Leading with excellence

Servant leadership, humility, foresight, togetherness and innovation are constant themes that came up in my discussion with Professor Mandla Stanley Makhanya


Professor Mandla Stanley Makhanya has been at the helm of the University of South Africa (UNISA) since 1 January 2011. Professor Makhanya is a prominent proponent of higher education leadership and advocacy, nationally, continentally, and globally.

A staunch advocate of open distance and e-learning, he is a past President of the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) and Treasurer of the African Council for Distance Education (ACDE). He holds the post of President of the Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL) – which is an international body for higher education professionals.

Scholarship and civic engagement

Despite a demanding schedule, Professor Makhanya maintains active scholarship through regular publications in accredited journals. He serves on the advisory board of the JRODel (Journal of Research in Open, Distance and e-Learning). In addition, he is a Referee for the National Research Foundation (NRF), specialising in refereeing applications for funding, grants and postgraduate scholarships (Sociology, Development Studies, Business Administration and Social Work), and he is an external examiner for the University of Fort Hare, the University of North West and the University of Johannesburg. He is also a trainer for trainers of adult basic education. As a sociologist, Prof Makhanya is occasionally invited by the media to provide analyses and write articles on various political and socio-cultural issues.

I had the pleasure of sitting with Professor Makhanya on behalf of Leadership Magazine. The insights he articulated left me with a positive feeling about the future of South Africa and the continent of Africa at large within the education space, and indeed academia in general.

In addition to your many other hats, you became the head of the International Higher Education, Teaching and Learning Association. Can you tell us more about your academic background?

I am originally a sociologist and my background is primarily in industrial sociology. After completing my studies, I worked for Bata Shoe Company. Interestingly, my former university, Fort Hare University, tried to recruit me back to the university to work as a lecturer. Year after year they sent me offer letters. Eventually, UNISA offered me a post which I took up. I notified my previous university and they gladly accepted the news, encouraging the new path I was about to take. Their words were: “We always wanted you to teach, even though it’s not with us, we are happy for you,”. Eventually, I tendered my resignation at Bata. They jokingly said they were not going to accept my resignation, which I found remarkable; leaving a job and being told that I can’t resign.

Bata’s head office was in South Africa, where I worked. Unfortunately, they had to leave the country as there was a call for disinvestment in South Africa. This made it easier for me to leave. From there I enrolled for a Master’s Program at the University of Natal.

The Executive Director of Human Resources at Bata at the time agreed that I could enrol at the University of Natal as I had intended; and I was allowed to go and meet my professor every week on a Wednesday. No one believed it at the time and yet that’s exactly what happened.

Every Wednesday I would go to my office, like everyone else but at midday I would leave my workplace to go to the university. It was a very interesting arrangement. It was not documented anywhere (on my contract or officially), but I was given that special permission which really aided my academic growth. That is why the transition between industry and becoming a lecturer worked very well when UNISA recruited me at that stage.

Fortunately, I did not struggle with that transition, and I settled down almost immediately. I went on to complete my research while I simultaneously continued teaching. It was just a few years down the line that I then considered enrolling for doctoral studies that I went on to pursue at the University of Pretoria and completed in 1997.

Interestingly, just two years down the line I was then appointed a Dean. I happened to have been the first black person at that stage, and at this university to be appointed as a Dean. The process at that time was extensive as the staff of the faculty also had to vote for the Dean of their choice amongst the candidates. It was an exceptional honour to be appointed and I view it as “grace” because you don’t choose to lead, you actually get thrust into these positions of authority.

The tenet that has kept me going is understanding the value that you can deposit in a person’s life through teaching in a university such as UNISA, where the majority of students work and study, and don’t necessarily have enough time to dedicate to their own studies. For that reason, it makes a huge difference for them to hear how you, as their lecturer, can facilitate the understanding of the subject matter and simplify it for them.

Please elaborate on some of the current solutions that are uniquely provided by UNISA throughout the world?

We said to ourselves that the future of higher education, particularly on our continent, is never going to see the light of day unless open distance learning is the driver. We knew that to succeed we had to get other universities across the continent on board. Knowing very well that we are the only open distance learning institution in this country, it was incumbent upon us to drive the agenda of ensuring the success of open distance learning. To that end, I must say that the developments on the continent have been unbelievable with regards to open distance learning.

