Wits’ new Vice-Chancellor designate, Professor Adam Habib, speaks boldly and acts boldly. Many are hoping he is the catalyst to take Wits to the next level as it moves towards its centenary in 2022.

“Oh good, it’s him” is the feeling many of us get when we see Prof Adam Habib has been asked for comment on TV. He’s intelligent, outspoken and charismatic – three qualities that are sorely missing in our country’s leadership, and precisely what we need to shake things up.

Occasionally he takes us by surprise and says something contrary to his characteristic approach. “Adam, how can you think that!” we address his screen image on first-name terms. We feel we can approach him, reproach him, and that instead of becoming aggressively defensive, which is the national way, he will listen to what we have to say and take the time to engage.

And so it was when the opportunity arose to interview him in person, I hoped that the man I was about to meet was the same man I already know from TV. He is. He is warm and engaging, he generously shares his stash of almonds and pistachio nuts, and he openly discusses everything from his childhood (his mother died when he was 10 and he was raised by two spinster aunts) to the bold actions required to put Wits in the lead.

Here follows some insight into Prof Habib the man and Prof Habib the Vice-Chancellor:

Professor Habib the man

In June this year Prof Habib is due to take up residence at Savernake, the historic residence of all Wits VCs since 1948. Situated on Parktown Ridge, it is a stately, heritage home but it is now in its 109th year and needs restoration.

The issue of leaders and their homes is a sore point for South Africa and Habib has wisely and astutely avoided the excess trap. Instead he has requested that all restoration be put on hold until he and the team led by Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Finance and Operations Professor Tawana Kupe have properly examined the costs involved “and separated what is necessary expenditure from extravagance”.

Until this is sorted out he will remain in his home in Saxonwold, which he shares with his wife Fatima and their two sons, Irfan (17) and Zidaan (14), both of whom are at Parktown Boys’ High School. “They chose to go there and they are happy there. It’s a good government school,” says Habib, who grew up in Pietermaritzburg, where he attended Woodlands Secondary School in Northdale, matriculating in 1983.

“I lived in Pietermaritzburg for the first 21 years of my life in the Indian part of town, as was the custom under apartheid’s categorisation.”

“I was old enough to understand that my mother was dying”

His father Mohammed Habib was a businessman who owned a grocery store but who subsequently moved to Botswana to pursue a business opportunity. This left young Adam in the care of his two aunts Jainab and Kairoon after his mother Kulsum died of breast cancer when he was just 10 years old. “I was old enough to understand that my mother was dying and I still remember the day I asked God to release her because I couldn’t bear to see her suffering any longer. She passed away the next day, which left me with both a sense of relief and guilt that I had somehow had a hand in this,” he recalls.

His two aunts already lived in the Habib home and took over the responsibility of raising their nephew. “I grew up pretty much as an only child because my two younger brothers were both born deaf and they went to boarding school for the hearing impaired. Maybe that’s why I talk so much – I speak for all three of us!” Habib, now 47, smiles.

His aunts indulged and over-protected him and felt no one was good enough for him, not even his wonderful wife Fatima, whom he met in his second year at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg (now the University of KwaZulu-Natal or UKZN).

“Fatima was a far more diligent student and would let me use her notes,” says Habib, who switched from a Science degree to a BA in History and Political Science.

His political awareness started at school

His political awareness started at school, where he first learnt about Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, and where they sang songs like Kumbaya My Lord, largely inspired by the civil rights movement in the United States. This intensified at university, where he got involved in the Unity Movement and the Sached Trust, focusing on education and literacy projects for black South Africans and trade unions. Trouble with the authorities inevitably followed, including a short period of detention in solitary confinement.

After Habib graduated with a BA from UKZN in 1987 he headed to Wits to do his Honours degree in Political Science, as did Fatima to do her Honours degree in Industrial Psychology.

We colluded to go to Wits

“We colluded to go to Wits to get away from family pressures as both of our families were opposed to our relationship, offering the ridiculous reason that we originate from different Indian linguistic groups, even though we are all English first language South Africans,” he explains.

Habib made his mark at Wits as a young Trotskyite and co-founder of the Socialist Action Party, with linkages to various workerist organisations and the Socialist Party in England. He wanted to become a junior lecturer at Wits but was told there weren’t any opportunities. That took him back to KwaZulu-Natal, where he secured his first academic position at the then University of Durban-Westville (UDW) as a junior lecturer in politics, and completed his Masters. Fatima also returned and started working in human resources at Deloittes.

