/ 10 October 2022

Tshilidzi Marwala took University of Johannesburg to a new level

Tshilidzi Marwala.

Since the announcement of the imminent departure of Professor Tshilidzi Marwala from the University of Johannesburg, myself and other UJ council members have had to field tough questions on the future of the university. 

As is now public knowledge, Marwala is due to take up a new job as the rector and principal of the United Nations University in Tokyo, Japan, from March 2023. While most of the people tried to be diplomatic in their questions, one could feel undertones of concerns that Marwala’s departure might slow down or, at worse, disrupt the progress of the last few years. 

It was not as if the sentiments were unexpected. In December last year, excitement was palpable among the university community when the council renewed Marwala’s contract, after consultations with various university constituencies. That meant the doyen of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), or Mr 4IR personified, as I call Marwala, had five more years to consolidate the progress attained since he took office in January 2018. And so people have been talking — not just within the corridors of the university but outside too. 

But those of us who worked closely with Tshilidzi (I always address him by his first name or, son of Alphaeus), were less surprised about him going global. His rise to the pinnacle of higher education has been meteoric.

Since he took over in 2018, the university has been on an upward trajectory. UJ has soared in the various national and global rankings, which is a testament to its impressive research output and academic programmes that saw the institution climb to the second-position university in South Africa. 

The university has also seen an improvement in its technological operations while ensuring financial sustainability, despite the challenges of under-funding and the devastation wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic. Understandably, his departure all seemed sudden. 

Tshilidzi broke the news on his return from the United States in August when he invited me for lunch. I could tell by the spark in his eye that he had another wild scheme in mind. Although he was evidently emotional about leaving UJ, he made it clear that it was the right time to take a new challenge, having contributed immensely to catapulting the university to greater heights.

“Ndiyahamba,” he said in isiZulu, before switching to TshiVenda: “Ndi a tshimbila. Kha vha sale zwavhudi.” Suddenly, a whole new world was opening up for the son of proletariats from a far-flung village in Venda. 

Admittedly, I too was first worried. I fell into a deep trance, unnerved by the timing of it all. His imminent departure means that he leaves UJ just as the terms of the university registrar and chancellor end. 

I reflected on the time I was first approached to join the council of the university back in 2013. I became the chairperson of the council at the same time that Tshilidzi was taking over as the vice-chancellor and principal in early 2018, after serving as a member of the council and then as the chairperson of the human resources committee of the council. 

Later on, as we sat in his office and he outlined plans and vision for the university, I was starstruck. The words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that “mediocrity knows nothing higher than itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius”, came to mind as we settled down for dinner that evening. 

Tshilidzi waxed lyrical about his grand plans to augment the strategy of the university by driving the 4IR theme. In anticipation of what is arguably our reality now, he spoke passionately about how he was going to introduce Industry 4.0, or the 4IR, as part of the already existing global excellence and stature strategy that the university adopted in 2013. The goal of this was to not only position the university strategically in the context of the changing social, political, and economic fortunes of Africa but to contribute to society’s development in this field as well. 

I believe that in life, as we meet different people from different backgrounds, we will be fortunate to meet those who will teach us things, those who will disappoint us, those who will be super humans and those who will be vexations. 

Tshilidzi is the one of a kind, a “wunderkind”. Each time he talks about artificial intelligence and 4IR, you feel that he is in the zone. He flows. As Bruce Lee said: “Be water, my friend.” He is also the type of leader who leads through influence rather than throwing his weight around. You could tell from the moment he assumed office that it was not going to be a single individual’s role. 

He recognised the importance of the collective as a necessary ingredient for success. He recognised that the task needed more hands on deck. Tshilidzi worked well with the council, the executive leadership group, the management executive committee, senate and all other critical internal and external key role players. He made things easier by being deeply collegial. 

In Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, Tshilidzi’s successor, we have an accomplished and astute leader with the expertise and charisma to take UJ to another level. 

The unassuming but accomplished Professor Bertine van Vuuren will take over from Professor Kinta Burger, while a new chairperson will soon take over from me. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the former deputy president of South Africa and former under secretary executive director of UN Women, has taken over from Professor Njabulo Ndebele. 

Just as it was the case previously, change provides an opportunity to reimagine ourselves and strengthen and improve on the gains of the past years. As the author Mandy Hale once observed: “Change can be scary, but you know what’s scarier? Allowing fear to stop you from growing, evolving, and progressing.” As Malcolm X would say: “And just because you have colleges and universities doesn’t mean you have education.”

I learned a great deal about the role of a university council. I was not under any illusion about the enormity of the job and the fact that it is not about money or personal gratifications. Yet, I knew it came with a lot of responsibility, because it involved playing an oversight role for the university’s operations. As the custodian of a great treasure in society, understanding the importance of maintaining high ethical conduct and standards and protecting its assets is paramount.  

Additionally, I now understand and appreciate the importance of research and particularly its effect on the institution, individuals and society.  Getting to interact with individuals who are well-educated and still wanting to continue to teach and to learn themselves has made me see the world with a different eye. It made me realise that the world is not doing enough to encourage teachers, lecturers and professors. 

As Tshilidzi prepares to start the next chapter of his life, we should celebrate that as the triumph of the human spirit — something that inspires us to want to do more in our personal and professional endeavours. To see one of our own rising to the global stage is something to be celebrated, especially in a world characterised by negativity, anxiety and depression. 

While the land of the rising sun gains in Tshilidzi, the great community of the University of Johannesburg, united as always, usher a new era of the beckoning challenge to achieve the stature of excellence.

Ro livhuwa nga maanda, vha tshimbile zwavhudi! 

Mike Teke is the outgoing chair of the University of Johannesburg council and chief executive officer at Seriti Resources Holdings. He writes in his personal capacity.

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