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The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga (UMP), Prof Thoko Mayekiso, is continuing to make waves in tertiary education. Leadership’s Ralph Staniforth sat down with the inspirational figure for a chat about Women’s Month, what UMP does for women empowerment, how we can improve the overall standard of education in South Africa, what UMP is doing right, and how her leadership has helped shape the university.

August is Women’s Month in South Africa. It is a month for us to come together as a nation and celebrate our amazing women.

One of those amazing women is Prof Thoko Mayekiso, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Mpumalanga (UMP). Her incredible work at UMP has seen the tertiary institution grow in reputation, stature, and student numbers in its ten-year existence, which has been beneficial for all involved.

However, while Prof Mayekiso is delighted to be celebrated for her work and the legacy she is creating, the reality, she says, is that women across the board are still being mistreated, marginalised, abused, and taken advantage of. It’s sad that what should be a month of celebration, is dampened by the fact that we are far from a society which treats everyone equally and with respect.

Prof Mayekiso explains: “We are not doing enough for our women. We can do much more, especially with regard to addressing equity and equality. Across the various spheres of our lives, careful thought should be given as to how we can eliminate the gender divide.”

This inequality is plain to see within the highest echelons of most professions, including the corporate world, government, education, politics, and sports.

For example, there are currently just six female Vice-Chancellors of public higher education institutions in South Africa out of a total of 26, while there is still a major pay gap between genders in sports, with many female athletes having to work additional jobs just to get by.

“August should be the pinnacle, but throughout the other eleven months of the year, work should continue about how to level the proverbial playing field. Sexism, gender-based violence, and all the ills inimical to women empowerment need to be stopped right in their tracks. Creating more equitable workplaces and having amenities for caregivers are small steps towards ensuring that we do something concrete for women in our beloved country,” she continues.

“The contribution of women to the political freedom of all South Africans cannot be gainsaid. That alone should remind all and sundry about the role women played to ensure that we enjoy freedom today. A premium price has been paid and it is hypocritical to relegate women to the back, in boardrooms and benches where decision makers sit. Economic emancipation of women is also key, and this needs to be followed by freeing the mind.”

The forces of patriarchy are still out there in full force, while gender bias still rears its ugly head in many ways. The sad reality is that unless women have the will to succeed and the resilience to withstand difficulties and challenges, many give up.

“Never ever give up’ should be our mantra as women. There should be no giving up as women when sexism, femicide, gender-based violence, sexual harassment, and male domination still plague our society,” Prof Mayekiso insists.

“I urge women to keep working hard, but, in addition, effect change in the system to ensure that all women get a fair deal. Mentor others and lift as you rise.”

UMP in support of women

Under the guidance of Prof Mayekiso, UMP has created a strong culture of women empowerment.

This was evident in the most recent graduation ceremony, which saw female students outnumbering and outstripping their male counterparts.

Prof Mayekiso believes that key to this culture is having the right role models in positions of power, as their influence will serve as inspiration to all who have their hearts and minds set on making a success of themselves.

“We have committed ourselves to transformation targets. By setting these targets, the institution is forced to revisit them. Redress and transformation are not easy to drive—in the main because detractors speak of reverse discrimination. Nothing could be further from the truth. We also have workshops where women are empowered and informed. We are also deliberate in identifying young women with potential and exposing them to opportunities for growth,” Prof Mayekiso explains.

“The women at the University of Mpumalanga also have a number of role models who are female. One such example is the Chancellor, Deputy Chief Justice Mandisa Maya. Her appointment as Deputy Chief Justice of the Republic of South Africa has served as an inspiration to women at the University of Mpumalanga.”

Identifying and nurturing young talent is one of the strongest and sharpest tools we can use as a society to empower women.

That is why, annually, the UMP female staff participate in the HERS SA Academy, whose primary remit is to empower women to assume managerial positions in higher education. It is not only about optics, but the real-time impact that these women have, as when they are empowered, they are formidable.

“Furthermore, earmarked funding for research is provided so as to ensure that women with potential are not hampered by a lack of financial resources.

