The most glaring issue in higher education in recent years has been fee-free education and how to accomplish it without putting the country into debt

As someone who was forced to start his primary school at the age of five, slightly below the average age, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Limpopo (UL), Professor Mahlo Mokgalong, understands the value of flexibility that helps him avoid approaching higher education with parochialism. This childhood experience remains one of his guiding principles that adds empathy and thoughtfulness to his management style.

Struggle credentials

Mokgalong enrolled for a degree in Zoology and Botany in 1972, the year often referred to as turbulent in the history of the then University of the North. At the time, the education system was segregated and unequal. As one historian recounted, “While white schooling was free, compulsory and expanding, black education was sorely neglected. Underfunding and an urban influx led to gravely insufficient schooling facilities, teachers and educational materials as well as an increase in student absenteeism or non-enrollment.”

“Since joining the University, I noticed its involvement in the overall struggle or fight for social justice. The University of Limpopo [then University of the North] was at the forefront of the fight against injustice,” says Mokgalong.

In 1972, the University became one of the breeding grounds for the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) championed by the likes of Onkgopotse Tiro, who was the National President of the South African Student Organisation (SASO). The defunct student body was officially launched in 1969 at the same University.

“They were powerful and instrumental in conscientising the young mind at black institutions about the philosophy of black consciousness which made me more conscious of the sporadic struggle against lack of access to education for natives.”

Tiro was expelled from the University for strongly criticising the Bantu Education Act of 1953 during his 1972 graduation speech known as Turfloop Testimony. Tiro was doing his Higher Education Diploma at the time and he delivered a speech that shook the whole country. “The University of Limpopo was similar to other black institutions, viz. created for the purpose of racially excluding black South Africans and through the years the University migrated from the original purpose to becoming a leader in certain aspects of higher education,” Mokgalong tells us.

Advancing in academics and finding his niche

As many students then spun and dug deeper into the mud, Mokgalong endured and acquired his BSc Zoology and Botany in 1975. Since then, he never looked back, obtaining BSc Honours in Zoology in 1977 and a PhD in Parasitology in 1996. He further spent some time in the UK completing his PhD, working at the British Museum of Natural History and the Commonwealth Institute of Parasitology where he discovered his love for research.

The mandate is to look after and mentor new students who have just enrolled at the Institution so that they don’t get lost or discouraged in their quest for education

Mokgalong’s experience at the British Museum of Natural History and the Commonwealth Institute of Parasitology was his first rung towards his executive destiny. During his days as a researcher, he says he never harboured any ambition to become part of senior management. Instead, his focus was on how to find solutions through education, research and development. “I never really looked into occupying any managerial positions. I thought of continuing with research because I had it at the back of my mind that that’s how you would find solutions for Africa,” explains Mokgalong.

Working his way up in a lustrous career as an academic, Mokgalong has held positions of Research Assistant, Senior Lecturer, Deputy Dean, and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science and Agriculture, and he negotiated his way through the competitive academic world with distinction after being appointed as Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Limpopo in 2003.

He says he is always teased about his longevity at the institution. “Some people say that I’m part of the furniture at the University —from being a student since 1972 to working at the same university as a research assistant since 1977 up to my current role as the Vice-Chancellor,” he giggles.

The formation of the University of Limpopo

Barely two years into his role as the Vice-Chancellor and Principal, from 2005 to 2014, he was tasked to oversee the merger of the then University of the North with the Medical University of Southern Africa (MEDUNSA), which resulted in the formation of the University of Limpopo. The merger brought about an increased student population and one more campus. “For a solid ten years, I served a mega institution, straddling two campuses that were far apart, among many other tasks I was asked to handle,” he shares.

The merger led to the amalgamation of academic, governance and management structures and the establishment of four faculties, namely Health Sciences, Humanities, Management and Law, and Science and Agriculture, with an average of 22 000 students. These were located on two campuses, approximately 300km apart, one in Mankweng, outside Polokwane and the other in Ga-Rankuwa, north of Pretoria.

Following seven years into the merger, on 26 May 2011, the Ministry of Higher Education and Training announced the intention to separate the two institutions. The decision was underscored by the government’s plans to increase the number of higher education institutions in the country and to expand the country’s capacity to train sufficient medical practitioners. Mokgalong was still at the helm, making him once again champion the demerger. In January 2015, the University of Limpopo became a stand-alone institution with its own Faculty of Health Sciences, offering qualifications in medicine, nursing, dietetics and nutrition, pharmacy, optometry, and medical sciences, and Mokgalong further led the establishment of the first medical school in South Africa since the democratic dispensation in 1994. “We are, so far, the only university to establish a medical school post-1994.”

