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Multiple award-winning research professor, Harvard Medical School alumna, professor of Occupational Health and Safety, Board member of several prestigious research organisations including the South African Medical Research Council and Human Sciences Research Council. Professor Lindiwe Zungu, is also Executive Dean: Graduate Studies at UNISA.

Professor Lindiwe Zungu’s career, spanning over 20 years, took a research tilt in the academic space when she accepted the positions of lecturer (2005), Associate Professor (2009), Research Professor (2011) and Executive Dean of Graduate Studies (2019) and Acting Chief Operating Officer in the office of the Principal and Vice-Chancellor at UNISA (2019).

Within the horizon of over a decade in academia, her research initiatives have focused on championing the facilitation of the pivotal role of health and safety promotion into the core business of high-risk industries, and in advocating for the creation of hazards-free workplaces through health and safety-committed workforces. As an NRF-rated researcher specialising in occupational health and safety, Professor Zungu’s research work has enabled the mining industry to absorb, maintain and recruit more women to work underground.

Groundbreaking research

A research project funded by the Mine Health and Safety Council (MHSC) on “Personal protective equipment (PPE) for women in the South African mining industry (SAMI)” was an innovative contribution. From this work emerged comprehensive and systematic guidelines which were developed to assist the SAMI to design and provide appropriate PPE for women in mining. Given that the mining industry is male-dominated and all equipment and clothing were designed for the male physique, her work significantly added valuable knowledge to an area that had been sparsely studied locally and internationally. The SAMI has recognised her contribution as a significant industry milestone towards the advancement of health and safety of women in mining.

“Women are resilient and capable of adapting to workplace difficulties. Our resilience is evident in that in only a few decades we have entered some of the most hostile working environments such as the aerospace and mining sectors and we never looked back. Women in mining can attest to this fact and speak volumes of the critical role played by women,” says Professor Zungu.

In 2013, the professor was awarded a research grant by the MHSC to conduct a project on the safety and security challenges impacting on women in the SAMI. The novel contribution of this project included developing guidelines to assist the SAMI to adopt, implement and monitor multi-faceted prevention strategies against violence and sexual harassment as important safety and security challenges faced by women in mining. In 2015, she was awarded another research grant by the MHSC to develop guidelines for South African small-scale mines that comply with the Mine Health and Safety Act. To accelerate the goal of achieving zero harm in the SAMI, the professor was further awarded research grants to provide leadership of research projects.

In 2019, the outcomes of a study funded by the Mining Qualification Authority (MQA) provided practical recommendations for the MQA and other key industry stakeholders to implement in order to address current and future expected occupational health and safety skills shortages and gaps in the mining and minerals sector.

In 2020, the professor was awarded another research grant by the Minerals Council of South Africa (MCSA) to investigate the effectiveness of current SARS-COV-2 control measures implemented by its members in the SAMI.


Empowering women

“Belonging to a previously disadvantaged and marginalised group within the labour market, I strongly believe that the workplace in South Africa is better for women today than it was yesterday. We are on a positive trajectory in our attempts to make things better for women of this country. Having said that, I must also stress that there is still a lot of work to be done to fully ameliorate discrepancies,” says Professor Zungu.

The interventionist thrust of her output is such that it has led to the improvement of working conditions in the mines as a whole and the wellbeing of women, in particular. In this, it has helped to retain and attract more women to work in heavy-duty male-dominated environments, thus promoting gender equality and empowerment for women to benefit from job opportunities, promote their health at work, and also sustain their families and communities to reduce hunger and poverty.

“Indeed, in the past 50 years, we have witnessed a paradigm shift in the role of women from care services to more managerial, strategic and technical roles. Regardless of workplace hardships and imbalances, it is irrefutable that women today can perform any job at any workplace and often outshine male counterparts,” says Professor Zungu.

Hope for young women in South Africa

“It gives me pleasure to observe young women of this country discovering themselves and their true potential. The liberated young women are empowered socially, economically, culturally, politically, and academically. Young South African women have, on several occasions, taken the centre stage globally. We have seen, through the likes of Zozibini Tunzi (our own Miss Universe), that young South African women are capable beyond measure. I sincerely hope that more young women should add their voices to the national and international discourse, as done by trendsetters like Terry Phetho – who ascended from Beverly Hills High School in the Vaal (South Africa) to Beverly Hills in California (USA),” comments Professor Zungu.

