Joe Makhafola sat down with the youngest head of the department (HoD) of politics and international relations at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Dr Bhaso Ndzendze. At the age of 25, it is an indication of meritocracy. Dr Ndzendze is a senior lecturer and author, who recently published Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies in International Relations through The World Scientific Press together with the vice-chancellor of UJ, Prof. Tshilidzi Marwala.

He has defied convention. Dr Bhaso Ndzendze exhibits traits of highly effective people. He wrote his first book while a first-year student at the University of the Witwatersrand, ‘The Continent We Construct’, which was published when he got to his second year. An intellectual in his own right. Speaking to him, I would agree with Harvard University psychologist Professor Howard Gardner’s ‘Theory of Multiple Intelligence’.

His pictures with former presidents, Kgalema Motlanthe and Thabo Mbeki, speak volumes. You can take it from there in terms of the level of engagement.

Many news headlines upon hearing the news of Dr Ndzendze’s appointment screamed, “UJ appoints youngest HoD”. This “youngness” has been a preoccupation of many.

Being young can also be a strength. The role most certainly requires a lot of energy to navigate through the challenges ahead of him.

“I might be young, yes, but I bring a lot of expertise. I have been publishing for almost a decade in terms of books. I started publishing in my undergraduate studies,” he says.

When that call finally came from the dean on a Monday evening following interviews for the position of the HoD, Ndzendze thought for a moment he was dreaming. He drove back to the university the same night he was informed of the outcome of the committee around 20:00, to take a look at his department with different eyes for the last time, as a staff member and as the new head.

“It placed a huge amount of weight on me. It was that mixed reaction of excitement and a huge sense of responsibility at the same time. My head was spinning a little bit when I received the news,” he says.

The environment is not unfamiliar to him. He became linked to the university in 2017 and the department in 2019 as a junior lecturer. He was teaching international political economy of Africa-China relations, a course he developed with Dr David Monyae, who happened to fall under his department. Another esteemed professor in his department is Chris Landsberg, a seasoned lecturer of international relations and foreign policy. Most of his staff members in the department are much more senior than him, almost all of them are professors. Ndzendze describes his environment as very collegial and mutually respectful.

Landsberg and Monyae were excellent experts of international relations (IR) policy analysis at the University of the Witwatersrand and I can qualify my comment as I happened to be privileged to be their IR student. Ndzendze, too, is a Witsie. How they all crossed the floor to UJ is a debate for another day.

Ndzendze has been in management before as a research director within the university. Some of his colleagues have been edging him to throw his hat in the race.

“Interestingly, I wasn’t aware that we were making history. We simply see him as a smart, hard-working, and pleasant fellow, and proposed him for HoD,” says Ndzendze’s colleague, Prof. Mcebisi Ndletyana, the renowned political commentator and associate professor at UJ.

He has been working well with his colleagues and one thing that has characterised his time with the department is his collaborative spirit. After completing his PhD, he was promoted to being a senior lecturer and a full-time staff member of the department in October 2020.

Understanding the changing dynamics in research is a business he is very much familiar with. One thing for certain is that he is not going to be one of those black Tony Leon’s “experiments gone wrong”. He has been in academia long enough to withstand any challenge. He has no room for racial intolerance. His immediate plan is to forge closer relations between academia and the industry.

“The collaboration between the industry and the university should produce industry-ready graduates in an increasingly digitalised environment. We require digitally-savvy political scientists. Given my research experience in this area and the networks that I have established with actors in various sectors, my biggest goal in the next couple of weeks is to establish a research unit within the department that focuses on digital policy and other technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR),” Ndzendze says.

He wants to produce students as early as possible, who can publish, as this will boost their confidence and work readiness, because publishing is an indicator to someone who is a prospective employer.

“It gives you the edge over somebody with a curriculum vitae (CV) that just lists qualifications. Publication is a good indicator of good writing, which every job requires, such as writing reports, policy, academic essays, and political activism. It can bring a lot of value not just in a theoretical sense, but also in a practical sense.”

It was interesting to learn that he introduced the China course and a course on technology dynamics in international relations based on a book he authored with the vice-chancellor, Prof. Tshilidzi Marwala, ‘Artificial Intelligence and Emerging Technologies in International Relations’, published by the World Scientific Press.

The book is good, as it is the first book to look at technology in international relations, especially among emerging countries.

It describes an exploration of the geopolitics between technology and international relations. Through a focus on war, trade, investment flows, diplomacy, regional integration, and development cooperation, the book takes a holistic perspective to examine the origins of technology, analysing its current manifestations in the contemporary world. The authors present the possible future roles of artificial intelligence (AI) and other emerging technologies (including blockchain, 3D printing, 5G connectivity, and the internet of things) in the context of the global arena.

