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Upholding the Unisa 147-year tradition of resilience

Prof Mandla Makhanya (Principal and Vice-Chancellor) addressed his final Unisa academic closing. "It has been a long and rewarding journey of more than three decades as Vice-Chancellor, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Executive Dean, Dean and academic."

The 2020 academic closing ceremony took place at a time of Covid-19 and its restrictions and a time of transition in the leadership of Unisa and its Council. While the attendance of the event by most staff and stakeholders was virtual, a few people still gathered at the ZK Matthews Hall on 4 December 2020 to attend this important juncture in the life of the university.

The ceremony highlighted many achievements Unisa achieved under difficult circumstances of the national lockdown and its restrictions. While these were a cause of celebration, it was also a sombre experience as the university got to bid farewell to Prof Mandla Makhanya, outgoing Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Unisa (VC). Makhanya retires after two successful terms of steering the university towards a leading open distance e-learning (ODeL) institution and the university in the service of humanity.

Taking the podium to deliver his address, the VC had nothing but sincere gratitude for the time he spent at Unisa. "It has been my honour to have shepherded this university through possibly the most tumultuous decade in higher education in South Africa. It has not been an easy task - in fact at times it seemed to be almost impossible, especially during the three tumultuous years that we had to endure," said Makhanya.

A different year

2020 has been one of a kind. The pandemic has changed our world, our lives and our world of work in very fundamental ways. While some staff have not been back to their offices since March this year and have grown accustomed to working from home, Makhaya took time to relay his immense pride in many staff members who have been called upon to go above and beyond the call of duty to work long hours to ensure that the university remained operational and that students did not lose the academic year.

Those who have had to return to work, have done so to very different working conditions and changed office spaces. "We have all had to adapt, adapt and adapt again as Covid-19 blazes its erratic and unpredictable path into a very uncertain 2021," said Makhanya. However, he added that what was predictable for him was that he always knew that he could rely on the loyalty and dedication of the vast majority of Unisa staff who had risen to the occasion and done what had been asked of them, under what had been very difficult and sometimes daunting circumstances.

2020 academic closing, part 1

"It is this 'can do' attitude that has ensured that we have been able to conduct online examinations and that we have made a very brave, yet necessary leap in our journey to a fully online ODeL university," said Makhanya. "I am addressing you from a place of gratitude and thanks to you all for upholding the 147-year-tradition of staff resilience that has seen this university prevail over so many difficult challenges." Despite the challenges posed by Covid-19, transformation remained at the top of Unisa’s agenda during 2020. "I think it would be true to say, however, that the changes necessitated by the pandemic have added yet another dimension to our change and transformation trajectory and so this is an institutional imperative that will continue into the future," noted Makhanya.

Change is never easy, more so under such disruptive conditions, but Makhanya added that he believed that Unisa had demonstrated that the momentum for change and transformation which he spoke of at the academic closing in 2019, had delivered results.

Unisa’s context

As the higher education sector nears the end of 2020, global trends have largely been shaped by the pandemic and are likely to carry over into 2021. Key amongst these, which can already be noted in Africa and South Africa, include

  • the indefensible gap between the "haves" and "have-nots" in rich and poor countries alike.
  • much interest currently on the redesign of pedagogy in line with the growing reliance on technology.
  • renewed interest in research especially in the sciences.
  • a concerted focus on the role and importance of technology in higher education.
  • the ongoing challenge of a precarious global future.

"There is, in fact, a growing acknowledgement that we will have to adopt a more holistic approach to higher education delivery to ensure its ongoing relevance and agility in the prevailing context," said Makhanya.

2020 academic closing, part 2

Having noted these trends, Unisa has already implemented a number of initiatives including defining ODeL through provisioning of a Blue Print with a clear roadmap towards 2030; Council approval of the establishment of an ODeL Programme Office, comprising Executive Directors as Workstream Leads identified from all portfolios of the organisation; and defining foundation and building blocks at the Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL) and the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET). "We have already been treated to good news of the success that has been registered at the SBL. I know that, similarly, once a report on CSET is released we would hear about that everything is progressing as planned," Makhanya added.