“I hope that young women embrace the following notions: never accept anyone telling you that you cannot reach for your dreams. Always set goals and targets and strive to achieve excellence but always remember to be humble and respectful. Be willing to learn from your elders. You have got to accept the challenges and hardships along your way and climb above them. Have the mentality that nothing in life is easy. If you have not worked very hard for it, it is not yours. Wishing and dreaming without action will get you nowhere in this world. Make sure you go for what you love because that is when you give of your best and you will shine.”

Striving for excellence

Growing up in Empangeni, a small town

situated in Kwazulu-Natal, provided ample opportunities for the professor’s schooling. A small sandy township called Ngwelezana offered her a large perspective on life, courtesy of the education and ethos she received in the formative years. Everyone was family: every elder woman or man was respected equally as one’s own parents.

It was the example of her late mother (Mrs Laurencia Mngomezulu), a nurse by profession who worked diligently to provide for her family, that instilled a work ethic in the professor which has stood her in good stead. “I wanted to prove not only to myself but to every woman out there, young or old, that no societal expectations, no challenge, no gender-based discrimination can defer you from the goals and dreams you aspire for yourself,” she says.

“I did not want to be measured against male success. I wanted to be individually outstanding in my own way and represent other women who are making inroads in male-dominated spaces. Many aspirational African women have accomplished successful careers in male-dominated fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Many of them are doing so while navigating significant impediments to their professional and leadership advancements such as financial obstacles or raising children, while often lacking professional support. Investing in women at an early stage by making provisions for a good start for a successful science-based career is critical for any nation.”

Research and innovation excellence

Professor Zungu has collected a multitude of awards over her career. The accolades of 2015 Distinguished Woman in Science—Humanities and Social Science awarded by the Department of Science and Technology and the 2019 Woman of the Year award for the category of Science and Technology awarded by Glamour stand out for the professor because they recognise outstanding women leaders in research and innovation excellence. On receiving the 2018/2019 TW Kambule National Science and Technology Forum-South 32 Award for contribution to research and its outputs predominantly in South Africa over a period of 15 years after the award of a PhD, Professor Zungu comments, “This, for me, underscored that triumph of the relevance of science beyond the ivory towers of the University to the sphere of job safety and security. I was truly humbled by the recognition received from NSTF in 2019 as the recipient of this prestigious award. It is truly gratifying to be known to have made an outstanding contribution to science, engineering and technology in South Africa.

“The award was even more special to me because Professor Khambule taught in the community in Orlando High and proceeded to showcase his excellence at Wits University, producing outputs that benefit otherwise marginalised women in the hazardous mining sector. I feel a strong affinity with him and my community in general, as well as the many individuals from UNISA who have provided support for my research.

“As the isiZulu proverb affirms: Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu! I am because we all are. To become the salt of the earth, it takes two separate elements: Sodium and Chlorine. Independently these are toxic but in the unity of a compound, they become edible and enhance the gastronomic experience. UNISA’s research and innovation vision provides stability to every atom and even radical elements in the research ecosystem at UNISA. I thrive through our collective at UNISA in pursuit of shaping futures in the service of humanity.”

The professor received her basic education at township schools that were sparsely resourced. She attests that she is where she is today because her experience at these schools taught her to be independent and to consistently strive for excellence.

“Fortunately for my siblings and I, our education started at home. Our late father, Mr Michael Mngomezulu, was determined that we work hard and drilled it into our minds that education, humility, respect and prestige go a long way.”

Executive leadership role at UNISA

As the Executive Dean of Graduate Studies at UNISA, Professor Zungu’s vision is to add value by strengthening and improving excellence in innovative postgraduate research and increasing research capacity through knowledge generation and human capital development in response to the many challenges that face South Africa and the continent.

The 2019 academic year was a productive tenure that progressively drove the research agenda for postgraduate students with maximum impact, particularly at Master’s and Doctoral levels. This was done to embed an agile, innovative, sustainable and efficient operational environment for postgraduate studies by providing policies, systems and processes fit for purpose to improve the throughput and completion patterns of postgraduate students at UNISA. Key highlights include streamlining and transforming policies and procedures of postgraduate studies to align with the needs of a diverse population of UNISA students, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Impactful outcomes achieved by the College of Graduate Studies include, among others: shaping the futures of postgraduate students through:

  • Accelerating of excellence in postgraduate research support;
  • Improving student support by promoting an enabling postgraduate support system;
  • Fostering of online academic support/programmes to promote lifelong higher education for all and knowledge creation that is nationally responsive and globally relevant; and
  • Inculcating an African perspective on postgraduate support.

