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In conversation with Unisa’s Chancellor

“We need honest intelligentsia inputs. Not a university as an ivory tower but a place of learning, research, teaching, and a place that engages its communities.” ~ Unisa Chancellor.

Speaking to students, diplomats and members of the media at the ZK Matthews Hall on 21 September 2022, Unisa Chancellor and former South African President, Dr Thabo Mbeki, pointed out the fundamental topics that are key to strengthening democracy, international solidarity and especially Pan-Africanism in the continent. The event was hosted by the university and the Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs (TM-School). 

Facilitated by Professor Edith Phaswana, the TM-School Director, the conversation with the Chancellor takes place twice each year and allows students to interact with him on pertinent issues that affect Africans. However, the conversations are also attracting members of the public and many are interested in hearing views from the Chancellor on several topics.

Prof. Edith Phaswana, TM-School Director.

In her opening statement, Phaswana said that Thabo Mbeki spent his youthful years struggling for social change to develop the future of African leaders and to change the African continent for social transformation purposes. “TM-School and Unisa cannot miss out in this learning opportunity and investment the Chancellor is making in educating and engaging societies.”

In addition, Professor Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo, the Executive Dean of TM-School, reiterated that the continent has an abundance of knowledge, hence education must be used to the best of African abilities. “Therefore,” he said, “these conversations are intended to create a new knowledge for a brighter future.” He also announced that TM-School is going to be relocated to Irene, Centurion.

In the first round of the question-and-answer session, the Chancellor responded to a question raised by a student on his (the Chancellor’s) silence pertaining to the challenges students are raising regarding Unisa. Dr Mbeki encouraged students to understand the structure of universities and the roles of leaders within these institutions, especially the role of Chancellors at South African higher education institutions. “Chancellors at our universities do not take part in the management and operational issues of their institutions,” said Dr Mbeki. He stated that it was incumbent on these individuals to maintain that distance. “It is also important to understand the reality of the issues we are dealing with,” he concluded his reply.

One of the roles that was highlighted when the Unisa Chancellor was inaugurated was one of being a titular head who confers the university’s qualifications and a global ambassador for the university. Additionally, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC), Professor Puleng LenkaBula, expressed that the university is highly honoured and privileged to have Dr Mbeki as its Chancellor and to house a Presidential Library carrying his name.

The VC gave a comprehensive introduction that summed up the intellectual stature of the Chancellor in education, politics, and continental matters.  LenkaBula said the Chancellor encourages substantive engagements to emancipate not only the country but also the continent.

She further said, “the building of societies can be possible if we allow participatory of epistemic communities and listening attentively to issues raised.” LenkaBula reflected on the presidential imbizos during Mbeki’s tenure, which allowed the idea of knowledge sharing and storytelling. She concluded that the dialogues were an epistemic advantage to understand the voices of societies.

The list of questions the Chancellor tackled with the students included economic, energy, gender, and leadership challenges.

The Chancellor responded that energy matters reflect on the quality of leadership we have in the country. He said that engineers and economists can manage Eskom matters effectively, not politicians. He further questioned the handling of tenders in Eskom and the reasoning behind breaking contracts to increase possibilities for black economic empowerment.

The Chancellor further discussed the possibilities of the continent in developing its economy. “Africans should agree that Africa needs a common monetary policy and an African currency,” he said. “What is it that we can practically do to come to a stage where we introduce that currency?” He spoke comprehensively on drafting a detailed plan and strategy rather than aspirations contained in documents. The Chancellor also pointed out the reasons why the National Development Plan (NDP) was never executed. “The NDP was never a plan, hence nothing has not been done. It was just written aspirations.”

The Chancellor said there is a continental policy on stolen African artefacts, and that it is a matter of a continuous struggle. His opinion on the unemployment issue is that the government should involve South African business.

One of the other issues that the Chancellor focused on was the challenges born out of patriarchy. “We inherit patriarchal societies worldwide,” he concluded. “Our aspiration is that women play an equal role with men without discrimination, but the progressive movement in South Africa is weak. Women leaders in Africa should engage in gender mainstreaming to defeat patriarchy.”

Unisa Chancellor and former South African President Thabo Mbeki, Principal and Vice-Chancellor Prof. Puleng LenkaBula, and TM-School Executive Dean Prof. Sibusiso Vil-Nkomo.

*By Lesego Chiloane-Ravhudzulo, Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2022/09/22