Leadership editor Onkgopotse JJ Tabane sat down with the new vice-chancellor of Walter Sisulu University, Professor Rushiella Nolundi Songca, for a chat about her role, the landscape women face in what is a male-dominated arena, and how learning has changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Professor Rushiella Nolundi Songca is now the new vice-chancellor of Walter Sisulu University (WSU), the first woman appointed to this key position at the institution. She has a long record of working in academia, having been employed at UNISA in various capacities. But her relationship with WSU goes back a very long way. Early in her career, in the 1990s, she lectured law at the then University of Transkei, which is now WSU. From our exchange, it is clear that Prof. Songca has a powerful vision for the evolution of academia and a calling to ensure that WSU undergoes a significant change in its pursuit of excellence.

She is forthright when she says that recognising women’s role in our country’s academic endeavours is long overdue.

She says that she remembers many outstanding women who were strong in academia and who could run and administer their faculties or hold senior positions in academia when she looks back.

However, they did not get the opportunities for advancement that women are getting now, simply because they were women, with men almost exclusively ruling the roost. She feels strongly that we cannot downplay the role of patriarchy in terms of associating people’s worth and capabilities with their gender.

Professor Songca gets straight to the point when she says: “Now, I think we are bold, and we have come to realise that, indeed, women have something to contribute.”

She says that this is not a new phenomenon, mentioning key events like ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Me Too’, and ‘Fees Must Fall’. She also lists great names like Winnie Mandela, Graça Machel, and Mamohato Bereng Seeiso, who served as the Regent Head of State of Lesotho on three occasions. These and other leading and eminently historical female personalities stood forward in a largely male-dominated society to take on notable leadership responsibilities.

She puts it into a nutshell when she says that although we honour those names, we still do it at the level at which we recognise their male counterparts. However, she thinks that we are now at a stage where we acknowledge and accept that we have good women leaders who can actually lead.

To the question of what we can do to cultivate a set-up that can encourage breaking away from such patriarchy in these faculties, she says that it is a multi-layered scenario. One can look at it from the issue of patriarchy, which is a fact, and blame that. But one can also look at it from the issue of gender relations and perceptions. Although we are modernised, and our thinking is somehow changed, we still have deep-seated prejudices regarding women and their ability to lead. And, it doesn’t help that even women themselves look at each other differently. This exacerbates the issue.

Professor Songca sums it up like this: “So, that’s why I’m saying it is multi-layered and that it has come a long way. But I believe that we still have a long way to go. The more we have women in leadership, especially in academia, the more I think that eventually, we will reach a point where gender equity will be normal; the way it should have been in the first place.”

Even so, it would appear that there is still a deliberate, even subterranean attempt and narrative towards promoting gender inequity. But she states firmly that this should be dealt with by strategies and projects that ensure the creation of opportunities for talented and qualified women. She feels that we should also be intentional when putting interventions in place—targeting women, and giving them opportunities. They must be exposed to particular, appropriate environments to exercise their agencies and evolve their own leadership experiences and abilities. In such a way, they will become leaders. She feels that even though the correct narrative has now started, we are still lagging behind.

We asked her what she is inheriting in terms of the executive right now. Typically, she got right to the point: “I think it’s indeed a little bit balanced, especially at the senior executive level, but I also think there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of the other senior management levels, including creating opportunities to ensure that these women achieve their highest qualifications. In the academic space, obviously, it’s the PhD. So we need to be intentional also in that regard.”

We asked her about her leadership philosophy and to share with our readers the two or three big ideas that have guided her. We wanted to know what makes her tick and how that will apply in her new leading role.

She replied that she understands what she calls a “servant-leadership” relationship and that she embraces and applies it. Up front, a leader must be able to identify talent, not only amongst one’s own leadership cohort, but also talent amongst other academics. It’s not just a case of personally mentoring people that you know. One should set out to find and link suitable mentors to them and also to create opportunities for them. But a leader does not stand alone. One has to have the ability to translate this management practice into how you yourself do things.

“For example,” she continues, “As I lead, I want to create opportunities and guide people, and, if possible, mentor them so that they themselves can become better leaders. At the same time, the leader also learns something from them. But it does not end there. Apart from me being a manager, I’m also an academic. Therefore, I need to lead by example and begin to publish in tandem with my doctoral students—also with emerging and established academics. Because, if you look at my profile, you will see that some of my publications are with my doctoral students, and I have thereby tried to create opportunities for those doctoral students. Some of them are professors themselves now, and some have become leading legal practitioners. So, for me, that is my leadership style. It is about creating opportunities.”

Talking about publications, we wanted to know from her if she feels that academic leaders and researchers have sort of taken a back seat in terms of influencing the national discourse on a variety of things since 1994 when we had a lot of thought leaders in academic institutions.

She feels that, in a way, the nature of the work has evolved over the years. At the national level, in terms of thought leaders, academics are not as active as they should be. This is so for different reasons. There are those who talk about general issues, and there are those who really want to be academic in their analysis and therefore might not have the time for general issues. So, at the end of the day, it’s also about how you want to position yourself out there. But as a general rule, academic leaders have taken a back seat, focusing on making sure that their institutions function properly.