In addition, targeted mentoring takes place, where younger women are assigned mentors who will ensure that they are holistically supported.

The preceding input speaks to some of the tools used at UMP to help women and up and coming female students,” she adds.

As a way to further show their support for women, on 3 June 2023, UMP hosted the 100th anniversary conference of the South African Association of Women Graduates (SAAWG), while in Women’s Month 2023, UMP celebrations will centre around the theme, ‘Celebrating a Decade of Excellence in Women Empowerment and Creating Opportunities’.

“We want to celebrate the many victories in our struggle for equality and justice. The theme is informed by the 10-year celebrations which are going to take place in November 2023, marking 10 years since the establishment of the University of Mpumalanga in 2013,” she states.

As a way to put a personal touch on the work UMP is doing for women, Prof Mayekiso wanted to share some of her own words of wisdom in terms of breaking down barriers and reaching for your dreams.

She explains: “You need to remain dedicated and diligent. You also need to be committed to being excellent at what you do as a female leader to inspire others. You need to remain focused and driven by your purpose and not be easily distracted. It is important to keep reminding yourself that you cannot please everyone all the time, but can please some people some of the time. Therefore, the aim should not be to make people happy, but to do what is right and consistent with one’s principles and beliefs.”

Finding a solution to education’s issues

When the headline, ‘81% of Grade 4 learners can’t read for meaning’, went viral earlier in 2023, it sent shockwaves throughout the country.

The debate surrounding the story was rooted in disappointment and finger pointing, causing further divides within the already strained education sector.

While Prof Mayekiso was disheartened to hear this news, she wasn’t surprised, as we still face a plethora of issues in education, not least the fact that children are being taught in languages they are not familiar with.

“Education is the fulcrum around which the future of the nation revolves. Any weakness identified, therefore, should be attended to,” she says. “The crucial response is not to be defensive, but to see what is stated as feedback.

“The lack of literature in the indigenous languages for the lower grades, for example, is something that can be corrected. So too the establishment of libraries, starting with ‘moving libraries’, whilst resources are sought to build the required infrastructure and the training of librarians who understand the agenda of redress. Smartphones and iPads can help in the resolution of the challenge, especially with the installation of mechanisms to ensure that kids use only age-appropriate sites for research and further information.”

Empowering community-based organisations who are committed to improving the reading ability of students from the lower grades would be another step in the right direction, Prof Mayekiso believes.

She continues: “Foundation Phase Teaching at the University of Mpumalanga enjoys pride of place. The offering of IsiNdebele, sePedi, and Siswati as languages used to train teachers for the Foundation Phase locates us ideally in a space where we can make a difference. This would assist with mother-tongue instruction, which is very important in providing a firm foundation for education.”

The reality is that there is always room for improvement. Feedback is key and rather than ignoring what is out there, we need to identify the problem areas that drag us down and eliminate them—for the good of the generations to come.

“As the African wisdom dictates, the way to eat an elephant is doing so one piece at a time. Collective efforts are required to improve the state of education in South Africa,” Prof Mayekiso avers.

In terms of finding solutions, could they potentially lie in our counterparts overseas?

Prof Mayekiso believes that benchmarking is always useful, and this is evident in the partnerships which the UMP has struck with numerous international institutions, including eight in Africa, 11 in Europe, four in North America, two in Australia, and nine in Asia.

A recent visit to the Universidade Save in Mozambique in July 2023 brought about a renewed sense of collaboration, which will only help to strengthen the quality of UMP’s academic project.

Prof Mayekiso explains: “Our focus as a higher education institution is to contribute to the improvement of the education sector in South Africa through the quality of the graduates we produce, especially those who are pursuing teaching careers.

“We have a partnership with the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, USA, focusing specifically on agriculture. There are useful green shoots, like the use of tablets by pupils in certain provinces. Spreading the search for inspiration from all over the globe is also strategic. Whenever best practice is identified, we contextualise it, and make it help us in our situation.”

The attendance of conferences, both nationally and internationally, have also provided UMP students and staff with a broader perspective on issues relevant to their disciplines. As a result, they come up with new ideas about how to improve UMP, specifically, and how to make education better in the country as a whole.