Fee-free education located in perspective

To Mokgalong, a lack of access to higher education and the challenges that students from poor family backgrounds experience at tertiary institutions, hark back to his childhood and student days.

Hence, many years later, the Vice-Chancellor evoked this experience when he proposed to his colleagues in management to consider fee-free education to prevent large numbers of students who are financially struggling but doing well in their studies, from exclusion. He understands the structural and institutional constraints of higher education in South Africa, as well as how they present limitations to students, universities and the country.

However, he has realised the potential of these students and his concern was that their financial background and allocation by student financial aid was inadequate to fund their dreams. In the end, he knows that the University should find ways of serving these students while maintaining its fiscus discipline.

Mokgalong says the move by the government to introduce fee-free education will also revive an appetite to study amongst the rural poor. Since the introduction of fee-free education, the number of new applications has increased from 12 000 to 75 000. “It is a good move; it gives students a chance—who would otherwise not have had an opportunity to study and, in our case, most of them would be the first generation of graduates in their families.”

The way it is structured is different from how the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) used to operate. They used to allocate and divide funds among students. “Now our students are getting a fair share of the allocated funds.”

Fast-forward to 60 years of education

The University continues to tap into areas that are globally punted as having the potential to drive economic development. In 2019, the Institution launched a new department—Geology and Mining. Mokgalong says the programme responds to the need to develop geology competence in the country while exposing rural students to an array of career paths in the sector. “It will develop the capacity of both current and prospective geologists and mines within the Limpopo Province and beyond.”

Concomitantly and significantly, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was installed as the Chancellor of the Institution. While the University has a rich history, dating 60 years since it opened its doors in 1959 as the University College of the North (UNICOL), Dlamini Zuma has become its first female chancellor.

UNICOL was an extension of the Universities Act, which made provision for the establishment of the racially exclusive institutions for black people. According to history, the college was placed under the academic trusteeship of the University of South Africa (UNISA) until parliament promulgated the University of the North Act, bringing an end to its college status in 1969.

In the establishment of the Act, the institution focused more on the fields of agriculture, education and law. These were among the only degrees that black students could register for, subject to the Act.

Legacy in social justice

The Institution was one of the breeding grounds for the Black Consciousness Movement ideologies whose founding members included Steve Biko, Barney Pityana and Onkgopotse Tiro and was also the home for ANC student politics. The political activities on the campus saw current president Cyril Ramaphosa, who was enrolled as a law student, being arrested by the apartheid police.

During the Institution’s 60 years’ celebrations in 2019, Mokgalong and his team also featured the 50th anniversary of SASO, as it was launched at the University. SASO was a students’ organisation led by Steve Biko.

Mokgalong, who was initiated into black consciousness by Tiro when he arrived as a student after he matriculated from Hwiti High School, sees the history of the Institution as part of the resistance to apartheid and a path to national and political liberation.

The University of Limpopo is often lauded for producing the second and now the third generation of leaders in the country, taking after the University of Fort Hare’s Nelson Mandela generation. “Our sixty-year journey was replete with achievements. Our Institution was launched as a college, and one would have been ridiculed then as being excessively ambitious had he or she imagined the University of Limpopo as it is today, being a leading producer of today’s leaders in various disciplines.

“As the university, we are justly proud of the accomplishments of our alumni, some of whom are captains of different industries. We did not end with them; our infrastructure has grown in leaps and bounds, servicing a population of around 22 000 students,” Mokgalong asserts.

I never really looked into occupying any managerial positions. I thought of continuing with research because I had it at the back of my mind that that’s how you would find solutions for Africa

This can be seen from the type of alumni who are graduates of the University. The University boasts of having produced top leaders from politics to business and also of being one of the universities that engendered the professional skills of at least four of the current judge presidents in the country. “Even previously, we had the likes of Judge Bernard Ngoepe,” Mokgalong says.

At its 60th anniversary in 2019, the Institution invited its alumni to speak on various themes that reflected the 60 years of its existence. The different themes aligned with the faculties at the University, namely health sciences, humanities, management and law, and science and agriculture. The celebrations culminated in the delivery of the 7th Onkgopotse Tiro Annual Memorial Lecture by Dlamini Zuma during her installation as chancellor in September.

Opening doors of learning

The University of Limpopo is located in the rural township of Mankweng in the Capricorn District of the Limpopo Province and is famously known as Turfloop. Having realised that the rural setting comes with additional responsibility, the Institution opted to introduce a foundation programme in the sciences: a strategic initiative that improved access and success. “We realised that some students came to the University underprepared, requiring additional assistance. For that to be effective, we introduced them to the foundation programme.”