Through its own process of ongoing recurriculation and the design of new courses, Unisa is in the process of positioning itself at the cutting edge of relevant courseware and its delivery in South Africa and on the continent. "We are already at the forefront of the decoloniality movement and it remains for us to ensure that we continue to match that spirit of transformation and innovation with our tradition and reputation for quality and excellence - and that, in a time of really fundamental disruption, has brought with it many challenges," said Makhanya.

"I am, however, confident that we are dealing with these in a very pragmatic way in pursuit of the best possible outcomes for both staff and students. What we need right now, is to ensure that our innovative pedagogy is matched by excellent student experience and I think we still have a long way to go in that regard. But we are making every effort to overcome these challenges," he asserted.

The ZK Matthews Hall event was sparsely attended because of Covid-19 protocols, and most staff chose to stream the academic closing online.


The VC ended his address by bidding farewell to Unisa and all its stakeholders. "To say I would not have been able to steer the university through this time without the support and guidance of Council would be an understatement," he said. "I would like to use this moment to acknowledge our Council for their committed support of our university over the past decade. Theirs is an immeasurable contribution that is deeply appreciated. In the same breath I must thank the outgoing Chair of Council, Mr Sakhi Simelane, for his selfless dedication to Unisa and the results of his contribution speak for themselves," he concluded.

Sakhi Simelane (Outgoing Chair of Council) said that in African culture, the end of a season was marked by festivities, feasting, dancing and mingling, but that the current climate disallowed such natural human expressions of closing the year. "Well, that is life; it has the good and the bad, summer and winter, as well as beginnings and endings - and ours is to balance these natural binaries of life."

Also taking the podium for his final address, Simelane had nothing but praises for the VC. "I would like to thank Prof Mandla Makhanya for his leadership, patience and commitment to the institution. I also wish him well in his new endeavours as I am certain that he is still too young to retire," Simelane said jokingly.

On a serious note, however, the Council Chair said he was leaving Unisa with a wealth of knowledge he would always treasure. "Working here has been a fantastic learning experience, and I am thankful for the skills I've acquired. I feel as if being here has made me completer and more well-rounded person. I have learned how to take direction, criticism and compliments. I have also learned to be open-minded, to value other people's opinions and to consider other ideas along with mine. Being part of the Unisa team has taught me skills that I can use in more than just the professional area of my life," he said. Simelane also took time to welcome and wish well the new Chairperson of Council, James Maboa. "Mr Maboa, you can be assured of our support," Simelane said, as he closed his farewell address.

Despite a number of unpredicted and complex challenges, Unisa has managed to ensure that it continues with its operations, and it has done so quite successfully. Most importantly its academic performance has been sustained and satisfactory under extremely challenging circumstances.

"This has been a long, tough year and I know that I speak on behalf of Council and executive management when I thank each and every one of you for your contributions to our university. Let us continue this trend into 2021! I wish you and your loved ones well for a blessed and relaxing festive season," said Makhanya.

There was much excitement and ululating as students received due recognition on the red carpet with acclamatory elbow bumps. The College Graduate Excellence Awards were presented by Prof Veronica McKay, Acting Vice-Principal of Teaching, Learning, Community Engagement and Student Support, and the Senate and Council Excellence Awards were presented by Prof Zodwa Motsa-Madikane, Executive Director of Leadership and Transformation in the Office of the Vice-Chancellor.

Some of the recipients of the College Graduate Excellence Awards and the Senate and Council Excellence Awards

Professor Kgomotso Masemola, Executive Dean of the College of Human Sciences, was the programme director, while Dr Marcia Socikwa, Vice-Principal of Operations and Facilities, delivered the closing remarks and vote of thanks.

2020 highlights

* By Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli, Senior Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2020/12/10