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Prof Mahlo Mokgalong spoke to Leadership Editor Prof JJ Tabane about his extraordinary leadership journey from an unassuming science student in the early 1970s to ascending to the role of Vice-Chancellor in the early 2000s–a position he has held for an extraordinary 22 years

Prof Mahlo Mokgalong reflects on what stands out for him in his educational background that prepared him for his long stint at the University of Limpopo. He reflects on the founding of the university and the role of traditional leaders in its founding.

“These two points are interwoven with each other. Everyone looked at the University of the North (before then the University College of the North) as a bush university. The consensus was that it was nothing but a Bantustan institution; a creation of apartheid to keep black South Africans far from their white counterparts. Alongside the University of the North, there were others, such as Fort Hare in the then Ciskei, the University of Durban-Westville in Durban (for Indian students), and the University of the Western Cape (for coloured students). There were also the smaller universities in what were called the TBVC states, namely, the Transkei (now the Walter Sisulu University), Bophuthatswana (now the Mafikeng Campus of the North-West University), Venda (which was a branch of the University of the North, along with the Qwaqwa Branch), as well as others like the University of Zululand.”

The intention of the apartheid government was clear. These universities were the extension of the Bantu Education Act of 1953 into the higher education sector.

“What gets missed, however, is that the University of the North was unique in how it was founded. In 1957, traditional leaders from Mopeli in Qwaqwa to Maserumule in Sekhukhune and Ramabulana in Venda came together under a fig tree which still stands near the golf clubhouse. They took a resolution to establish this university and sent a request to the government for its creation. So, although most people will later view the institution as a creation of the apartheid government, the unique role played by the traditional leaders from all over South Africa in making it a reality was overlooked. The land on which it stands was donated by the local chiefs, not the apartheid government. The running of the institution would be dominated by white lecturers and administration staff, but would also attract young politically conscious and worldly professionals into its ranks. This is why people like Dr Arnold Msimeki, former head of the Student Counselling Bureau, are counted among those who taught Onkgopotse Tiro during his early days on campus, just as Prof ZK Matthews is credited with mentoring people like Nelson Mandela at Fort Hare.”

Granted, the university was founded as an organ of the apartheid state, but it was also the result of the visionary leadership of the chiefs who understood that they had to create an institution of higher learning for their own children, instead of complaining about being excluded from the likes of Wits, Cape Town, Rhodes, Stellenbosch and Pretoria.

“It is this organic contradiction in the way the university was founded that partly explains how it found itself attracting the brightest and most dynamic young people from all over the country, and beyond the borders of South Africa. It was also not surprising that it would be embraced by the broader South African society as the citadel of political consciousness, leading to it hosting the inaugural conference of the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) in 1969. This was another irony and funny moment in the history of the institution, as the then Vice-Chancellor naively agreed to provide the venue under the mistaken impression that he was advancing separate development, while he was abetting the rise of Black Consciousness.”

Africa, in the late 1950s, was the hive of political realignment. Post-World War II in Europe—where the colonial powers were—was reconsidering its stance to forge better multilateralism, following the founding of the United Nations. The pressure to rebuild key European economies like Germany, after its annihilation in the war, and the rising influence of the US as a superpower around the NATO bloc of nations, led to European powers relinquishing their colonial grip on their African colonies. This trend resulted in many countries in Africa gaining independence, starting with Ghana in 1957 and nearly all the rest by 1964. It was also during this era that pan-African solidarity gained momentum, culminating in the formation of the African Union (AU now, but OAU then) in Ethiopia in May 1963.

The founding documents of the OAU clearly show that South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe were the focal point of pan-African solidarity. The OAU’s primary mandate was to free these countries and complete the project of the unification of Africa. It was not surprising that the University of the North attracted students from countries like Namibia, Malawi, and Zambia. It was this spirit of pan-African solidarity and consciousness that made the university an African institution—another contradiction because on the other fronts, South Africa was being isolated from sports and cultural activities. This should emphasise the cardinal importance of education as a unifier and liberator.