In June 2023, four of UMP’s Masters and PhD students and one academic member of staff attended and presented papers at an international conference at the University for Agronomic Sciences and Veterinary Medicine in Bucharest, Romania, which is one of UMP’s partner institutions. This proved to be hugely successful for all involved and a great learning experience.

This proves once again that little by little, all actions are able to positively contribute towards the end goal of improving education in South Africa.

The UMP difference

The values of UMP are: Excellence; Integrity; Diversity; Collaboration; Adaptability; Relevance; and Inspiration, which Prof Mayekiso explains as:

  • In terms of excellence, UMP commits itself to uphold the highest standards of excellence in all its actions, functions, and services. It is consistent with this value, that in celebrating a decade of existence UMP chose the theme, ‘A Decade of Excellence’.
  • Integrity speaks to adherence to honesty, which is adhered to in an undeviating manner.
  • Diversity is valued and celebrated in unlocking a range of interactions and enhancing exposure to a wide variety of diverse cultures, backgrounds, views, and opinions.
  • Collaboration indicates that UMP will actively seek out opportunities with all its stakeholders in maximising the development of human potential and socio-economic development.
  • Under adaptability, the university acknowledges the ever-changing knowledge contexts, institutional environments, and social situations. Therefore, it sees the need to promote and foster adaptability.
  • Relevance speaks to the need for UMP to endorse its academic programmes, research activities, and engagement projects to respond to its context.
  • Inspiration addresses how UMP values inspiration that allows and encourages others to be more and do more than at first seemed possible.

“These values have served us well since 2015. We will keep on working on their inculcation and cascading among staff and students, because when we subscribe to the same values, the battle of working together becomes half won,” she says.

In terms of what is expected of students who attend UMP, three attributes are seen as non-negotiables: Resourceful; Responsive; and Responsible.

Therefore, the expectation is for all students to be motivated, conscientious, and self-sufficient individuals who are capable of substantial independent work, and who set aspirational goals for continuing personal, professional, and career development.

“Adding to these, we include innovative and entrepreneurial, indicating students who are intellectually curious, independent, creative, and critical thinkers, who are able to innovate by applying their knowledge and skills to the solution of novel as well as routine problems for sustainable development. Then there are the attributes of being confident and effective communicators, suggesting that our students will be able to engage meaningfully with a range of diverse audiences, as well as ethically and socially aware change agents,” Prof Mayekiso adds.

”This all means that our students will be socially aware and ethically inclined to bring about change. We further expect our students to be adaptable, meaning that they have an understanding of their discipline within dynamically changing inter and multi-disciplinary contexts; responding flexibly and adapting their skills and knowledge to excel in new situations. All these make well-rounded students; students who will go out there and make an impact on the world.”

Prof Mayekiso’s UMP journey

While Prof Mayekiso makes her role as Vice-Chancellor look easy, the reality is that the job comes with some tough situations and decisions.

One such tough decision, Prof Mayekiso recalls, had to do with student protests which led to the closure of the university.

She explains: ”There are times when the students would bang on the door already open and threaten that the campus be closed. Going against the grain of demands by both the students and organised labour has been among the tough decisions.

“These led to protests and shutting down of the gates to the institution. This despite the open door policy that is practised by members of management. Not informed by bravado but sticking to principle and wary not to set negative precedents, tough decisions had to be taken. These decisions included closing the university, instituting disciplinary action, and sending messages of caution.”

For these tough decisions to be made, a discerning mind is required. The pros and cons have to be processed, with the best possible outcome weighed up.

This is the life of a leader, which Prof Mayekiso admits can often be difficult.

“There are times as a leader when you are caught between the Scylla and the Charybdis—the devil and the deep blue sea as it were. During such moments, the values and principles come in handy, as well as the greater good of the institution. The environment has been conducive at UMP over the past few years such that it has not been necessary to take any tough decisions. The relationship with structures is characterised by mutual respect,” she adds.

