This morning I experienced a multi-faceted insight into the role of an insightful, articulate and profound leader. The newly appointed Vice Chancellor of the University of Cape Town, who in the days of Apartheid belonged to the previously disadvantage population in South Africa is now leading transformation at the University of Cape Town. This institution is one of the leading universities on the African Continent and Mamokgethi Phakeng articulated her vision for retaining the excellence of the institution she is now leading. The Professor addressed members of the University of the Third Age on her ongoing challenges in creating a multi-cultural hub for tertiary education. This is despite the fact that a short twenty years ago this institution was reserved for White South Africans only.
The past three years there has been ongoing confrontation around student fees and what is considered to be a Colonial educational system. The Vice-Chancellor has a critical role in helping this place of learning to become a truly multi-racial institution. The present incumbent impressed me with her ability to do a great job in masterminding these critical changes in orientation.
She set a precedent by refusing to have the customary Inaugural Ceremony and asked that the money which would have been spent on ceremony, be contributed to pay the fees of students from impoverished backgrounds. In addition she has donated 10% of her salary to a fund which assists post-graduate students in acquiring the means necessary for further study.
She emphasised the importance of the freedom of speech on a university campus. Unlike in politics, in business, or even in a family situation, no reasoned discussion can be discounted because of its subject matter. All points of view and all perspectives must be tolerated on the Campus and freedom of thought and expression could never be compromised.
Professor Phakeng articulated brilliantly the three cornerstones of her approach to leading this illustrious educational institution. Excellence must never be compromised; transformation is a top priority whilst attention must be given to retaining the stability of the institution at all times. The profundity of her wise outlook and her practical approach was beautifully articulated during her presentation. However it was when question time arrived that her true brilliance was demonstrated.
The Professor was asked how she planned to create a sense of homogeneity in a campus where people hailed from such a diverse array of cultural backgrounds. “On the contrary,” explained the guest speaker, “it is our aim and ambition to embrace diversity at UCT” She went on to quote many education institutions around the world which were able to cope with students from different external cultures, as well as the diverse ethnic groups in their own homeland. She continued to articulate a policy in which all values can be respected, debated and encouraged. No attempt would be made to formulate a limited value system.
A doctor in the audience questioned the speaker about what she had learned when a talented member of staff at UCT had last year committed suicide because of the pressure of not being able to accommodate what he considered the rightful demands of students. This man was universally considered not only a top scholar but a man of the greatest integrity who belonged to the Xhosa nation.
Without flinching came the response. “What I have learned is that the mental health of staff and students must at all times be a priority. Insufficient attention has been given in the past to the psychological challenges which are experienced by both staff and students during the present process of change.” She went on to explain, “We have set up special mechanisms to encourage members of UCT staff to discuss their personal challenges. There will be regular meetings at which they can receive proper support and counselling.”
I left the presentation feeling that my Alma Mata is in good hands. The University of Cape Town would retain its reputation for excellence in both teaching and research under the direction of this hard working lady who understands the challenges of transformation and has both the commitment and the ability to bring her vision into reality.