To forge a research-intensive university that would be the best in South Africa was a publicly declared goal of Professor Malegapuru Makgoba when he became vice-chancellor of the University of Natal, then poised to merge with the University of Durban-Westville (UDW).
Given the higher educational landscape at the time, he faced scepticism. For some, the new institution’s dual aspirations of social transformation and scholarship seemed to be in conflict with each other. For others, it was simply too audacious an ambition to be realistic.
But two years before the end of his second term of office, the University of KwaZulu-Natal was able to announce its position at the top of the Department of Higher Education and Training’s list of research-led and publicly funded universities. This is a position the institution held for a second consecutive year and is hoping to maintain.
“This is the achievement of which I am most proud,” Makgoba said, speaking from his parents’ home in rural Sekhukhune, Limpopo, where the crowing of roosters filters down the line and where he is building a home – “The Nkandla of Limpopo”, he quips, “but without the fire pool, chicken run and amphitheatre.”
“To create an institution at the top of the ladder in South Africa in an era of extremely tough global competition is what I strived for from the start, and it fits my personality as an individual.”
Such a personality, Makgoba explains, is characterised by a drive to give his best and be judged on what he can deliver.
“From my days as a schoolboy, I have wanted to be at the top, to achieve excellence, and this attitude followed me everywhere, from the Natal medical school to Oxford and the National Institutes of Health – I’ve been competing all my life.”
Makgoba said his international experience had impressed upon him the importance of research in academia.
“I was taught to aspire to originality, not imitation, to develop ideas so they added value to knowledge. And this approach is the foundation for teaching in a university.”
When Makgoba took over as vice-chancellor of the then-University of Natal, he perceived that the institution and UDW were dogged by an inferiority complex and were content to play “second fiddle” to other South African universities in scholarship. At the same time, staff, certainly of the old University of Natal, sought jobs at institutions such as UCT, which were seen as being more prestigious.
But, from the start, Makgoba was “fixed” on his goal of a globally competitive university.
He understood that there would be positive spin-offs in attaining such a goal.
“I refused to negotiate on this goal and I also knew that, on that particular score, I was not going to be challenged by any self-respecting academic.”
Makgoba and his team set about implementing a string of related strategies to improve research output and productivity.
These included an emphasis on academic qualifications – all academics were required to hold a PhD – greater productivity among individual academics (all academics were expected to start producing research papers and to supervise larger numbers of postgraduates) and a PhD programme to nurture a future generation of African academics.
“Really, the question was not whether we could do it, but whether people were ready for it.
“There was some resistance at the outset – it seems to be a uniquely South African phenomenon that you should hold an academic position without the requisite qualifications – but most came around to the idea, even if reluctantly.”
At the same time as he was pushing for new levels of scholarship, Makgoba was determined to transform the university demographics, to create staff profiles that were more representative of the race, gender and age profiles of South Africa.
“Across all divisions and colleges and at all levels, including the deanery, heads of schools and directors, the university is now well-represented by women, Africans, Indians and whites.
“We’ve managed to capture the mix very well and enrich the institution through diversity.”
Makgoba is also proud that UKZN has become an institution of young people – 72 percent of the academics are under the age of 50.
Another of his goals was to give substance to the constitution’s recognition of indigenous languages. He oversaw the development of the university’s language policy and plan, a process that culminated in the historic introduction last year of a compulsory Zulu language module for all undergraduates.
“IsiZulu is the most widely spoken language in South Africa, let alone KZN,” he said.
“Not only was the move aimed at providing young professionals with vital communication skills, but the university is at the forefront of developing isiZulu as a language of science and technology.”
All achievements were led by teams with a common purpose – to develop an institution of academic excellence. “They were not the product of individual effort.
“I was able to create and identify a team of people – it was never an accident that I worked with the people I did.
“I do not publish or do research. All I could do was inspire others to do so. That inspiration multiplies if you have disciples to take the message through.”
The leadership at UKZN, particularly at the level of the executive and the deans, distinguished themselves by showing consistent courage in translating the shared vision of the university into reality.
Unique among South African universities is the devolution of power through the institution’s structure.
“As vice-chancellor, I was conscious of the need to devolve my powers to others in order for them to be able to express their own leadership strengths. In this way one gives space for more diverse creativity in the institution.”
Also critical was the support of the council – the university’s highest governing body.
“One of the pleasures of working at UKZN was derived from the quality of leadership at council (level). We faced criticism as an institution, but we stuck to our strategy and we had the support of all chairs of council and the executive, all of whom understood that we were living in a new country with new values and different emphases.”
Does Makgoba have any regrets about any aspects of his tenure as vice-chancellor? Not really, he says.
“There were obviously limitations in time, capacity and resources that affected what I could realistically achieve. I adopted a focused approach aimed at research because I knew it would translate into a number of positive spin-offs for the institution.
“But if I were to be analytical, I think I could have spent more time promoting the development of sports. At this point, it’s easy to identify this gap, but at the time there were a number of issues competing for my attention.”
According to Makgoba, UKZN’s establishment and development was underpinned at a fundamental level by good governance.
“Governance structures set the tone and environment in which universities operate – and a robust, transparent governance structure is an absolute necessity. All our council chairs have driven this approach.”
Another bonus was that the new university was able to leverage large sums of money from international foundations for the development of world-class research facilities such as the Africa Centre, the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV/Aids, and the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa, or Caprisa.
“During this period, the government also actively supported the merger and gave us resources,” said Makgoba.
For example, the R90-million Biological and Conservation Sciences building was the product of a Department of Higher Education and Training grant, and the UNITE School of Engineering “green” building was funded through a R20m grant from the Department of Science and Technology.
Makgoba said he was happy that UKZN had avoided the kind of anguish and upheaval over symbols and transformation experienced more recently at other universities.
“We are fortunate at UKZN to have embraced change early on,” he said. “What you see at universities around the country reflects the nature of our society’s development… You can’t have Africans pretending to be anything other than African. They are what they are and they will bring their social values into the university.”
Makgoba ascribes the poor level of transformation at institutions to poor leadership.
“Academics love vice-chancellors who do nothing, say nothing and are nobody. They love vice-chancellors who lack clarity of vision, are ambiguous, wishy-washy in their manner of speaking and have no courage… because this allows for privilege, poor performance, the status quo, mediocrity and pervasive corruption.
“Clarity of vision, integrity and courage are needed to transform and overhaul this archaic, race-riddled and underperforming system.”
Without giving away too many details, Makgoba says he will be taking up an important job at a “national level”.
In the meantime, he is writing a chapter for the Oxford Textbook of Medicine on research in resource-constrained countries. He is serving as a health expert on the Defence Force Service Commission for five years and is a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Leadership and Research Policy Unit. He will also continue chairing the oversight committee for transformation at public-funded universities.
“For the moment, I’m enjoying being in the countryside and spending time with my parents. My siblings have been popping in and out and my first month of retirement has been peaceful. I’m grateful for the opportunity to have served and led the university and for what the university did for me.”
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