On April 29, 2021, UNISA said farewell to its decade-long Vice Chancellor, Professor Mandla S. Makhanya. It takes a great deal of courage to step forward and become a Vice Chancellor, but he leaves a legacy and lasting impact on the largest University in Africa and one of the oldest distance teaching universities in the world. A creative and imaginative scholar, a true gentleman, and an innovator – he will be remembered as an innovative pioneer.
Professor Mandla Makhanya became Vice Chancellor of the University of South Africa in 2011 and immediately set about on a journey of transformation and change. Like many African institutions, it had been strongly influenced by its colonial past. Founded in Founded in 1873 as the University of the Cape of Good Hope, becoming the University of South Africa in 1916 and moving to Pretoria in 1918. It began its pioneering work in distance education in 1946, showing its commitment to increasing access and success in education for those previously denied admission to higher education, especially black learners under apartheid.
When Professor Makhanya became Vice Chancellor, he knew what the challenges were. With a doctorate in sociology, he had been involved both as an academic and as a Pro-Vice Chancellor, having started before the 2001 merger. Prior to his academic work, Professor Makhanya worked in sales and marketing for a division of a multinational corporation. When asked what the major challenge of his role on becoming Vice Chancellor was, he indicates “a university locked in Western paradigms of thought and practice” and “a skewed demographic – especially in terms of race and gender”. He also saw a leadership model that was “top-down” and disengaging that would need to change.
He began his work from two frameworks: (a) servant leadership – serving and putting others needs before himself; and (b) shifting the cultural frame from its colonial past to its African future based on the philosophy of Ubuntu/Botho – the idea of “I am because we are”, which stands in contrast to “I think, therefore I am”.
He worked to achieve five specific things:
- Make UNISA a model of an African university – free from its colonial past.
- Transform UNISA into a university that had a real impact on the challenges and opportunities for South Africa, Africa and the world – in education, health and technology.
- Build world-class focused research capacities in key areas.
- Upskill the capabilities and competencies of the faculty and professional staff.
- Connect UNISA to the world – he was President of ICDE and actively positioned UNISA as a global distance education provider.
In 2001, the University merged with Technikon (SA) and the Vista University Distance Education Campus (VUDEC) to form the current institution – dedicated to open admission, flexible and distance learning and increasingly using technology to enable its mission: social justice and social development through learning and research. Mergers are difficult – different cultures, different processes and values.
Following the change to the constitution, the ending of apartheid and the emergence of democracy in 1994, South Africa needed a new generation of capable, skilled and educated teachers, lawyers, doctors, engineers, scientists, agronomists and community development workers as well as entrepreneurs. In practice, Professor Makhanya worked to secure a stronger role for UNISA in helping shape the research, teaching and learning agenda, not only in South Africa, but across the continent.
The voice of UNISA began to be heard loud and clear in regional and continental social, economic and community development strategies, especially as they relate to climate change, health and the sustainable development.
Already UNISA is the backbone of South Africa’s higher education system – providing programs to 20% of all university students in South Africa and graduating approximately 13% of all South Africa’s graduates annually – UNISA has to continue to support the social and economic of agenda and help South Africa build back better after the pandemic – something it is now well equipped to do.
Key to Professor Makhanya’s agenda was strengthening the capacities and capabilities of faculty, especially with respect to undertaking research, engaging in the international community, and developing a culturally appropriate form of teaching and learning. Speaking to the nature of African distance education, Professor Makhanya says “in the past, we tended to align very much with western concepts of open and distance education and its practice, much of which tended to entrench existing knowledge hegemonies and alienate Africans from their own contexts, heritages and identities. This was not acceptable to me. We now have a deliberate process of decoloniality underway”, which is having an impact on all aspects of the work of the University and the communities it serves.
The life of a Vice Chancellor is sometimes challenging. Not all stakeholders fully accept that they are not able to change the law or regulatory conditions under which UNISA has to operate. Of this tension, which sometimes has spilled into conflict, Professor Makhanya says “we continue to strive for the optimal balance between stakeholder contributions and our regulatory responsibilities”.
Professor Makhanya’s agenda has been clear. It is laid out in UNISA’s transformation agenda. It involves developing a truly African approach to scholarship and research; increasing access to and success in learning for those traditionally denied access to higher education; rethinking all the systems and processes to focus on service and impact; constantly assessing and focusing on shared, ethical and servant leadership; and engaging stakeholders in a discourse for change. In short, UNISA is seeking “to know itself and own its future”.
As he begins his retirement and ends his tenure as Vice Chancellor, he looks back on his ten years in office with both pride at what has been achieved and frustration about not being able to do more. In particular, he feels that more could have been done by the leadership to “engender the kinds of excitement and innovative mindsets required to truly propel us into a new vision”. But then he understands that universities have a pattern of change, which is generally slower than any Vice Chancellor would like.
Looking to UNISA’s future, especially post-COVID, Professor Makhanya sees the vision and mission of UNISA as vital to Africa’s recovery, especially South Africa. COVID-19 has exposed the structural social and economic flaws and challenges faced across the continent. The key to the next Africa is “learning for sustainable development” and the key to that learning is the focused work of the largest African university on the continent.
As for his own future, Professor Makhanya is sanguine. As a scholar, he will continue to research, write and support research students. He remains engaged in a number of national and international bodies, advocating for a new view of open and distance education and a new understanding of the place of research in terms of social and economic impact. He has agreed to become a Contact North | Contact Nord, Research Associate. Other Contact North I Contact Nord Research Associates include Dr. Terry Anderson, Dr. Tony Bates, Dr. Dianne Conrad, Dr. Rory McGreal, Dr. Brian Desbiens, Sir John Daniel, Dr. Stephen Downes, Dr. Stephen Murgatroyd, Dr. Ron Owston and Dr. Paul Prinsloo.