The two or three most important things that are sitting on her desk as the VC are as follows:

Firstly, she feels that she has to improve their service to their clients. She says that she uses the word “clients” broadly to include students, stakeholders and also to improve the way they interact between themselves as colleagues. Linked to that, it’s about re-imagining themselves. It’s not only about how they are perceived externally, but it’s also about how they perceive themselves. For her, this is one of the things that she would like her own performance to be judged by. The other one is to create a holistic student experience that is underpinned by humanness and caring. This must extend to how we treat our students, both in and out of the classroom; meaning the extra-mural activities and the programmes that they provide for those students. That, for her, is extremely important.

With regard to creating programmes, we asked whether there might be particular ones that she wants WSU to offer, that are not being offered now.

She referred to the fact that they are situated in four geographical areas with, for example, engineering in two separate campuses. So it must be about consolidating specific faculties like that into one space. It is also about rationalising their programme qualification mix. They have started the work and have found a service provider to help them with that. The object is to identify programmes that are not relevant and the ones that are relevant. For her, this exercise is extremely important as she begins to enter her office as the VC.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic remains at the forefront of the discussion and the planning scenario. We asked her how she is adapting in these very frightening times. We got quite an interesting (and visionary) answer to that one.

“To be honest, I am scared of COVID-19 the same way you are and I always tell my colleagues to follow all the protocols. But in a way, COVID-19 has helped WSU. It was a catalyst for us to embrace technology, because we had no choice. Remember, we had to work from home during those levels and we had to make sure that our academics were equipped to do that. We were also the first ones to provide our students with laptops. Most of our students are on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which had indicated that they were going to use the book allowance to pay for the gadgets like the laptops. So we went ahead and were aggressive in making sure that those students got the laptops and the data,” she says.

“We are going to enhance our blended learning, which is a combination of a hybrid model of face-to-face and teaching online. We are done with our policy framework. Now we are refining how we do that better and adequately. We are training our academics, especially those who thought we would be going back to the ‘good old days’. We are training them to be comfortable with teaching online. We are also training our students, so we are not going back to the good old days. In a way, therefore, we have been able to step up from COVID-19 and move our agenda forward in terms of maximising and leveraging the use of technology—and we are not going back.”

To end the chat, we asked the obvious question and got a sizzling reply that had to make one smile: What’s the one project that you are most passionate about?

“I would kill you if we don’t budget for creating opportunities for our academics to obtain their PhDs!”

In conversation with Professor Rushiella Songca

Professor Rushiella Songca is the first woman to be appointed to this key position of vice-chancellor at the Walter Sisulu University. What was particularly striking during our conversation was not only her very incisive understanding of her own academic field, as one would naturally expect of her, but she also unpacked the complex leadership challenges that surround the establishing of common goals and objectives amongst groups of people.

The keys to how differing people should be motivated to stand and work together strongly reveals the outstanding academic and leadership qualities and experiences that have led her to this ground-breaking appointment.

Who inspired you and who have been your mentors on your journey in your academic specialisation, which is the legal field?

There were people that I admired, especially my lecturers, because that was my inclination. But I also learned to watch my colleagues and the people around them. I learned what to emulate and what not to emulate, and therefore, I would end up looking at people’s different styles of leadership and I would admire specific aspects of them. Sometimes, though, I may not have supported their agendas entirely. To be more specific, at times you would admire how a leader could galvanise people to buy into their vision and sometimes I also felt galvanised by how leaders highlighted the importance of mentoring emerging academics. So, for me, the aspects that spoke to me were the ones that I wanted to emulate.

I see that there is now a growing trend of female vice-chancellors. Do you think we are turning the corner, particularly regarding administration, which is a very male-dominated arena?

Yes, I think we are and it is long overdue. Looking back, I think of women who were strong in academia and were able to administer their faculties, or who held senior positions in their fields. I just feel that they did not get the opportunities then that we are getting now… simply because of their gender, simply because they were women. We cannot downplay the negativity of patriarchy and associating people’s worth and capabilities in terms of their gender.

Now, I think we are bold and we have come to realise that women indeed have something to contribute, which is not a new thing. If you look at our history, with names like Winnie Mandela, Graça Machel, and Mamohato Bereng Seeiso, who served as the Regent Head of State of Lesotho on three occasions. These and other leading and eminently historical female personalities stood forward in a largely male-dominated society to take on notable leadership responsibilities. Although we do recognise them, we still do not do so at the levels at which we recognise their male counterparts. I think, now, we are at a stage where we recognise and accept that we have good women leaders who can actually lead.

What can we do to encourage the breaking down of dominant patriarchy in such faculties?

