In what is widely seen as a historic move, the University of South Africa (Unisa) has appointed its first female principal and vice-chancellor since it was established in 1872. Professor Puleng LenkaBula will take over from the incumbent Professor Mandla Makhanya who has been at the helm since 2011.
Although she is the first woman to lead Unisa, LenkaBula is the fifth woman vice-chancellor joining an array of other female trail-blazers: Professor Sibongile Muthwa from Nelson Mandela University, Professor Xoliswa of the University of Zululand, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng from the University of Cape Town and the University of Mpumalanga’s Professor Thoko Mayekiso.
The appointment was given a final stamp of approval by the Unisa Council following a special siting where it was unanimously decided she is the appropriate person to lead the oldest institution. According to the university, the appointment was preceded by a rigorous selection process including a buy-in from key stakeholders such as the executive committee of the Unisa Senate (SENEX) and the Unisa Institutional Forum.
The university said the appointment of Professor LenkaBula embodies the council’s commitment to transforming and driving change in the institution. It also ensures Unisa’s workforce “is alive to and reflective of the demographics of the country and the gender empowerment wave sweeping the country”.
Chairperson of the Unisa Council, Sakhi Simelane said: “Council is of the firm belief that this appointment bodes well for the future of our university, as we intensify our endeavour to move towards a fully-fledged open distance e-learning (ODeL) dispensation and to solidify our stature as a truly African university in the service of humanity.”
In Professor LenkaBula, said Simelane, we have appointed the right calibre of leader, who is student-centred and shares our institutional vision on decoloniality and transformation, knowledge-production, innovation, and advancing the socio-economic development of South Africa, Africa, and the world, in particular for the benefit of Africa.
He also gave an assurance that they will provide her with the necessary to ensure she succeeds in implementing their vision of transformation and excellent service delivery.
Professor LenkaBula brings with her enviable skill-sets, which include vast practical managerial experience and thorough understanding of the higher education landscape. Most of her peers and admirers commended Unisa for the appointment saying she is the right fit and will hit the ground running to implement the necessary reforms. This is particularly so because LenkaBula is not new to the Unisa having successfully served as a dean of students.
The Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science, and Technology also lauded the LenkaBula’s appointment describing it as a milestone. But it also lamented the slow pace of transformation in Unisa.
“We celebrate this indeed. It took the university 148 years to appoint a female as the VC. This shows that the pace of transformation in the sector, especially at senior management level, is very slow. “Gender transformation is critical to the development of the country, the African continent, and the global community in creating a sustainable world. We congratulate the Unisa Council for taking such a bold step in addressing the under-representation of women in the higher echelons of the university,” said the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee, Philly Mapulane said.
The committee has also urged the university council to further expedite transformation in other sectors of Unisa saying it is looking forward to meet with LenkaBula and her management team very soon as it interacts with higher education institutions during its routine oversight engagements.
Currently LenkaBula is the vice-rector of institutional change, student affairs, and community engagement at the University of the Free State (UFS). Before joining the UFS as the vice rector, she was the dean of students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), where she was a member of the vice-chancellor’s office (VCO) and the senior executive team.
LenkaBula held management positions at various organisations and she is also an internationally acclaimed and widely published scholar. She currently serves as a board member on local ecumenical and academic formations, including the Council for the Development of Social Sciences Research in Africa (CODESRIA).
Council resolved to extend the term of office of Professor Mandla Makhanya, for a period of four months until April 2021, to ensure there is sufficient time for a smooth hand-over.