“It was the late 1980s, early 1990s and UDW was a centre of activism with political meetings being held all the time, including the ANC’s first unbanning conference. The old administration was being overthrown, the university was dramatically changing its profile to a largely black South African student body and the first black VC was appointed,” he recalls.

“We wanted him to be born on South African soil”

The early 1990s also took Habib to the United States on a scholarship to do his PhD in Political Studies at the City University of New York. He and Fatima were married by this time and she spent time with him in New York, returning to South Africa to give birth to their eldest son Irfan in 1995. “We wanted him to be born on South African soil,” says Habib.

In the years that followed he worked as a research director at the Centre for Civil Society at UKZN and at the Human Sciences Research Council, specialising in democracy and governance studies and producing seminal publications, such as the first affirmative action publication, Racial Redress and Citizenship in South Africa, which he co-edited.

This year he and Fatima celebrate 23 years of marriage and they are strong role models of the kind of mutual support and freedom a marriage requires when both partners choose to pursue their ambitions. In 2012, for example, Fatima commuted between Johannesburg and Cape Town, spending the week in Cape Town, where she held an executive position in the city’s municipality, and coming home on weekends.

Hone their ping-pong skills

Habib and his sons used the time that Fatima was away to hone their ping-pong skills, with Irfan as reigning champion. “Fatima is very tolerant – the ping-pong table is right next to her beautiful dining room,” comments Habib.

Apart from playing ping-pong, he likes to run to keep fit, but of late he has had to pace down to a fast walk, as his knees aren’t what they used to be. “I like to do five or six kilometres in my neighbourhood at a stretch, but it takes time and I don’t always get to it.”

When they can get away, the family love the beach and bushveld. “We make a point of taking a holiday in December when we go and sit on the beach in Durban.” If they have a day or three free during the year he enjoys going to Kruger National Park or a game reserve closer to home.

You grapple with the anxiety that your children will be safe

2013 is a big year for the Habibs with Adam’s new job and Irfan in matric. The jury is out as to whether he will apply to Wits to study next year; astrophysics is his chosen field. “As your children grow up and go into the world you grapple with the anxiety that they will be safe,” says Habib.

“We’ve encouraged our sons to be as open as possible with us, about everything from politics to emotions to alcohol or drugs. We all know the extent of the problem these days,” says Habib who is a teetotaler by choice; always has been: “Even in the old days when we would spend long evenings in Kippies listening to jazz…” But that’s another chapter.

Professor Habib the Vice-Chancellor

We’ve heard many times what higher education needs. We’ve read the reports and there have been numerous conferences, workshops and round tables, but where is the bold action?

How about quadrupling your postdoctoral student numbers by paying them good salaries? How about offering 80 Masters students and 40 top PhD students a well-paid “new generation scholarship” for two years, which also guarantees all the PhDs who graduate a job at the university at the end?

That’s one of the programmes Prof Habib initiated at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) in his role as Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, a post that he held for five years, from 2007 until coming to Wits.

This particular programme, which ends in 2014, will inject new academic blood and healthy demographics into UJ. The demographics of the students are as follows: 70% black, 30% white, 50% women, 90% South African, 10% non-South African.

Everyone has a place in our society and at Wits University

“I want to send out a clear signal to all sides of South African society that everyone has a place in our society and at Wits University,” states Habib. “We need strong staff irrespective of their colour and we need to be pragmatic about this, not overly ideological. I am convinced that we can advance equity efficiently while at the same time attracting a new generation that is non-racially constructed. For me none of these goals are mutually exclusive.”

Wits has its own “new generation scholars” programme but Habib says it is not clear how many graduates it produced. “We need tighter management of existing programmes and we will be initiating a range of new programmes that offer custom-made, contextual solutions to substantially increase Wits’ postgraduate and postdoctoral numbers, and its research output. This is part of Wits’ vision to become 50% postgraduate, which I support.”

Research incentives and competitive salaries

Towards achieving this he will be introducing research incentives and competitive salaries for academics to retain and attract the best. “If you want a world-class university you need to support innovative research and pay competitive salaries that offer academics a good middle-class lifestyle in Johannesburg,” says Habib. He will also be leading a PhD drive at Wits towards achieving a greater percentage of academic staff with PhDs.

“We need staff members with PhDs who can supervise the next generation of PhD students and we need to increase the general quality of postgraduate supervision at the University, which is deficient. Even the best academic is not necessarily a good supervisor; this requires specific skills sets that academics need to learn.”