This thing is multi-layered. You can look at it from the issue of patriarchy and blame that, which is a fact. But you can also look at it from the issue of gender relations and perceptions. Although we are indeed more modernised now in our thinking, we still have deep-seated prejudices when it comes to women and their ability to lead. And, it doesn’t help that even some women themselves follow this trend. That’s why I’m saying it is multi-layered. Yes, it has come a long way, but I believe we also still have a long way to go. But the more we have women in leadership, especially in academia, I think we will eventually reach a point where it will be seen to be normal—the way it should always have been.

What are you inheriting in terms of the executive at this time?

I think it’s a little bit balanced, especially at the senior executive level, but I also think there is still a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of the other senior management levels, including creating opportunities to ensure that particularly gifted women get to their highest qualifications. In the academic space, obviously, it’s the PhD.

Please share with our readers, what would you say are the two or three big ideas or principles around leadership philosophy that have guided you and that you are going to apply in your new role?

I have my own understanding of ‘servant-leadership’ principles that I embrace and apply. For one, as a leader, you must first be able to identify talent, not only amongst your own leadership cohort, but also talent amongst other academics. You should not only mentor people that you know exclusively. You should link other mentors to them and create additional opportunities for them.

Also important is the ability to translate that into how you yourself do things. For example, try to mentor people to become better leaders themselves. At the same time, I am also learning something from them. But, it does not end there. Apart from me being a manager, I’m also an academic. Therefore, I need to lead by example and begin to publish together with my doctoral students and link up with other emerging or established academics.

If you look at my profile, you will see that some of my publications are done together with my doctoral students and I have tried to create opportunities for them. Some of them are professors themselves now and some have become leading legal practitioners. So, for me, that is my leadership style. It is about creating opportunities for people.

Talking about publications, do you feel that academic leaders such as yourself and researchers have sort of taken a back seat in terms of influencing the national discourse on a variety of things? If you remember, around 1994, we had a lot of thought leaders in these institutions…

In a way we have taken a back seat for various reasons. Also, the nature of our work has changed, or evolved over the years, and we are busy, most of the time, trying to extinguish fires and we become seized by those very same important issues. At the national level, in terms of thought leaders, I don’t think we are as active as we should be. And again, it’s for different reasons. You know, there are those who talk about general issues and there are those who really want to be academic in their analysis and who therefore might not have the time to really do that. So, at the end of the day I think it’s also about how you want to position yourself out there. As a general rule, however, we have taken a back seat and most of us are mainly focused on making sure that our institutions function properly.

Talking about putting out fires… what are the two or three most urgent things that are now sitting on your desk as the VC?

The first one is to improve our service to our clients—and I’m using the word ‘clients’ broadly to include our students and all our stakeholders; and also to improve the way we interact with, and perceive, ourselves. Linked to that, it’s about re-imagining ourselves. We need to really be able to do that and I’m sure we are going to need help in that regard. It’s not only how we are perceived externally, but it’s also about how we perceive ourselves. That, for me, is one of the things that I would like to be judged against and I want to demonstrate that I do have the ability to do that. The other one is to create a holistic student experience, underpinned by humanness and caring. That will extend to how we treat our students, both in the classroom and out of the classroom, meaning, the extra-mural activities that we provide for those students. But, also of importance are the programmes that we offer to those students. That, for me, is extremely important.

Talking about programmess, are there particular programmes that you want WSU to offer that are not offered now?

We are situated in four geographical areas. What we have found, as a result, for instance, is that we have engineering in two campuses. One of the things I want to achieve is to consolidate those faculties, with one faculty of science, engineering, and then technology and mathematics—each in one space. Also of importance is rationalising our programme qualification mix. We have started the work and have found a service provider to help us with that. This is important, because through that exercise we will be able to identify the programmes that we are offering that are not relevant, while identifying the relevant ones. So, this exercise, for me, is extremely important as I begin to enter this office as the VC. This exercise will also help in opening spaces for more bachelor’s degrees.

What’s that one project you are the most passionate about?

I would kill you if we don’t budget for creating opportunities for our academics to obtain their PhDs!

My last question is about the COVID-19 pandemic. How have you adapted in these very frightening times?

To be honest, I am scared of COVID-19 the same way you are and I always tell my colleagues to follow all the protocols. But, in a way, COVID-19 has helped WSU. It was a catalyst for us to embrace technology, because we had no choice. Remember, we had to work from home during those levels and we had to make sure that our academics are equipped to do that. We were also the first ones to provide our students with laptops. Most of our students are on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which had indicated that they were going to use the book allowance to pay for the gadgets. So we went ahead and were aggressive in making sure that those students got the laptops and the data. We are going to enhance our blended learning, which is a combination of a hybrid model of face-to-face and teaching online. We are done with our policy framework. Now we are refining how we do that better and adequately. We are training our academics, especially those who thought we would be going back to the ‘good old days’. We are training them to be comfortable with teaching online. We are also training our students, so we are not going back to the good old days. In a way, therefore, we have been able to step up from COVID-19 and move our agenda forward in terms of maximising and leveraging the use of technology—and we are not going back. ▲

Leadership editor Onkgopotse JJ Tabane.