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Change the world


This article appeared in Business Day of 15 November 2017 written by Heather Dugmore.

Outgoing NMMU Derrick Swartz vice-chancellor says Sibongile Muthwa’s appointment is a historic moment in the life of the university.

The world’s only university to carry Nelson Mandela’s name appointed its first female vice-chancellor and its first black African female vice-chancellor, Sibongile Muthwa, in October.

Muthwa grew up in Umbumbulu, in southern KwaZulu-Natal.

"My love of reading came from my grandfather, who had taught himself to read. My father was a teacher and my mother a nurse, but growing up we spent most of our time with our grandparents and I was particularly close to my grandfather," Muthwa says.

"Umbumbulu was much more rural then; today, like many rural areas in post-apartheid SA, people have access to running water, electricity, television and many forms of modern technology. But when I grew up, old newspapers were our main source of news, and, as the saying goes, ‘news is not old if you haven’t read it yet’."

Because of the sacrifices of her family and community leaders who believed in her as a young child, she was able to access an excellent education, including schooling at Sacred Heart Secondary School in Verulam, KwaZulu-Natal.

"My journey has inspired my commitment to contribute to changing the trajectory of every young person whose life I have the privilege to touch," she says.

Muthwa holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, an MSc in development policy and planning from the London School of Economics, a BA honours from Wits University and a BA in social work from the University of Fort Hare.

From 1999 to 2004, she was the director of the Fort Hare Institute of Government. Muthwa served as director-general of the Eastern Cape government from 2004 to 2010 and was deputy vice-chancellor for institutional support at Nelson Mandela University until 2016, when she was also acting vice-chancellor and demonstrated her ability to manage complex, volatile dynamics with skill, compassion and courage.

She takes over from Derrick Swartz, who has served the institution for two successive terms since 2007. Swartz says Muthwa’s appointment is a historic moment in the life of the university.

"It is an exceedingly proud moment for us all. Dr Muthwa serves doubly as the first woman vice-chancellor and the first black African woman vice-chancellor in the history of the university, and without doubt, will inspire new generations to rise to the highest levels of achievement. We are absolutely delighted with her appointment," Swartz says.

An experienced strategist and internationalist, Muthwa is well placed to lead the university into the new era.

The sector and country are "at a crossroads. As a higher education institution, we need to be acutely attuned to the issues of our country including poverty and inequality, and to be committed to improving the lives and educational opportunities of the marginalised in particular. The calls for free education for the poor have made this task urgent and critical.

"At Nelson Mandela [University], we are devising means to increase our revenue through cost containment and efficiency measures, new programmes, a diversified student body and third-stream income," she says.

"Cognisant of the implications of local and global economic and geopolitical developments for the sustainability of a modern university, our university is securing its place in the global arena by driving innovations geared to solving current and future problems, including environmental degradation, food insecurity, rapid migration and global injustice."

The university’s new Ocean Sciences campus and new interprofessional education health sciences strategy, which includes the development of a new medical school — SA’s 10th — positions the university to attract strategic partnerships and to secure the talent of world-renowned academics, scholars and researchers.

"We see ourselves as a driver of change in Africa and the global south. The challenge, one that is facing all South African universities, is to develop a strong student and postgraduate pipeline.

"University first-time entrants in SA are often ill-prepared for tertiary education due to the generally poor schooling system. This requires of the university to strengthen our instructional support and foundational programmes, as well as enhance our existing early warning systems to ensure that all our students are in a conducive environment to complete their qualifications on time," Muthwa says.

The university is committed to improving education in the Eastern Cape from the first day of school through its focus on the foundation phase.

Muthwa says that foundation-phase teachers guide the development of each child from grade R to grade 3, developing their mathematical ability, language and literacy, self-concept and self-confidence. How and what they teach has a profound influence on the rest of the pupil’s live, including their ability to get a university education.

She is unequivocal that everyone with academic ability should have an opportunity to attend university. If they cannot afford it, it must be free.

The post of vice-chancellor at any South African university is one of the most complex and difficult jobs in the land, and Muthwa is under no illusions. During the 2015-16 #FeesMustFall protests, she played a prominent role in managing the volatile environment, as student affairs was part of her portfolio and she was acting vice-chancellor for part of 2016.

"While the contestation of ideas, and paradigms, and constant engagement on issues of change and transformation in particular, are hallmarks of a learning institution, at the same time we need to carefully manage the dynamics to ensure that these contestations happen within the framework of mutual respect, respect for human rights and human dignity," she says.

"This university has long embarked on courageous conversations about the nature of the institution we want to become. Having been part of this journey, and in various ways influenced many of the positions that have been adopted, I have particular affinity with our vision to be a dynamic African university, recognised for our humanising pedagogy and leadership in cutting-edge knowledge for a more just, sustainable future.

"I am indebted to Prof Swartz for his sterling and visionary work in laying these foundations and for his inspirational leadership over the past decade. We will continue to strive, with great pride and humility, to live up to our responsibility of leading the only university in the world that carries Nelson Mandela’s name," Muthwa says.

Sibongile Muthwa addresses students during a mass meeting at the Kraal on the university’s south campus. Picture: BRIAN WITBOOI 

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