While addressing the University’s academic needs, he will at the same time be addressing the needs of the support staff, the students and the finance office.

Bring everyone together for the common good

Habib has expansively researched and written about how to manage South African universities. “A priority of mine will be to build a university pact between the unions, management and students to bring everyone together for the common good,” he says.

Money is always an object for universities and, in collaboration with the DVC of Finance and Operations, he wants to explore how to manage the University’s money more effectively.

Another goal of Habib’s is to raise the public profile of Wits, as he did at UJ. “Universities should be at the forefront of public discourse on the widest range of issues, including education, politics, business, climate change, HIV/Aids, human rights and new technologies,” he says.

There is a view that a Vice-Chancellor should not be so publicly outspoken, but he disagrees. “We need to engage our society, engage our world. This notion that universities are somehow separate from society doesn’t exist anywhere in the world,” says Habib, adding that outgoing VC Professor Loyiso Nongxa has created a strong social legacy on which he intends to build, including programmes that attract students from the rural areas.

When we open doors it creates hope in our society

“I would like to introduce a Wits scholarship based on merit for students from the most impoverished schools in South Africa. Research has shown that if you put the best scholars from these environments into a strong, supportive academic institution, they perform well. When we open doors like this it creates hope in our society and it conveys the message that a world-class university is not simply for the rich.”

Habib is publicly vocal about the need to actively uplift the poor in our society. “Empathy for the poor should be part of our humanity and concern for the millions of young people in our country who have no employment or educational prospects should be as big a concern to business as it should be to the government because it is a ticking time bomb. We are all keenly aware of the failures and corruption of government but the business elite need to look equally hard at themselves and realise that their interests and the interests of their shareholders cannot be to the exclusion of the society they live in.”

South Africa has “incredible challenges” to face but there is nowhere in the world he would rather be: “This is where our memories are made; this is home. Home is where, irrespective of our colour or religion or gender, we stand up for our right to be here and commit to working together to ensure a better future for all of us. I look forward to my time at Wits, and I look forward to working together to see how much we can achieve in the decade leading to Wits’ 100th birthday.”

Professor Kgethi Phakeng, President of Wits Convocation

What do you think of Prof Habib’s appointment as Wits VC? 
It gives me great pleasure to offer my congratulations and support to Prof Habib on his appointment. He is a very gifted man; he is eloquent and passionate, he has a convincing personality and he has invaluable experience in higher education, all of which will serve to put Wits and the excellent work that it does in the public space. I am encouraged by his unique vision for Wits future and his commitment to the University’s 2022 vision to become one of the top 100 universities in the world. At the same time I am cautious because I wonder whether his identity as a political analyst has the potential to divert attention from the excellent work that Wits does and the work that he will do as Vice-Chancellor and Principal. My hope is that his identity as a political analyst does not earn us, as a University, enemies or perhaps temporary friends. As they say, in politics there are no permanent friends or foes, only permanent interests. What is important is not who the potential enemies or temporary friends are, but rather whose interests he might be serving in his political commentatorship. My view is that the jury is still out on this one. Having said this, there are also definitely advantages to having a VC who is a public intellectual. Prof Habib is very astute and I am sure he has already thought about how he will use his role as a political analyst to benefit the University.

What do you think he will bring to Wits?
He is astute and he brings a lot of energy and willingness to engage and a much-needed realisation that Wits has to be socially responsive to our national and regional concerns. I am also curious to see what a political scientist and highly respected scholar who cites Karl Marx and Leon Trotsky as his key influences will bring to Wits, which is known internationally for its achievements in science, medicine and engineering. 

Do you have any concerns about his appointment? 
I do not have concerns, I am just curious to see how he deals with the competing demands in an institution such as Wits: demands for free higher education or reduced registration fees and the need to make sure that the University remains financially sustainable. I know that he has put a lot of work into how to attend to this and perhaps will surprise many. We as Convocation are ready to work with him as he tackles the challenge of balancing these sometimes competing demands. 

What do you think he will bring to higher education in South Africa?
I would like to be a fly on the wall at one of the meetings of Higher Education South Africa

[the body that represents university leadership] with Jonathan Jansen, Adam Habib, Malegapuru Makgoba and Ihron Rensburg all in the room. If the matter is political I can imagine a heated debate. I think several Vice-Chancellors like Profs Makgoba and Jansen have managed to challenge not just higher education but the entire country to think critically about education and academia. I suspect Prof Habib will do the same. I am sure that not everyone will agree with him all the time but he will make his voice heard and earn himself converts.