Leadership in challenging times

2020 has seen the most catastrophic societal and public health crisis that the globe has faced in over a century.

First reported in January 2020, the COVID-19 coronavirus has in a short space of time established itself as the deadliest modern-day disease. Beyond its health and economic impacts, the pandemic has caused serious disruptions in the provision of education globally. Simultaneously, it has exposed serious disparities in educational provision especially between marginalised rural populations and their more connected urban counterparts.

This scourge has necessitated an aggressive overhaul of postgraduate research support at UNISA, so much so that learners must now be given access to a comprehensive online support programme. Critically, this development has placed an urgent and non-negotiable emphasis on the development of innovative online teaching options that comply with the existing restrictions.

The global crisis brought about by the impact of COVID-19 poses increasing leadership demands. Research and experience confirm that uncertainty, threat and stress mount leadership challenges. Currently, leaders face an extensive period of rebuilding organisations and reorienting themselves, their peers and those they lead for the future. “Plan to overcome the current challenges. Three areas matter the most: getting your direction right, securing your team’s well-being and high-level functioning, and maintaining your own physical and emotional capacity to take charge. I strongly believe that in time of crisis, it is critical to focus on leading yourself, leading others, and setting the direction for crisis moments and turbulent eras,” shares Professor Zungu.

“The plan to address the demands of leading through challenging times is to acquire stronger skills and a greater sense of purpose that will strengthen, advance, and hone my leadership skills to meet UNISA’s current and future challenges. This will provide a fresh perspective on how to effectively lead during challenging times, how to think more strategically about the future, communicate more persuasively, and act more decisively – all while strengthening the leadership skills of those around me in the College of Graduate Studies,” she adds.

Transforming minds

Since UNISA is the largest open distance learning institution in Africa and is accessible in all its activities to students worldwide, the institution has the advantage to demonstrate the values of humanity (Ubuntu).

“UNISA’s curriculum transformation aims to successfully address the interrelated challenges of access, the relevance of education and cognitive justice. UNISA endeavours to deliver an education that is relevant in respect to its knowledge content, the calibre of the graduate, and the usefulness of the qualification itself. The cognitive justice imperative frames the curriculum’s transformation and is premised on the fundamental notion that all human beings are born with valid, legitimate and useable knowledge.”

As a staunch supporter of radical transformation, UNISA has demonstrated itself to be a transformation driver in various ways. It has identified means to measure transformation progress. Renaming its main campus buildings is a radical step to indicate how serious UNISA is about transformation. Not only that, but the University is also pushing the indigenous language development, particularly South African indigenous languages, which have been reinvented in all respects, and excluded from the socio-economic endeavours of the past. “This is a major development because, in the process of transformation, we are searching for a philosophical stance, and that can be obtained from South African indigenous languages. The development of indigenous languages opens this opportunity. Moreover, UNISA is taking further steps to continue with championing transformation in all other sectors as highlighted in the UNISA Transformation Charter,” says Professor Zungu.

Like any other responsible academic institution, to fulfil its vision, UNISA requires sustainable developmental goals. Postgraduate research performance and the generation of innovative outputs by UNISA’s postgraduate students represent a critical performance area, one that requires very targeted attention, especially within a post-COVID-19 environment. The current milieu requires the development of new student support modalities that will benefit and be available to all the University’s postgraduate learners to ensure that the University continues its progression towards world-class research competence in the conceptualisation and implementation of research that complies with COVID-19 infection control guidance, at the same time maximally utilising effective online pedagogies.

CHANGE: The driver of progress

Beyond the consensus on the importance of developing competence in research, there is wide acceptance that the world’s most socially progressive and economically self-sustaining nations have working populations that are predominantly comprised of employees educated to Master’s and Doctoral levels and, most significantly, individuals with advanced research leadership competencies. The United Kingdom, United States of America, Germany and Switzerland are among those nations where more than 50% of white-collar employees have obtained Master’s level education or better (ILO, 2018).

Notably, these higher proportions of research-competent employees within a nation’s economy have been correlated with positive impacts across wide-ranging socio-economic determinants including crime, unemployment risk, rates of absolute poverty, perceived job satisfaction, per-capita productivity and participation in social development initiatives. In the context of university performance, increased Master’s and Doctoral output has been associated with competence in research leadership, increased innovation, more engaged scholarship, greater societal impact and increase in all areas of knowledge production and teacher development (DHET, 2016).