Mokgalong asserts that this is also perhaps why the current motto of the University of Limpopo is aptly: ‘Finding Solutions for Africa’.

“We were founded in the era of rising Black Consciousness and pan-Africanism, and we are coming of age in the epoch of intra-African trade and investment, the resurgence of Africa and the reclamation of African pride and dignity.”

Mokgalong’s journey in his own words

On the resurgence of Black Consciousness and the role of the liberation movement…

There was no way one could have remained unaffected by the political atmosphere of the early 1970s at Turfloop. Bear in mind that SASO held its inaugural conference at our university in July 1969.

SASO was a non-violent organisation, but certainly not timid. With founding leaders like Steve Biko and Barney Pityana, it was the motor of anti-apartheid activism. It filled the vacuum created by the banning of political organisations like the South African Communist Party (SACP) in 1950, and the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1960. This void had been widened by several activists going into exile and the subsequent imprisonment of leaders such as those sentenced to life at the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial of 1963/64.

The University of the North, as it was known then, inevitably became the cauldron of political consciousness and the resurgence of the resolve of black people to resist racial segregation and apartheid oppression.

My chosen study programme was a BSc, majoring in Zoology and Botany. South Africa in the 1970s was trying hard to spread the influence of the Bantu Education Act of 1953 to higher education. The architect of apartheid, HF Verwoerd, had declared that black people had no business learning mathematics; and I was doing my first year in natural sciences. You can just imagine what the atmosphere was like.

It was impossible in 1972 to simply be a student without political consciousness. Being a politically conscious student implied being involved in more than just your studies, even though one still had to study diligently in order to pass and not disappoint parents. This was made challenging by intermittent disruptions of the academic programme due to strikes and boycotts over local, national or even international issues. Let us just say that it was a tough but exciting juggling act.

On how he led the students as a staff member in a difficult faculty…

My own experience as a student in a faculty that was not intended for black people prepared me. From the moment I graduated and enrolled for my Honours degree in Zoology, I started working as a laboratory assistant. This brought me into contact with black students, struggling with the adjustment from high school to varsity life. I had to develop compassion and empathy, because in the 1970s and 1980s, it was becoming increasingly clear that the status quo was not sustainable and that the system had to become more inclusive and equitable. Our role as laboratory assistants, then junior lecturers, especially in the context of the turbulent 1980s and grounded in the height of Black Consciousness in the 1970s, taught us to comprehend the finer nuances of the black student experience.

By the time I became a senior lecturer in the era of the army occupying our campus, therefore, I was quietly aware of what it took to run a department and a faculty. My close association with the head of our department, Prof Saayman, who was a very influential and respected scientist and administrator, taught me a lot about the workings of a professional environment, the interpersonal dynamics of a scientific environment in a constantly changing milieu.

When the changes of the early to mid-1990s happened and the country was clearly no longer tolerant of any vestiges of apartheid mentality, sudden changes took place in the faculty and many gaps were created. Sudden departures and several movements of senior personnel meant that those of us who had been observing from within what was taking place were better positioned to step up and steer the ship in conditions that no one was qualified to navigate.

There was no script on how to lead, so one had to learn on the job. Fortunately, having sound relations with colleagues always helps the cause of those willing to risk getting it wrong by accepting the challenge. Mine has always been the story of being prepared for an opportunity that might arise, of never being afraid to try even when in doubt, and of being at the right place at the right time.

On how he became a bridge between the students and a conservative faculty…

Students in the 1980s were highly militarised. They were impatient with the academic administration that was steeped in the spirit of apartheid education and exclusivity. The political climate was evidently changing and the management in the main was not ready for what looked like sudden, yet irreversible changes. The heavy-handed response of the government of the day did not help. The declaration of the state of emergency in June 1986, the occupation of the campus by security forces—including the army—were among the external factors that continued to make the institution harder for the administration to control. With the line between the anti-apartheid forces and what was seen as the camp of the enemy getting thinner, it became increasingly difficult for anyone to sit on the fence. This contributed to the university administration and some of the academic leadership of the institution losing credibility or control or both.

