He had been a month in the job when I spoke to the new vice-chancellor (VC) of the University of Witwatersrand, Ziblon Vilakazi.
He was still as excited about the job as he was when the university council announced in June 2020 that he would be the person taking over from Adam Habib on 1 January this year.
“I arrived at a campus that was empty,” he says. None of the usual welcoming activities that staff members usually hold for new vice-chancellors took place, as the muted tone of the second wave lockdown prevailed.
Generally, Vilakazi says, there is less movement on campus in January because students have not yet arrived, but staff members are usually back. Not this year.
“My entire corridor was empty except for my support staff that was there to receive me. That was quite strange,” he says. “It was surreal.”
At that moment it dawned on him that he is a “Covid-19 administrator” of a higher education institution.
But although this unnerving quietness characterised his first month on the job at Wits, it soon gave way to the bustle of campus politics.
For the past two weeks, the Economic Freedom Fighters student command branch at Wits has been holding peaceful protests demanding, among other things, that all students with historical debts be registered.
The student representative council has started a campaign to raise R21-million to help fund students who can’t afford to pay their fees and face being financially excluded
Vilakazi told me that the financial crunch the university finds itself in and student debt are just some of the pressing challenges he walked into.
He says the world economy has been severely affected financially by the Covid-19 pandemic and universities are not immune to this crisis.
“That is one of the big challenges we face. How to manage under Covid and also, of course, how do we adequately slice and dice the cake? You have to ensure that you continue the [academic] programme and yet you do not make the university incur unnecessary debt. It’s a tough balancing act.”
The income streams of the university are not big enough, according to Vilakazi, and the reality is that many families have financial difficulties of their own as a result of the pandemic, which means they may fail to sustain the education of their children.
Vilakazi says he expected these complications.
Even though he was exposed to them when he was Wits’s deputy vice-chancellor for research and postgraduate studies, he is acutely aware now that as vice-chancellor, the buck stops with him.
“I was aware of the challenges. As the management team our job is to manage this, we are paid for it. We put our hands up, some of us, to take up these positions in the middle of a Covid crisis. I did not walk into this blindly,” he says. “I am sure we will manage it and, believe it or not, the university will emerge stronger after this. We just have to be a bit efficient and smarter in how we conduct our business.”
After a seven-year stint as a deputy vice-chancellor, the nuclear physicist says he had initially planned to take a sabbatical to clear his head and think about going back to academia.
But, when Habib left, friends and colleagues urged him to apply for the top job.
Those who persuaded him to apply said his time in senior management at Wits meant he had gained enough experience to take the university forward.
Others believed he had the appropriate academic standing and global profile to take Wits to the next level. So Vilakazi applied, and got the job.
Now that he is steering the ship, there are a couple of things that Vilakazi would like to accomplish while at the helm.
The most urgent for him is to see Wits at the centre of driving Africa’s technological innovation in the century to come.
“It’s a big dream, but it can be done.”
He says there is an intellectual challenge for leaders in the education and technological space to ensure that they build institutions that are capable of producing people who can make a meaningful contribution to global knowledge and not just be consumers of all the apps that come from abroad.
“The vision is Wits of the next century long after we are gone. A university that has at least played a part in entering South Africa and the continent into the technological innovation age.
“At least produce a generation of thinkers that will not be spectators in this next frontier of global conflict but be participants in it. If I achieve 10% of it as a VC I will be more than happy. The rest will be taken care of by those that will come after me.”
Vilakazi says Wits has the right tools to achieve this, including its location. The university attracts the “brightest students” in the system, is rated among the top institutions on the continent and also has a pool of “the best candidates on the continent and the world. That is the spark that will take us from our research output, which has been excellent, to now move to the next level of innovation.
“We have built an innovation hub next to Wits — Tshimologong [Digital Innovation Precinct] — that is one of our means of converting some of the African-based knowledge driven systems of solving problems that we face on the African continent.”
He admits he himself is not cut from an innovator’s cloth, but “I know guys who can help”, and what he can do is to put the right policies and strategies in place to see this take off.
The new vice-chancellor says Covid-19 will come and go and although it is important to focus on the challenges that have come with the virus it is also important to plan for the future and not be caught off guard.
“The future is not running away,” he says. “It is waiting for you to either seize it or it will control you.”