The University of South Africa has a long and illustrious history as South Africa’s oldest and largest University. Tracing its journey as the first dedicated provider of distance education in the world, to its current status as the largest distance education institution on the Continent and one of the world’s mega institutions, one discerns that Unisa’s longevity can in large part be ascribed to its ability to adapt to prevailing socio-political and economic dynamics, both locally and internationally.
In line with South Africa’s’ transition to a new democracy in 1994, higher education in the country embarked on a process of fundamental transformation, which included a number of mergers and incorporations that reduced the number of public higher education institutions from 36 to 23. In 2004, the former Unisa merged with the former Technikon Southern Africa and then incorporated Vudec, the distance education component of Vista University, to form the new University of South Africa, the only dedicated distance education institution in South Africa.
Throughout South Africa’s’ rich and diverse history Unisa has been steadfast in its assertion of its mandate to provide a quality education to its students, irrespective of circumstance. This commitment has ensured that even in the most turbulent times, the Institution has been a steady and stable beacon of opportunity and hope. As a result, Unisa has amongst its alumni some of the worlds’ most iconic figures, including our beloved Nelson Mandela.
Obviously, a key consideration in the success of Unisa has been the calibre of its management and leadership, and the years since the merger have been no exception. The institution has been blessed with leadership that has not only concluded the merger successfully, but also positioned it at the cutting edge of sound corporate governance and management practice, locally and internationally.
The first five years of the merger (which commenced in 2004) were of necessity dedicated to the structural and systemic reconfiguration on the new Institution, and the establishment of its academic and institutional identity. Together with his management team then Vice Chancellor Prof N Barney Pityana laid the foundation for the next phase in the Institutions’ growth towards its vision to be the African university in the service of humanity. The successful attainment of those goals provided the space for its new leader to focus more concertedly on the people of Unisa, both staff and students, and with this in mind, it was with great joy and celebration that on 16 February 2011, Prof Mandla Stanley Makhanya was inaugurated as the 2nd Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the new University of South Africa, following on the retirement of Professor Pityana.
Professor Mandla Makhanya is a “people’s person.” A sociologist by training and practice, he is dedicated to the practice of servant leadership. Having occupied the position of Pro Vice-Chancellor prior to his appointment as Vice Chancellor, his progression to this next and final position of top management and leadership testifies to his leadership abilities and the acknowledgement and respect that he enjoys amongst the Unisa and higher education community.
Acknowledging the diversity of the Institution, Prof Makhanya has likened Unisa to a mosaic whose pieces have individual characteristics, which collectively, ultimately contribute to a magnificent work of art. Prof Makhanya’s inauguration provided some indication of the inclusivity that will become the hallmark of Unisa in the years ahead, an inclusivity that is a characteristic of the servant leadership which he holds so dear to his heart.
He asserts: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but to test a man’s character, give him power”. I cannot conceive of leadership that is devoid of love. Leadership must be accompanied by loving those that you lead. This type of leadership yields love from all of the staff members that you are leading. What then follows is hard work of highly committed members of staff, who are committed to the institution that they work for, and also committed to you as their leader.”
Leadership is defined by servanthood and therefore associated with attributes such as listening, empathy, awareness, persuasion, stewardship, growth, and building community. “You lead simply because you become a servant of those that you are leading.” Leadership is also defined by a high set of values and ethics, he says. “Trust and integrity top the list but so does self-discipline. These values rub off on those you are leading. I also believe that humility is part of servant leadership.
Above all, I see leadership as a journey in positive thinking and action. “So if one leads with optimism and positive energy one will inspire this kind of mindset in those you lead.” Above all, Unisa is dedicated to ensuring that the quality and relevance of its offerings is continually refined and improved in line with its commitment to being an African university focused on developing African knowledge and research. To this end Unisa intends growing on its already illustrious reputation locally and abroad.
Through a strong ethos and practice of servant leadership, a clear focus on the way forward, an unambiguous vision, mission and values, and a commitment to excellence in all that it does, Unisa is poised to grow from strength-to-strength.