Fortunately, having been here since the early 1970s, one was schooled in the political undertones of the day and was able to adapt and understand the youth of the 1980s. This would have made some of us relatively approachable. With the democratic elections approaching, soon afterwards, more of the university leadership from the 1970s and 1980s left.

This opened the space for some of the younger, progressive staff to ascend to positions of authority at the level of departments and faculties. It was still not easy, though, as most Vice-Chancellors only lasted a few months in their position before quitting. This created a lot of instability and despondency among staff and students.

Heading a faculty, therefore, was not plain-sailing, but was still exciting enough for one to learn as much as was possible. Some of my peers who were part of the academic staff were quite supportive and that made it possible to keep the faculty growing. Little did I know that this was preparing me for bigger challenges.

On his behind-the-scenes leadership…

De facto leadership—the leadership role without title—is often underestimated. As the saying goes, leadership is about action, not position. It is important to look at leadership as being able to show people what is possible, when the outlook is gloomy or confusing.

My ability to work with different personalities came in handy in the formative stages of my leadership qualities. Being able to liaise between militant students and some of the conservative academic staff of the 1980s and 1990s created space for me to master this kind of leadership and build networks that would stand me in good stead when my tenure as Vice-Chancellor commenced.

To date, I count on these allegiances to motivate, correct mistakes, and guide at various levels of my leadership role. My good relationships with students, including political activists, going back to the 1970s, give me a strong network of influential and informed people into whose wisdom I am able to tap to resolve daily challenges in my role. Behind the scenes, one is able to build their leadership profile without the pressures of incumbency and the expectations that come with that.

On the key lessons of leadership…

You are not leading by yourself, but with others. It is important to have a vision, but it is critical to get everyone on board. When I took over in 2002, we were coming straight out of administration. The university had about three rickety cars, old buildings, most of which needed a facelift, and some months we would be unable to pay salaries. Retaining staff was hard, but attracting new professionals was harder. Professional institutions were viewing us and our qualifications with suspicion. To be able to move even one step, therefore, required getting others to believe in what lay ahead, although it was hard to describe what that was.

One had to forge a spirit of shared destiny, build a fellowship and create a culture of solidarity and compassion—of caring for one another—as we were all in the same boat, facing possible doom, unless we were able to turn our fortunes around as a collective.

Leading the university then was like a reprise of Dr Martin Luther King’s 1961 speech at Syracuse University, where he famously told an audience of the critical need to “learn to live together as brothers [and sisters]” or “perish together as fools”.

Back then, I equated coming out of administration to “moving from military to civilian rule”. This emboldened my colleagues, though it equally created a false sense of laxity in others. Leading, therefore, required a balance of vision, inspiration to make others believe, trust to let others help to shape the shared destiny of the university’s people, and toughness to correct mistakes whenever such was required.

That is how colleagues held on, seeing us through tough times, eventually growing the university in terms of its physical infrastructure, student population, and variety in our Programme and Qualification Mix (PQM), to what it is today.

Leadership also took digging deep into the loyalty and sentiments of most of the staff members at the time, many of whom were alumni of the institution and expectedly were keen to protect their own heritage and legacy.

On the bad financial state he found the university in…

Numbers do not lie. Daily Investor in August published an article, ‘South Africa’s richest universities revealed’, which included the University of Limpopo in the top ten out of the country’s 26 public institutions of higher learning. The article compared South African universities on the basis of how much money was in their general reserves and in the endowment fund. Our university is financially sound, but this must be seen in the following context.

First, the university was under administration when I took over as Vice-Chancellor in 2001/02. This, financially, means that we were in ruins. Starting from financial ruin to be among the country’s top ten ‘richest’ universities is nothing short of a miracle. Not that one should ever celebrate the challenges facing public sector entities, but governance and financial management are not their strongest attributes. To stand out for being financially sound is something that I do not take lightly.

