Making Rhodes University count

2014-10-26 06:00

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It’s not often that a university’s new vice-chancellor would scribble “meet the municipality” near the top of his to-do list – but Dr Sizwe Mabizela knows that if Grahamstown doesn’t function, Rhodes University’s future looks a little grimmer.

Mabizela formally becomes Rhodes’ vice-chancellor and principal on November 1, stepping into the office vacated by Dr Saleem Badat earlier this year.

As a mathematician, the 52-year-old knows how crucial it is to make his university count.

“As an institution, to be in a rural setting like we are does pose some challenges – particularly to those who want to see bright lights. But what is important to us is the academic project we are pursuing,” Mabizela says.

We’re chatting in the boardroom next door to Mabizela’s beautiful office in the university’s clocktower building. In the office, the curtains and cushions are a deep, dark red and two black velvet sofas provide space for a comfortable conversation.

There’s a photograph of Nelson Mandela on the wall alongside some of Mabizela’s own photos. His daughters’ drawings – featuring the words “Love you daddy” decorate his notice board.

His desk is piled high with files and papers: there’s a lot of work to be done in this office. For one, Mabizela and his administration must figure out how to get involved in helping run the beleaguered Makana local municipality.

In recent years water supply to Rhodes and the rest of Grahamstown has been so erratic that the university was forced to close its doors for a few days. Badat marched with students – one of them wearing only a towel to show how desperately she wanted to shower – to the municipal offices.

“The future of Rhodes is inextricably bound to the future of this town, so it is important that we become deeply involved in building the necessary capacity and capability for the municipality to discharge its responsibilities so that we are able to get basic services. That is one of our objectives,” Mabizela says.

He and members of his executive team have already met with officials from the Eastern Cape government to, he says, develop ways to support the local municipality. A functioning Grahamstown means a functioning Rhodes, after all.

Born in Ladysmith, Mabizela seems to like his adopted home. His daughters are 12 and 14. They attend Victoria Girls’ High, a well-regarded Grahamstown public school.

He and his wife, fellow mathematician Dr Phethiwe Matutu, chose a public school so their daughters don’t become snobs who are distanced from life’s realities.

Matutu is the chief director at the department of Science and Technology in Pretoria.

Mabizela says he comes from a working class family and his parents believed in the power of education

“My father believed that quality education was the key in unlocking one’s potential. From early on in my schooling days I was very fortunate to have teachers who instilled a love of mathematics in me.”

“I got bored quickly with homework, so (my teachers) would give me additional (work) which was much harder.”

He serves on the South African Maths Olympiad Committee and, in July, chaired the jury of the International Maths Olympiad held in Cape Town.

So what else does the man who enjoys “attacking challenges and playing with those challenges” have on his to-do list?

Long term financial sustainability is one area he’ll focus on. Government subsidies to higher education institutions have been dwindling in recent years.

Equity and transformation also feature on that list.

He’s been closely watching recent incidents of racism at other universities – places like Stellenbosch and Pretoria, which has seen white students caught up in “blackface” scandals.

He believes universities need to go beyond just disciplining these students and must get involved in robust debates around these issues.

“We should take incidents of this nature as opportunities of learning, so that our students can be agents of change in building a society of change and transformation.”

This change and transformation extends to student financial aid.

“Rhodes University should not be the preserve of the powerful and rich. It should not be their stomping ground. There should be an important and transformative value of bringing poor and working class children to Rhodes,” Mabizela says.

“We have committed ourselves to making Rhodes’ quality education accessible to young people coming from rural poor backgrounds. This is our duty as one of the best universities in the country.”

Another “duty” is to use its resources to improve education at primary and secondary levels.

“It does break my heart that there are many young people whose potential remains unfulfilled. It is sad that the Eastern Cape it one of the worst performing provinces in terms of matric results, maths and science.”

He said Rhodes’ intervention would start in Grahamstown, one of the province’s worst performing districts. The university is working with its counterparts elsewhere in the Eastern Cape – Walter Sisulu, Fort Hare and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan – to make this happen.

“I cannot accept that as an institution of higher learning we can simply sit and fold our arms and not do anything when the future of our young people is not being built in the manner that it should.”

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