Nelson Mandela University, the only university in the world to carry Nelson Mandela’s name has its first woman Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa. She is joined by two other top-ranking women in leading the university: the new Chancellor, Dr Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, and the new Chair of Council, Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill.

All three assumed their posts in 2018 in an historic triumph for higher education in South Africa as it is the first time that any South African university has appointed three women to the helm. Significantly, this has taken place in the centenary year of the birth of Nelson Mandela who would certainly have celebrated his namesake university being steered by women as he was often referred to as a male feminist.

At the opening of South Africa’s first democratic parliament in 1994, in his capacity as the country’s first democratic president, he pronounced: Freedom cannot be achieved unless women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression… Our endeavours must be about the liberation of the woman, the emancipation of the man and the liberty of the child.

The portrait of Prof Muthwa starts with her as a young girl growing up in Umbumbulu, 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.

“Umbumbulu was much more rural then; today, like many rural areas in post-apartheid South Africa, 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’.”

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

This enabled Prof Muthwa to advance to where she is today – a symbol of what South Africa can be. “My journey has inspired my commitment to contribute to changing the trajectory of every young person whose life I have the privilege to touch.”

Prof 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 University Institute of Government for five years. From 2004 to 2010 she served as Director General of the Eastern Cape provincial government. From 2010 to 2017 she served as Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Institutional Support at Nelson Mandela University. In 2016 she also served as Acting Vice-Chancellor and demonstrated her ability to manage complex, volatile dynamics with skill, compassion and courage.

Prof Muthwa takes over from Professor Derrick Swartz, who served the university with distinction for two successive terms, since 2007.  Prof Swartz says Dr Muthwa’s appointment is an historic moment in the life of the University. “It is an exceedingly proud moment for us all. Professor 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.”

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

“As we all know, our sector and country is 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 all those who cannot afford it have made this task urgent and critical.

Prof Muthwa is unequivocal that every person with academic ability should have the opportunity to attend university. If they cannot afford it, because of poverty – a situation many families find themselves in – it must be free.

One of the commanding challenges facing all our universities is, of course, resource sustainability. Towards addressing this, Prof Muthwa says: “At Nelson Mandela we are devising means to increase our revenue through cost containment and efficiency measures, new programmes, a diversified student body, and third stream income.

“Cognisant of the implications of local and global economic and geopolitical developments for the sustainability of a modern university, our university is securing our 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.

“Our new Ocean Sciences Campus and our new inter-professional education Health Sciences strategy, which includes the development of a new Medical School, South Africa’s 10th, has placed us in an advantageous position to attract strategic partnerships, and secure the talent of world-renowned academics, scholars and researchers in key and diverse fields of science, technology, innovation and the humanities.

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

Nelson Mandela University is committed to improving education in the Eastern Cape from the first day of school through its focus on the Foundation Phase. Dr Muthwa explains that Foundation Phase teachers guide the development of each child from Grade R to Grade 3, from age 5 to 9, developing their mathematical ability, language and literacy, self-concept and self-confidence. How and what they teach has a profound influences on the rest of these children’s lives, including their ability to get a university education.

The post of Vice-Chancellor at a South Africanuniversity today is one of the most complex, difficult jobs in the land, and Prof Muthwa is under no illusions. During the 2015/16 #FeesMustFall environment she played a prominent role in managing the volatile environment, as Student Affairs was part of her portfolio, and she was also acting Vice-Chancellor for part of 2016.

She explains that “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.

“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 Professor 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.”