On achieving financial stability…

Cash is king, but a sound cash position is not an end in and of itself. It is, however, the outcome of sound financial management overall.

First, one has to balance the books; do proper financial planning, stay within budget, but not let budgets take the focus off the main mandate of the university, which is teaching and learning, research, and community engagement.

As long as these three are taken care of, in balance with one another, the main stakeholders, i.e. DHET and other agencies, will continue to honour their subsidy obligations, including input and output subsidies, which are higher for postgraduate programmes. This has necessitated a balance between undergraduate and postgraduate programmes.

Research also attracts its own funding, so we had to make sure that we maintain and grow the programme as well, including the ability to attract research chairs here and there. We also built partnerships with the right stakeholders, including some bursaries and scholarships; we managed to attract some grants from various sources to build and improve our infrastructure.

As long as one does all these things consistently, while accounting for every cent and sticking to strict governance principles, any business can attain this level of financial soundness.

On the unstable merger with Medunsa…

Going back to my earlier point about the inauspicious time that traditionally black universities went through in the early days of the democratic South Africa, it was an extension of the frustration and anxieties that characterised higher education in the country.

Two universities, both in what one might call well established townships and each with their own pedigree, were thrust into a marriage of convenience. The Mbeki Administration was understandably trying to streamline the higher education sector and unify it in line with the ethos of a South Africa united in its diversity. The move was probably a good idea, if both institutions had been able to see the bigger picture. This bigger picture was that of a university with a presence in different major hubs of the country. This was not that far-fetched, because the then University of the North had been able to operate two other campuses in Qwaqwa and in Venda. Many universities, the world over, operate multiple campuses for ease of access. So, the rationale for the merger was solid. Unfortunately, change is not an easy enterprise. Unless the process is underpinned by a solid change management strategy, any merger in the public or private sector is bound to run into trouble.

That was probably what happened. The two universities were not able to focus on the unified entity, but kept on harking back to their halcyon days of their separate worlds instead of pulling together to solidify the new merged entity. The failure of the ‘two camps’ to fuse into one became the undoing of the whole exercise.

On attracting staff and the consolidation of the academic project…

The University of Limpopo is competing for staff and students with the rest of the world. The advent of ICT in the form of hybrid learning, especially following the pandemic, has pushed every institution of learning to adopt new methodologies of teaching and learning, assessment, research, etc.

An even bigger problem than attracting staff is retaining the current corps of professionals or academics. The answer lies in continuous development and training to ensure that their careers are interlinked with their personal and professional growth that can keep them relevant to the changing economic landscape.

This training and development not only takes place on our campus, but should give the staff an opportunity to travel, learn from other universities in the country and elsewhere in the world. This exchange and cross-pollination of our intellectual capital will guarantee that we are part of that growing world of virtual learning, and of the world of work in which AI will continue to play an increasing role.

That is why we are exploring ways to help our staff understand how AI will affect their work, relationship with students, etc. As we speak, we have enlisted the services of experts to conduct information sharing sessions and workshops on such technologies like ChatGPT and other generative pre-trained alternatives.

On growing the student body…

The gross tertiary enrollment ratio in South Africa stands at 24%, according to 2020 figures from Statista. This means that the percentage of young people in the age group that corresponds with higher education, i.e. 18 to about 24, that are enrolled at a tertiary education is about 24 out of 100. This is an indication that we need much more space at universities. Even with the high unemployment rates, it is important to note that the level of unemployment among people with degrees or diplomas is around 10%, compared to those without a degree or diploma—which rate is much higher and even higher for those without matric.

Our university had no option but to grow. Today we receive over 100 000 applications every year, and we can only admit about 5 000. This growth was unavoidable, but it is still credit to all of our people at the university that we were able to maintain a brand that more people want to associate with.

Our ability to maintain a sound financial position, while improving access to education and allowing those who owe the university because of genuine reasons to progress has been the reason for our growth, alongside our growing PQM to include relevant programmes.