Mokgalong says the programme was conceived and delivered without any grant from the government and only survived through external funding. According to Mokgalong, donors such as the European Union ensured that the programme survived and delivered on its mandate.

Amongst other benefits, the programme also served as a bridging gap for aspiring students who could not qualify for certain degrees due to low marks in their matric exams. The programme has today, in the form of an Extended Curriculum Programme (ECP), become a tool used to identify students with potential, especially in the science faculties. “To prove that the programme is working, everybody in the sector is pushing in the direction we took almost three decades ago.”

Also, Mokgalong says the University has introduced a Baditi Student Support Programme where senior students groom new students. The Sepedi name Baditi is derived from the African initiation school tradition and is often used to refer to graduates from the schools, who then train their successors. “The mandate is to look after and mentor new students who have just enrolled at the Institution so that they don’t get lost or discouraged in their quest for education.”

Moreover, there is a programme targeted at female academics, University of Limpopo Women’s Academic Solidarity Association (ULWASA), which was established to serve as a tool to encourage aspiring female researchers to gain support from senior female academics.

Building a university responsive to what matters most

According to Mokgalong, at the University community engagement is translated into an institution-wide policy that promotes the scholarship of engagement at all levels. “We have established a unit called Rural Development and Innovation Hub (RDIH), which serves as the primary vehicle for innovation and institutionalisation of our scholarship of engagement.”

Mokgalong says more visible activities include the Faculty of Science and Agriculture’s ‘Science Centre’ which provides opportunities for rural schools’ learners to gain hands-on experience with a range of scientific and environmental topics and the Limpopo Agro-Food Technology Station (LATS) focusing on turning primary agricultural products into other commodities for national and international markets.

Also, the Limpopo Co-Lab for eLearning trains unemployed youth, healthcare workers, educators, and learners to ensure an e-skilled South Africa by 2030.

“Alongside these highly visible flagships are a myriad of transdisciplinary projects, including Creative Waste Management, the Nguni Cattle Project, Epigenetics and the In-Utero Environment, Adopt a School Projects, Space Week, and Hydroponics.

“We have various departments that participate in environmental wellness. The Department of Biodiversity researches on several issues in that regard, including riverine health. Riverine health relates to a system of inland wetlands and deep-water habitats. They are also studying the effects of pollution on the health of aquatic life or fresh-water fish.”

Mokgalong attests to the fact that institutions are deploying different aspects to find solutions that offer hope to aquatic or fish life. He says the process is also underway to use indigenous plants as pesticides to avert pollution in rivers that is triggered by the use of chemical pesticides. “Most of our rivers are polluted by the pesticides that are used. We are succeeding in our research to make sure that we use extracts from indigenous plants as pesticides,” says Mokgalong.

Nguni Cattle Project

The University of Limpopo was a pioneer in the Nguni Cattle Project introduced in 2006. The project evolved in partnership with the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC), the Provincial Department of Agriculture, Anglo American Platinum Mine and the AgriSETA. Since inception, the project has distributed a total of 4329 cattle to farmers, establishing 120 projects on 94 farms across the Limpopo Province. “The project is aimed at empowering rural small-scale livestock farmers and serves as a model for poverty reduction; promotion of economic growth; engagement with, and development of rural communities.”

The project entailed approved grants to rural farmers by stakeholders, and the University, in collaboration with the AgriSETA, administered and provided technical and expert support to the project. Farmers are selected and a mentorship programme provides training in Entrepreneurial Skills, Cattle Production and Breeding Management, Disease Management, Veld Management, Livestock Grading and Marketing and Livestock Economics.

Mokgalong says the University, during 2019/2020, further developed and implemented a formal training programme for emerging farmers to address the need to be trained in business management skills relevant to their farming practices.

Social intervention

“We also host a Risk and Vulnerability Science Centre for the Limpopo Province. Here we gather data on climate change and feed into the national atlas,” Mokgalong states, saying besides developing academics and offering a cohort of graduates for social and economic development, the University has helped the area grow economically.

“We are not a rural university, but a responsive university in a rural setting. In such rural settings, certain issues like disease and the health of the population are neglected because it is not understood.” Mokgalong says the University has taken the responsibility to drive awareness in the community.

“For the last 22 years, we have had a population health study. There has been an increase in diabetes amongst the rural population. So, annually we visit these households and conduct surveys.”

In 2019, the University launched a state-of-the-art research centre to improve the health of communities inflicted by the burden of non-communicable diseases. The new centre, called DIMAMO Population Health Research Centre, will not only boost the interdisciplinary research and intervention capability at the university level but also has a national significance as a nodal site of the South African Population Research Infrastructure Network (SAPRIN).

