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After exchanging pleasantries with Dr Judy Dlamini, Chancellor at the University of Witwatersrand (WITS), we jumped straight into profound conversation about the value of education, writes JJ Tabane.

I did not know what to expect given that the position of the Chancellor is often a symbolic one where Universities may not be bothered too much about selecting someone who is actually passionate about Education. I was immediately struck by a deep sense of a love for education. Dr Dlamini as we speak, is herself a student of education, even as she is the highest ranking official at the University. She expressed strong views about transformation of the University when it comes to the Gender agenda and has decided to do something about it. The conversation left me with a sense of hope for the sector.

How do you find the role of being a chancellor, do you think it is something that can be amended in a way that it used to be perceived or you are happy with that role as it is and how has it been so far?

Thanks for the time Doc. Its actually quite interesting because as you know its not an executive role. There are many terms used to describe it, but I think more importantly its really being part of the team without necessarily being executive. But also, it’s just being the moral voice if you like. You know I’m a family person and I understand family roles more than I understand any other thing that I do. So its more like a mother type of a thing without suffocating people. I’ve enjoyed it and I’ll tell you why I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed it because I love education. I was laughing when I looked at the things you have done. The different universities, different degrees, (chuckles) I see there’s a BPROC somewhere. I can so relate to that because I just never tire of learning. I never tire of seeking new knowledge. Like you may not be aware but I’m a student at Wits. I’m an Alumnus and I’m a student because as a family we took it upon ourselves to start a learning group which is affordable private education simply because we felt that our way of doing things, the celebration of African-ness and just the 21st century oriented learning is lacking in some areas, and we thought ok lets do something about it. And in the process, my husband and I decided that we need a post grad certificate in education, so he’s doing it through UNISA and I’m doing it through Wits because that’s where I am. So, you never really finish learning.

You are so right about not finishing because once you have a PHD you realise that you are actually a specialist only in your subject matter, there’s still so much to explore…

Oh yes! (Chuckles)…well you can say that because you are still much younger. Someone would say, you are beyond 60 man just rest and I’m like, Hell no! There’s still so much I can still do. So yes, I am still enjoying my role. I really am!

Wonderful! But do you think that there is too much expectation placed on such a role? I don’t know how much you know about what your predecessor–whether you picked up the spear, so to speak, or did you create your own way?

People don’t understand the role of the chancellor. So, you will find students blaming you for executive things and so forth. (Chuckles). But you know what JJ, I don’t mind because we all learn as we go along and you can’t love education and not embrace students, whether they are misbehaving or behaving it doesn’t matter. But I said this before I took the role, when someone was saying you are filling the shoes of the Justice. And I said No! I’m not filling anyone’s shoes. I’m walking in stilettos. I’ll do my work my way! So that’s the beauty because leadership is bringing the whole of you which is different from anyone, before or after, it’s just you. So, I’m identifying areas of interest that make sense to me and I’m supporting where I’m actually expected to do my work. So no, I don’t fill anyone’s shoes.

That really sounds fantastic. In your view, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in academia and are you happy with the gender agenda in higher education, and at Wits in particular?

You know Doc. We have a challenge as a country. We have a challenge in terms of the lack of transformation, in terms of race and gender, and if you look at the recent Ministerial Task Team report that was commissioned by the DHET Minister, it actually just shows that 25 years later, black academics still have a raw deal and being a woman and being a woman leader, its across different sectors of society. Whether its business, whether its academia, wherever! And what I know is that women have a challenge in all sectors of society. Gender based violence and femicide talks to that, and if you look at academia, it’s not different and I don’t want to single out

Wits because the ministerial task team report actually says that African women, in particular, are the most disenfranchised. If I look at the stats, nationally and at Wits, and you look for people that are at the bottom of the pile, they happen to be African and coloured women, and that has informed my decision to have a chancellor’s scholars project where I will actually do some seed funding on a trust that will look to focus on African and colored women in terms of leadership. Whether its professorship, whether its head of department, whether it’s the research chairs; working with the executives and working with heads of the departments to say ‘how do we change the status quo’? Because if we are to attract young women to go into the academia, they need to see people who look and sound like them, that’s just how it works and it’s just one of those projects that I’m happy to champion, and I’m quite lucky that the leadership, both the outgoing VC and the incoming VC are actually on board, and they want to support me all the way.

I think that’s fantastic because then at least you’re making an impact. How have people responded to that kind of hands on engagement in terms of something that you are passionate about?

They have been so welcoming. There’s something about us changing the status quo in our lifetime. No one else is going to do it but us. So, if you find yourself in a leadership position, you have a duty because as long as you lead, you are blocking the space for someone who can do it better than yourself. So give it everything that you have and bring more people to the space.

Wits was the ‘epicentre’ of the fight for free education and there’s always an ideological debate about whether or not free education is realistic or not. What is your take on how to deal with this whole issue of free education?

People should not be deprived of education because they are poor. That’s the overriding statement. You look at COVID, you look at the inequality that we have in this country, which is the worst in the world, by the way! And you look at how you and I can sit at home, earn a living and have these meetings over computers, but the majority of our people can’t… and we know that education is a liberator. Therefore, free education for poor people by all means–there is no debate about that, but as long as the economy is driven by the minority that have the privilege, this economy will not grow, it wont be sustainable and it wont be inclusive. We need to educate as many people as possible so that we all have a chance to lead and grow this economy.

Having said that, there is no way that my child or my daughter’s child should receive free education because I can afford to pay. So free education only for those that cannot afford it. Not free education for all.

So don’t you think that issue should be resolved because we are the ones who put a cut off to say that if you earn R300 000 END per annum you don’t qualify, so we are the ones that created that missing middle.

That’s true and I do think that the previous administration tried to come to the party. It’s a work in progress.

In terms of the current situation, what is your view on how the government has handled this COVID-19 situation as far as education is concerned?

Look it’s a difficult one there Doc and I don’t want to say government should have done this or that because under the circumstances they have done well. Of course, there are challenges, and no one has a script, it’s a new pandemic and people are learning as they go along. In terms of grade 12, I am happy that everyone is trying to make sure that they do write exams, and in terms of universities, people are doing a mixed type of solution. As I said I’m studying and we are online, we haven’t stopped studying and we have accommodated those that don’t have access to online by making sure that they have computers and so forth. So, I think we just try and make the best out of this situation. As you said, COVID is with us. No one knows how long its going to be, but we can only do the best.

And finally, any words of wisdom to share with students, lecturers, and other people in the university community about this challenging time?

You know there will always be challenges and we are faced with this huge challenge, an enemy that we can’t see and we just grapple along. I just want to thank Wits community for coming up with solutions that are relevant to the COVID pandemic.

Coming up with PPE, creative different parts of the university are doing that and the vaccine trial. I know the Dean of The Faculty of Health Sciences is actually part of that trial community which we appreciate, so as Wits we lead by doing and we are fortunate that has always been the case. We can claim you now Doc, thanks for doing your doctorate with us (chuckles), coming to the winners. To the students, please give it your best, you have our support. We are proud of what you do and what you achieve, and we are proud to build this university together. Keep Safe! 

Do you agree with Dr Dlamini about the transformation challenges facing higher education Write to me on jj@leadershiponline.co.za

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