On the changing model of student financing…

As long as our students are sourced from quintiles 1 to 3, there is a pressing need to create an endowment fund to reduce the reliance of students on government funding and subsidies.

We have a powerful alumni, enough credentials and professionals on the academic front to generate the right partnerships to make this a reality. So far, we have managed to assist our students, thanks to the little reserves that we have accumulated over the years. However, with government funding continuing to decline as Treasury cuts spending, it is urgently imperative for us to find creative ways to generate self-funding models, including partnerships with a range of stakeholders. These partnerships must include those with the private and public sector to shape our research programme towards more practical relevance of our research topics that the entire research programme can increasingly fund itself.

On the special relationship with indigent students…

This has been a passion of mine, because I understand what a difference higher education can make in the eradication of poverty and the breaking of the poverty cycle.

I make it my business to interrogate the needs of every student, and to give support to those with a compelling case. This had to be done while ensuring that those with the means to pay are encouraged to pay off their debts, even if it means over a long period of time.

However, we still have hundreds of millions in outstanding debt.

On the other hand, we use our solid cash position to subsidise indigent students until NSFAS pays its grants into their accounts. This puts a strain on our resources and erodes our ability to earn interest on high deposit balances, but it is worth it in the bigger scheme of things.

However, the university needs a lasting and more sustainable solution, including more stable contributions by alumni, more partnerships to raise scholarships and bursaries, and an endowment fund, as well as other sources of third-stream income.

On two decades at the helm…

I did not set out to last 21 years. The tenure has been the outcome of decisions at different stages by the council to extend my term. My own philosophy has been to serve as long as my services are required, listen to others, have empathy, inspire a vision of bigger and better things, correct mistakes where they occur, and lead by example.

Prof. JJ Tabane is the Editor of Leadership and BBQ magazine.

Three takeaways from Prof Mokgalong’s tenure

Life prepares us in the strangest ways for our ultimate calling; therefore, always be prepared and do your best wherever you are. When I was at school, up to my time at Hwiti High School in Mankweng, I tried to do my best, listen to good counsel, learn from my mistakes, and be as competitive as possible. This introduced me to the right networks, where I got the best mentors, and found myself optimally positioned for opportunities I otherwise would not be exposed to without distinguishing myself.

Education is one of society’s greatest equalisers, and should be made as accessible and as affordable as possible to as many people as possible. #FeesMustFall taught me that our income inequality locks out too many young people and leaves them desperate for ways to access opportunities. Considering the dizzying heights to which lots of our alumni have risen in law, politics, media, business, among many others, it is imperative to those in charge of education to do their best to create opportunities for youth because one never knows whose future they could be toying with.

Change, as they say, is the only constant in life. The University of Limpopo went through several evolutionary changes in its 65 years of existence—from the apartheid institution that it was supposed to be to the cradle of leadership and excellence it has become. Still, along the way, there were many tectonic shifts that could only be survived by only those willing to adapt continuously.

Prof Mokgalong’s note to his successor

The University of Limpopo is a precious asset, not only to South Africa but to Africa as a whole. It is a source of hope for many marginalised individuals who have no other option to change their fortunes and break the cycle of poverty. As the institution turns 65 in 2024, any Vice-Chancellor owes many stakeholders a debt of gratitude, loyalty, and professionalism. These stakeholders include students (past, present, and future), staff, and the community at large. A cursory glance at our illustrious alumni, a high-level assessment of the challenges facing humanity or a look at the vast room for innovation to find solutions for Africa, will give any Vice-Chancellor a good sense of what an asset the university is and what a privilege it is to be charged with the task to lead such an institution in times such as these. This is a privilege never to be taken lightly, because a lot depends on how one conducts themselves in a position like that of Vice-Chancellor. This is probably what former Vice-Chancellor, Prof PC Mokgokong, meant when he said: “Not any monkey can run a university, and certainly not the University of the North!”

By Editor