“We started with a population of only 40 000 and now we are at 100 000 at Dikgale and Mamabolo villages. We have included other communities around the University as well. Every year we collect data with the same group of people over time to uncover any new developments. We don’t simply collect data; we also try to improve the lives of the people and lobby others to provide a solution.”

The University has a big population of students with disabilities. “As a caring Institution that recognises that students with disabilities should enjoy the same rights as any other student of the University, we have put various measures in place to promote the quality of these students’ education and lives. A dedicated centre called the Reakgona Disability Centre, which is armed with a host of devices that help the disabled community, has been splendidly making the university experience liveable for students with disabilities.”

Fourth Industrial Revolution

Professor Mokgalong believes the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) challenges the University to continue being a key role player in the ever-evolving world order in terms of technology and innovation. “The approaches to the Fourth Industrial Revolution were introduced and practised before they were termed as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in the research we have been doing.”

Over the years, the Institution has groomed various students from rural communities, through the undergraduate programmes, and continues to spread the net wider in finding the most innovative individuals. The University has been using high-performance computing for the past 30 years and, as a result, produced skilled technology experts. The Institution has also introduced an artificial intelligence tool for speech recognition that converts African local languages into English. “The technology is very important as it demonstrates our capabilities as an institution,” he explains.

Short- and long-term goals

The University of Limpopo is making inroads on alternative energy with plans to participate in projects for manufacturing materials for lithium-ion batteries that could boost the future green energy crusade. Professor Mokgalong and the Director of Materials Modelling Centre (MMC) at the University, Professor Phuti Ngoepe, are leading the mission that will pave the way to maximise the use of manganese ore in the local production of such batteries.

In October 2017, the University launched South Africa’s first pilot plant in manganese beneficiation, located in Mbombela in the Mpumalanga Province. Dubbed the Lithium-Ion Battery (LIB) Precursor Pilot Plant, the facility received funding from the Department of Science and Innovation, and the IDC has played a crucial role in this development, as a strategic development programme responding to the fast pace evolution of rechargeable and high storage battery technology in the country.

Professor Ngoepe says that the project is receiving a positive response from battery manufacturing companies. “A pre-feasibility study for the establishment of a lithium manganese oxide (LMO) and nickel-manganese-cobalt (NMC) production plants in South Africa has been conducted with IDC, who have engaged several potential operating partners globally, and has received a positive response from Beijing Easpring in China,” says Ngoepe.

Presently, the facility is operating with 12 staff members and will absorb many more during implementation. According to Mokgalong, the project is on the verge of the second phase of implementation. “The first two phases would focus on the well-established nickel-rich NMC, and the third phase will include manganese-rich NMC.”

Ngoepe says Beijing Easpring made a significant input, which helped reduce time spent on a pre-feasibility study. “Currently, factors that impede the making of a business case for the establishment of such production plants are receiving attention,” he explains.

Ngoepe states that the abundance of raw materials in South Africa, such as manganese, that are used in the production of lithium-ion batteries, has stimulated and enhanced fundamental studies of lithium-rich electrodes, which are cost-effective and safer. The research is conducted in collaboration with partners locally and internationally, including Beijing Easpring company.

Though Mokgalong is in his last term, it is his dream to see the project get off the ground and enable the country to participate in manufacturing on another level. Ngoepe and Mokgalong believe that the plant’s existence is one of the critical tools to help accelerate the country’s Special Economic Zone (SEZ) industrial development agenda. The two are working with provincial governments in their ambitious developmental and value addition programmes, especially those which will establish industries and impart essential expertise and skills to the youth.

Eyeing the future

“The next chapter beyond this 60-year feat will be the building and sustaining of an international reputation, and we have established a portfolio of ‘Research, Innovation and Partnerships’ to begin positioning the University as a global player in knowledge generation.”

Mokgalong tells us that future plans for the University are fuelled and driven by the Institution’s motto, which dictates that it should be a source of solutions to continental problems. “We want to remain as the University of Limpopo for human and environmental wellness, finding solutions for Africa.

“We are proud, as the University, to have several health-related programmes. We are, so far, the only University to establish a medical school post-1994. To this end, we are also participating in the Nelson Mandela-Fidel Castro programme,” says Mokgalong. The programme aims to address the shortage of medical practitioners in historically disadvantaged areas as well as to improve human resource workforce capacity and strengthen the health care system in South Africa. The trainees return to South Africa for an 18-month clinical training at various universities that offer medicine programmes. “The 2018 cohort which we hosted secured a 100 percent pass.”

Chester Makana

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