head Professor Peter Mbati got the top job at Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in 2020. Mbati was also on the shortlist at UKZN. 

Former North-West University head Professor Ntate Dan Kgwadi was appointed vice-chancellor of the Vaal University of Technology earlier this year.

There seemed to be no concerns about gender when the contracts of Professor Sizwe Mabizela at Rhodes University and Professor Wim de Villiers at Stellenbosch University were extended. 

There are six women vice-chancellors in South Africa. Among the prestigious institutions at the top of research rankings in Africa, only the University of Cape Town can boast a woman head in Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, a recent Africa Education Medal recipient.

She has faced numerous challenges but has kept UCT in the spotlight academically — and she’s never far from the trolls on social media due to her tendency to be outspoken. 

Elsewhere, professors Thoko Mayekiso at the University of Mpumalanga, Sibongile Muthwa at Nelson Mandela University, Rushiella Songca at Walter Sisulu University, Puleng LenkaBula at Unisa, and Xoliswa Mtose of the University of Zululand are leading their institutions with varying degrees of success. 

Given the figurehead role of chancellor at 17 out of 26 institutions in South Africa is held by a woman, one would expect a louder chorus of support for women in the job or more pressure on universities to make gender more than lip service. 

What hope is there when the minister of women Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, has been an ineffective gender champion since her appointment in 2019? When it comes to gender-based violence, President Cyril Ramaphosa, emerges to express concern, providing bland assurance that the inefficient police service will enforce the plethora of new laws to end the scourge. 

What hope for women in higher education? On Thursday, 29 September, former UN Women executive director Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was inaugurated as chancellor of UJ. Given her commitment to gender issues, she should have something to say about succession planning at the university the next time the role is vacant. 

On a broader level, however, questions related to the composition of selection committees and interview panels are crucial to learning how these processes unfold because deep agendas are at play without real consideration for gender imperatives. 

Strong candidates are often omitted when shortlists are drawn up — generally a closed, internal process with little or no external oversight or transparency. Why? We are not privy to the names of stronger candidates who might have been bumped off the list to make way for preferred candidates. 

The pattern of men ruling the roost is not unique to South Africa. In Kenya, only six out of 29 public universities are led by women. In Nigeria, which has 200 public and private universities, only six have women in charge. According to the Forum for Women Vice-Chancellors in Africa, out of 1 500 universities on the continent, just 40 are led by women.

Why aren’t the mothers, sisters and daughters of Africa allowed to lead? It has been said on numerous occasions that Africa has a patriarchal society. Institutions of higher learning are no exception to this pattern. But how does this narrative change? 

Former president of Mauritius, and renowned scientist, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim blames misogynistic behaviour for the absence of women in leadership positions. She argues that women are not meant to challenge the status quo, and the appointment of a woman is made through many lenses besides gender — class, ethnicity, tribe, political affinity. 

Higher education minister Dr Blade Nzimande seems to pay lip service to gender parity. Mary Metcalfe was his first director general but left when he allegedly attempted to use department funds for a Cuban jaunt. He’s never had a woman director general since. Under his watch, black African men have thrived in the education sector. I have not heard him complain. 

Nzimande will have you believe that the gender gap is closing. On 14 September, he revealed more women graduate with doctorates than men. The minister provides uplifting statistics that show women are outnumbering men when receiving scholarships. 

More women are being engaged in the tertiary space too. For years, there have been only four women vice-chancellors. That number has gone up by just a couple. There are more women deputy vice-chancellors. 

Several universities are running vice-chancellor’s academic development programmes to complement the department’s Future Professors Programme. 

One must give credit where it is due. Indeed, progress is being made. But it counts for nought when almost three decades after apartheid, we don’t trust women enough to appoint them to lead most of our institutions of higher learning. Is that because African men are the chosen ones? — © Higher Education Media Services

Edwin Naidu is a former editor of The Teacher, an M&G publication, and is now with Higher Education Media Services.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.