We now have a number of universities that are open distance learning universities on the continent. Even the universities that are, strictly speaking, still contact residential universities have units that are dedicated to open distance learning , and we are part and parcel of that drive. We partnered with countries such as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Tanzania and Nigeria, who today have fully-fledged open distance learning universities.

Wherever we are providing higher education in the world, we also still seek the support of our government. One requirement of the work that we do, is that we hire venues where examinations can be taken. As examinations have to happen simultaneously across the globe, we largely use the facilities of our own government. So, you find that our examinations take place at embassies, because our government kindly assists us with the necessary facilities.

In addition to that, we made a huge investment in our Florida Campus, which we refer to as the Science Campus, during the mergers of Higher Education institutions, when we re-established as an open distance and single dedicated comprehensive distance learning university. This was from 2004 onwards after the mergers of UNISA as it was and Technikon Southern Africa and the incorporation of the Vista Vudec component of Vista into that outfit. For the first time we had the experience of having engineering as part and parcel of our institution.

Your key areas are research, innovation, teaching, learning, community engagement, governance and sustainability. How has UNISA evolved in these key areas?

The pass rate was hovering around 45%, 50%, 52%, 53% in the previous decade. It started moving up to about 55%, 56%, 58%, 60%, and at that point things seemed to be moving in the right direction. By the time we got to about 2013, 2014, 2015; I discovered that we were now hovering around 64%, 65% which was great up until 2016, 2017. Moving onwards, the percentages dropped in some way, but in 2018 once again they began to take an upward trajectory. Joining the university came with its own set of challenges.

As a university, we invested in our learning and teaching facilities, creating a conducive environment particularly for young students who don’t go to work and are solemnly focused on their studies. Now people will notice students walking in and out of UNISA facilities on a daily basis. We are successfully integrating technology with our teaching staff, and we automatically allocate e-tutors to students when they enrol.

The beauty of e-tutors is that you don’t have to be physically present. You can be anywhere and secondly, you do your e-tutoring as and when time permits. This is why we have begun to see something very interesting: the degree success rate is now beginning to take an upward course.

Our highest investment is in research. Our professors and individual researchers are allocated research funds to conduct their research. They have funds that are designated towards them attending local and international conferences.

This has been effective as we have witnessed the research output of the university flying through the roof. We have seen the NRF ratings of our staff going up, though this was initially resisted before we explained the necessity. We have now noticed a shift with our peers. They are doing exceptionally well, and we have significant numbers of our own scholars who have now been rated. In all these areas we have really taken off in a very interesting fashion and there is no turning back.

One thing we realised was, failure to educate the masses would result in stagnation and we would be foolish to even begin to think that all these commitments on innovation that we are looking forward to will ever see the light of day. We have positioned ourselves in playing this role in this area, and the support that we as a university are receiving from our government has helped bring our vision to light. It’s important to note that we are publicly funded, meaning we are a public higher education institution.

We are an accredited quality assured university and we have an opportunity that many universities don’t have, of having operated since 1873 as a premier distance learning university. It is for that reason we are known across the world. So we then have an opportunity that many universities actually are struggling to find themselves. Claiming that kind of opportunity makes things easy for us as we grow our presence beyond our own borders.

Over the years you have had many successes, evidently highlighted in your multiple reviews since 2011. Can you tell us more about the trends you have identified over the years between 2011 and up to 2019?

The trends have been very interesting, I have started to see that we are consolidating our level of competition in relation to our outputs at virtually all levels. I was so excited to discover that our outputs in terms of graduates just last year alone went beyond 55 000. It’s good because eight per cent of our graduates are from beyond our borders. However, I feel we can do much better. We are looking at drastically increasing the number of students that produce both Master’s and Doctoral level qualifications.

How has UNISA successfully contributed to the Higher Education landscape between 2011 and 2019?