Other publications he has authored include; ‘The Fourth Industrial Revolution in South Africa’ in the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the South African Economy, ‘Turning Crisis into Opportunity? African Agricultural Exports during the Trade War’ by South African Institute of International Affairs, and ‘The BRICS Order: Assertive or Complementing the West?’ published by Palgrave Macmillan and co-edited with his former boss, David Monyae.

Given the advancement in technology and the inequalities it exposes, Ndzendze has developed the biblically inspired, ‘Matthew effect’, that those who have more shall be given, those who have little, even the little that they have, shall be taken away from them. Days of our lives, it is.

Ndzendze predicts that China will be South Africa’s biggest trading partner within the decade, surpassing the combined 27 European countries. Brexit, he says, has sped up the timeline even more. He expands on this in an article for the European Journal of International Affairs.

Ndzendze brings a lot of managerial experience in higher education. His primary constituency is students, whom he leads by example. “I am like them in a sense, including my background.”

With his persistence and dedication, one can achieve a lot. He recently delivered a talk at the postgraduate session where he spoke about the concept of momentum and drive.

“I think it’s about showing what can be attained. In terms of leadership, I think it is about confining our priorities, it’s about efficient, good, and authentic communication. That begins, in my experience, with empathy, understanding what colleagues are trying to do, what they are trying to achieve both for their students and themselves alike, where they want to take their careers to so that you make it a reality, both as a leader and an enabler. In a sense, I am their first port of call for whatever support that they need.

“I like to say, ‘primus inter pares’, a Latin phrase meaning ‘first among equals’. It is not something that I take very lightly. Good ideas must stand up to scrutiny, so I have a very open book kind of approach to initiatives and I also welcome ideas from colleagues as well as feedback on my initiatives,” he says.

Ndzendze is also eager to fuse attainment of some of the strategic objectives that he has identified and give his own interpretation thereof, in a sense, set the pace but also interpret the bigger vision of the university to his department. This comes down again to communication and consultation.

How to handle failure also comes with leadership qualities. He once wrote a book and sent it out to as many publishers as possible without any luck. He had gotten those contacts from Yellow Pages at the time. He also wrote a 215-page dictionary of international relations terminology for free distribution to his students. Speak of a die-hard.

“Rejection is constant, especially when you are starting out, but the key is to remain tenacious and motivated. I remained motivated and frequently visited the library in the advanced section where they keep the PhD dissertations, because I said to myself, ‘I want to write to produce one of those papers, one day as I want to be in academia.’ I then started writing for different newspapers in terms of opinion articles in the Sunday Times, Sunday Independent, and various other publications. I also wrote for a magazine called Modern Diplomacy.

“My work started being referenced and got some traction, so that kept me going. Putting yourself out there and networking also helped,” he says.

After coming third in their national essay competition, he started working with the South Korean embassy on a freelance basis. That is where he got his industry exposure and practical hands-on experience, and was later offered the competitive research associate position at Singapore International Enterprise. Before he could take up that role, he was offered a research position at the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute on the strength of his honour’s thesis, which the institute found rigorous and innovative. It was here that he effectively co-founded the Centre for Africa-China Studies and was promoted to research director within a year.

Political analysis that you see on TV every night has a lot of value, but some of it comes across as just opinion.

Then there is political science, which is really about understanding dynamics in a much more scientific way that passes peer review, where you have to prove how you reached that conclusion.

“That is really what we train our postgraduate students to be able to do, something meaningful, and this is why I think political science is such a transferable skill,” Ndzendze says.

Rigorous analysis can carry you through in this industry. He is convinced that every company will need a political scientist in its human resources department with brilliant science as an analytical tool.

“I think the purpose of reading is not so much about the effects on the facts that you gain from opening a book and reading its pages, but really, it’s about learning the way others think and the intelligence of incorporating that into your own arsenal.”

The only constant thing in academia is change and it is getting used to being constantly evaluated. He prioritises his work-life balance, his mental health because he has a very demanding job. Luckily enough, he got exposed to a heavy workload from his early days as a student as he was publishing journals and one of his triple major qualifications was in psychology.

He is still not yet married but masters the art of fine balance between managing a busy schedule and not being consumed by your work and neglecting your other responsibilities.

We are biological creatures. If you are one of the busiest people, try to read the importance of relaxation and playing in ‘Games Primates Play: An Undercover Investigation of the Evolution and Economics of Human Relationships’ by Dario Maestripier, it is about lowering the stakes and temperatures.

I read a study that says South Africa has the most working hours. Careers should not be detrimental to your health. We have a lot of anxiety and depression out there and our ranking in terms of the World Happiness Index is not looking well.

The Africa we want should be led by the Ndzendzes of this world.