While there have been tough times, Prof Mayekiso is incredibly proud of what she has managed to achieve to date—none more so than being the first and only Vice-Chancellor of UMP since its inception, which she is grateful to the University Council for, with the confidence they have bestowed upon her constantly fueling her fire to succeed.

“When I reflect on my own experiences, I am amazed at the people I have met, the places I have visited, and the opportunities afforded to me. I have known and worked with gifted and talented individuals and I have been able to share in their achievements and to celebrate them. The greatest privilege comes from working with students; being able to help them succeed, to share in their successes, and to work to ensure they have a learning experience that sustains them for the rest of their lives. It is a privilege to be in a position to influence future generations,” Prof Mayekiso insists.

Leadership lessons

Life has its ebbs and flows. It also has the knack to throw curve balls. Therefore, the ability to embrace change and never to be threatened by it has merit—especially when in a leadership position.

Prof Mayekiso admits that her Clinical Psychology background has assisted her in reflecting objectively on difficult situations. The broader context in which staff and students find themselves is also an important factor in her thinking, as is the brand of the institution and the reputation which has been built within the decade of excellence being celebrated this year.

“Furthermore, leadership is forever an inaugural process—learning, relearning, and unlearning. Constant sharpening of one’s saw through reading and striving for best practice helps one to be forever sharpening and honing one’s skills of leadership. Leadership in many ways is a difference maker, it can make or break the institution and should, therefore, be exercised with a great deal of careful consideration. Hasty decisions can plunge both the leader and organisation into deep trouble,” she states.

When times are tough, Prof Mayekiso says that she taps into her leadership skills, knowledge base, hobbies, and achievements.

This keeps her grounded.

She expands: “Being in touch with my closest confidantes, attending church, hitting the gym, and watching sports—especially grand slams like Roland Garros and Wimbledon—are useful ways to decompress. Seeing students from admission to graduation provide me with some of the best moments in my long leadership journey in higher education. Whilst it does not say the mission is accomplished, it spurs one on to remember that change is happening right in front of our eyes.”

Throughout her leadership journey, Prof Mayekiso admits that she has kept reminding herself that she is a woman of determination. To do this, she draws from the words of her late father: “This helps me to navigate any leadership challenges I am confronted with. I believe that determination is the driving force towards excellence and, in order to work consistently at something, one needs perseverance. Determination is about putting your heart, mind, and soul into what you want to achieve and about pursuing your goals relentlessly. It is about rising above all odds.”

The key to being a responsive Vice-Chancellor is to listen, learn, and lead, admits Prof Mayekiso.

The challenge, however, is to balance the act of listening and learning with acting. Leading by example and holding oneself to the highest standards have been lessons learned by Prof Mayekiso.

“Leading self first is key, before one can lead others. The ability to listen, the deepening of one’s empathy, and the ability to connect the dots certainly helps. Treating others fairly and respectfully whilst holding them accountable is a fine balancing act,” she continues.

“Firm and fair is how many who I have led have described me. An added dimension is the ability to have difficult conversations with errant staff and students; to talk assertively, yet respectfully. Each student is unique, so too is each staff member. Allow the expression of uniqueness whilst also taking into account that there is common purpose and a greater good. This calls for an analytical mind and a caring heart on my part as a leader.”

These words have the ability to serve any Vice-Chancellor well, as the reality is that without students, there is no university. Students are what make the university function. A Vice-Chancellor must make time for students. They must talk with them, must genuinely be interested in their concerns, and must always exhibit respect for their opinion.

In terms of what she wants to leave as a legacy, Prof Mayekiso was very philosophical in her answer.

“The question of leaving a legacy is an imperative, but it starts with the very first steps and decisions that one takes. With time, a track record is set, and credibility becomes noticed, as more and more staff and students come to accept that one is a servant leader who strives all the time to work in the best interests of UMP.

“The prudent management of both people and financial resources ensures that one is not only leading for now, but conscious of the fact that there are generations of students who are still coming. They should find a UMP that has been able to stand the test of time,” she concludes.

And it is evident from your tenure so far that UMP will indeed stand the test of time, Prof Mayekiso.

Ralph Staniforth is the Production Editor for Leadership Magazine