We have done exceptionally well, and we have consistently maintained our space of providing a third of the outputs in the higher education environment, both at the level of our graduates, as well as research and community engagement work. If UNISA can actually double its outputs in this country, things will settle down in terms of where we are going within the higher education space. The current investments that we are making in the ICT domain are supposed to help us get there.

The economic status of our country has had its challenges as we have seen, ranging from the high unemployment rate, the percentage of unemployment actually sits at 29% right now. With regards to providing free education for the poor and also the working class, how much did UNISA set aside for bursaries?

We have done extremely well in that area. For a period of almost three years post-2011 we have invested between 60 to 80 million Rands on an annual basis to support the students who are studying with us. From around 2013 to almost 2017 our investments in that area exceeded a hundred million Rands. It was only for this year that we invested just above 80 million, and it reaches almost 87million when you consider the number of students that we had actually identified as NSFAS funded, who were around 80 000 in total.

One of the highlights your institution had in 2017 was when His Excellency, Thabo Mbeki, was inaugurated as the Chancellor of UNISA. How has his presence positively affected the institution?

In an extremely significant way. I always refer to him as a towering intellectual, for the simple reason that he is one of the best of what you can get out of the intelligentsia in our country and continent. He is a revolutionary in terms of his individual thinking capacity.

He is a well-read intellectual and a very grounded scholar. He understands and appreciates this continent better than anyone I’ve ever come across because he knows virtually each and every country across the continent. He has helped ensure that the way in which we train students does not limit their thinking to one simple career, by ensuring their thinking is driven by a principle that says there are multiple opportunities of careers once you exit the institution. This helps reduce the unemployment rate because if there is no job opportunity in what a student is trained to do, then they can easily adopt a new career or start their own business.

In fact, I could add that this close proximity of His Excellency Thabo Mbeki to our institution has solidified even more strongly a project of extreme importance to me, the project of the transformation of the academic culture and practice in the direction of epistemic justice. The transformation of university culture has been one of the best and also most challenging moments of my tenure as Vice Chancellor wherein one has had to drive to anchor African indigenous knowledges in a space where the Eurocentric culture was the centre of everything. The hardest has been the reality that we were all groomed in the Eurocentric mode but as the 2015/2016 #FeesMustFall/#RhodesMustFall movement brought the matter of epistemic injustice so clearly to the open, it became evident that African knowledges systems, the African cultural modes do need to be accorded space in the prevailing westernised education system. To me epistemic liberation is the most essential level of liberation after political freedom.

As the Principal and Vice-Chancellor, what is your current issue of concern and how do you plan to overcome that issue?

My main issue of concern is the developments that we have witnessed in the country. To see the country starting to disintegrate, largely as a result of greed, destroying virtually everything we have is of grave concern. I am seriously concerned because I have simultaneously discovered that whatever is happening in our society tends to find itself, manifesting at our universities. We therefore find a situation where the instability that is in society then begins to happen also at universities. We are stewards of our own resources so if we start destroying property that was going to serve future generations in a plight against something or in an expression of anger, we would have failed.

As the principal and Vice Chancellor, how do you build momentum amongst your staff and students?

I spend time with both my staff and my students and I schedule meetings with them on a quarterly basis, without fail. In between that, there are meetings that happen at various intervals because I don’t want to get surprises. When I walked into this office I galvanized the entire university community on a new ethos, of 11Cs plus one, that translates simply to the fact that I said I am building a community and a community means that whoever you are, wherever you come from, once you are here you are part and parcel of this entity, and therefore being a community means that you have an interest in another.

If individuals have an interest in one another it means that they will without fail be supportive of one another and they will build the university together.

There has been a significant rise in private tertiary institutions. How do you hope to stay ahead of your competition?

UNISA has a distinct advantage when it comes to Open Distance eLearning (ODeL). While many private tertiary institutions plan to offer courses online, those in South Africa do not have university status nor are their courses quality assured and accredited as in the case of UNISA. This places all public universities in SA who offer online courses, in an advantageous position.

Private higher education in South Africa is governed under a different Act to public universities. At the moment they may not call themselves universities, and they receive no public funding from government. Obviously, they are mostly purely profit driven and that makes a seminal difference when it comes to university education, including ODeL. We have a legislated mandate: Teaching and Learning, Research and Innovation and Community Engagement.