Related to this is the growing global acknowledgement that knowledge and innovation have critical importance to national wealth and welfare. In this respect, South African postgraduate education initiatives have the potential to assume greater significance in the broader national strategy to accelerate human capital development (NDP, 2013). The National Development Plan further acknowledges the importance of leadership in research and capacity building as catalysts for socio-economic development and global competitiveness. These observations concur with views held by agencies including the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the National Research Foundation (NRF) and other funding agencies that note the need for developing a critical mass of research leadership amongst academics and postgraduate students.

Lessons learned

“Throughout my academic journey, I realised the lack of black women pursuing specialised sciences,” comments Professor Zungu.

“Despite such difficulties, some women do ascend to leadership roles. I have learned to critically examine my role as a leader in academia and to critically analyse the leadership styles and identify/adopt the ones that best align to a specific context that I have to deal with. I have learned various ways of successfully navigating the negotiation scenarios using unique strengths (some inherent to me as a woman and others acquired through mentoring and coaching that I received over years of both academic and professional experiences). Lessons learned have enabled me to explore various ways of influencing strategies that can be used effectively in academic leadership to create value.

“More importantly, I have, over the years, gained insight into the differences between how men and women lead. That enhanced my ability to adapt and evaluate different complex situations based on workplace behaviours. I have learned that development of a carefully crafted and realistic (SMART) personal development plan is key to use as a tool to benchmark my contributions and impact thereof against the set organisational goals as a woman in academic leadership.”

Mentors and management style

Prof Zungu conveys her sincere gratitude to the following highly esteemed scholars who played a critical role in her academic leadership advancement:

  • Prof Rosemary Moeketsi, Retired Executive Dean of UNISA’s College of Human Sciences; whilst she was an emerging academic;
  • Prof Nkiru Nzegwu, Professor of Africana Studies at Binghamton University, New York for breeding an activist academic stance in her;
  • Prof Paul Gundani, the Vice Chancellor at Zimbabwe Open University and Emeritus Professor at UNISA , for he continues to mentor Professor Zungu even now;
  • Prof Molefi Kete Asante, Professor in the Department of Africology at Temple University, Philadelphia, who has infused an Afrocentric perspective to her internationalisation effort;
  • Prof Mandla Makhanya, Principal and Vice-Chancellor at UNISA , who has, in practice, taught Professor Zungu the tactics of servant leadership for effective stakeholder engagement; and
  • Mr Busani Ngcaweni, the Deputy Chairman of UNISA Council who leads by an ethos of impartiality in executing his governance mandate.

Professor Zungu champions agile leadership for agile platforms of excellence in the era of postgraduate teaching and research for the Fourth Industrial Revolution dispensation and development are at the core of value-addition of Executive Leadership at UNISA. She remains pro-active in building a nurturing and supportive research environment for all postgraduate students at UNISA. With her combined leadership and management experience in higher education over 10 years, she aims to promote and develop a high-quality research and innovation agenda for postgraduate students at UNISA, following the unitary matrix model and the signposts contained in the mission statement of the University with regard to postgraduate research excellence and impact.

Message for the women of our nation

Being a woman in a patriarchal and misogynistic country is becoming increasingly more difficult. There is a rapid rise in information shared about gender-based violence both at homes and workplaces. This in itself offers light to some of South Africa’s darkest characteristics. “This Women’s Month is arguably the most important as we must raise awareness about gender-based violence discourse and offer support to women of all ages, races and social standing. A parallel discourse of social marketing for rehabilitation from victimhood must gain ground. Pathways beyond mere survival to a victorious outlook need to be put in place. Women’s success is the sum of deliberate efforts and interventions.

“I wish to inspire all young women of this country by saying: Make yourself count and rise above your circumstances; find yourself and embark on a quest to become nothing below your best standards. We have a lot of women who have proven beyond a reasonable doubt that they can lead with best leadership outcomes. At the best of times, a woman leader is an empathetic leader. A woman leader reaches her ground and forefront employees and tries to understand their experiences. To all black female leaders and those aspiring, the world is a stage and you are the leading protagonist in a narrative of triumph and success. Continue taking advantage of the plethora of opportunities presented by continuous education and advancements in technology for sustainable development. Take control and let others learn from you. Be the exemplary point of reference for the hopeless. Be the paragon of Black Female excellence,” concludes Professor Zungu.

Alexis Knipe

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