They have a mandate to make a profit which just happens to be through teaching. That is a very significant advantage. Since UNISA’s business model is ODeL and since we have run successfully for many, many years, we have the experience and we have learned the hard lessons that such experience brings. For many, online education is new and they are learning as they go.

You provide tertiary education to inmates in South Africa’s Correctional Facilities. Can you please elaborate on how you successfully achieve this?

UNISA is probably the most successful educator of inmates in the country and we are very proud of that. I have explained before that we no longer call them prisons in South Africa, but rather, correctional facilities because we genuinely believe that they should offer hope and the reality of an opportunity to change and grow positively, during incarceration and to contribute meaningfully to their communities once they are released. Perhaps UNISA became best known for this aspect of our education via our liberation fighters who were incarcerated on Robben Island, who were all educated through UNISA, most of whom went on to become very accomplished human beings. Their UNISA education equipped them for the lives they would need to lead once they were released.

UNISA was, in fact, the only hope of an education for hundreds of thousands of black South Africans who had no other means of getting an education. And this is why you find that so many important people in our history and even now, who were incarcerated, or in exile, too poor, or not able to attend so-called “white” universities, are UNISA graduates. The University of South Africa has always been a safe harbour for those who have been deprived of social justice and the means for social mobility.

UNISA and the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) concluded a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to continue to provide tertiary education for inmates in South Africa’s correctional facilities. The formalisation of this fruitful and long-standing relationship—one that has produced thousands of graduates over decades—took place on 9 June 2017. The primary task of the DCS is to detain inmates in safe custody whilst maintaining their human dignity, developing their sense of social responsibility and promoting the general development of all inmates.

Further education and training were introduced in correctional facilities in 2010 and since then more than 500 offenders have successfully completed their matric examinations with a number of distinctions in different subjects.

What has helped you avoid isolation and maintain relevance in a rapidly changing global environment?

UNISA has a brand that is globally recognised. Wherever I go people know and respect UNISA and our graduates. However, in the current context of global transformation and our own socio-economic and political dynamics at home, there can be no denying that all of our universities have suffered in terms of the world view and reputation. Obviously we cannot rely on our reputation, brands and the goodwill of our peers to carry us forever. We have to take steps to ensure that we restore and entrench our brand and our reputation as a quality institution that is producing quality and relevant graduates. That process is well underway at UNISA.

What has been your career highlight and that of the University?

I have been in the very fortunate position to have enjoyed a number of career highlights. I need to say up front, as a word to the wise for those who will follow on, that this was mainly as a result of hard work, dedication and a genuine commitment to education and to our students, who lie so close to my heart.

I think my career really matured when I was appointed as the Pro Vice Chancellor of UNISA. Having formerly been a Dean and later Executive Dean at UNISA, exposed mainly to the academe and its operations, it was in this position that I became exposed to the broader complexity of the university and the various aspects that would need to be dealt with as a Vice-Chancellor. I could say that the period of Pro-Vice Chancellorship was the calm before the storm! I have been at the helm of South Africa’s largest university, as Vice Chancellor, during what is possibly one of the most turbulent times of South Africa’s higher education history and it has been both a steep learning curve and an immense privilege. As someone who believes in servant leadership, it has been such an honour to serve this university community and our succeeding generations of students. Being the Vice-Chancellor of UNISA will likely be the highlight of my career.

I was also very privileged to have been elected and to serve as the President of the International Council for Distance Education (ICDE) from 2015–2018. During this time UNISA hosted the 26th ICDE World Conference, in October 2015, which is deemed to be the most successful and enjoyable by most participants. l made so many good friends during this time and, at the conclusion of my term, I was left with a deep appreciation for the work that is being done across the world, to promote the best interests of ODeL.

What do you look forward to achieving in the near future?

For me, that answer is quite simple. I look forward to a UNISA that would have made the transition into a fully-fledged ODeL university and that will enjoy the support and respect of staff, students and the higher education community alike, for the quality of its courseware, the excellence of its teachers and researchers and the calibre of its students and graduates. 

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