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Letlhokwa George Mpedi — the Karate Kid who grew up to become a vice-chancellor

Professor Tinyiko Maluleke is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Tshwane University of Technology.

He recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 06 March 2023.

Armed with qualifications from Oxford and Harvard, a UJ doctorate in law and awards and accolades from respected institutions across the globe, Prof Letlhokwa George Mpedi has published no less than 38 peer-reviewed articles, eight (co)-authored books, more than 60 chapters in peer-reviewed books, delivered up to 57 specialist keynote addresses and written more than a dozen opinion pieces.

If an alien landed near Hammanskraal at the Utsane High School in 1991, she would have been met by a bunch of noisy and untidy-looking kids, none of whom looked like a future legal eagle, let alone a future vice-chancellor. The alien would have observed that Utsane High School was a rural school built to serve the children of farmworkers who lived in Syferskuil — a village in the Bojanala District Municipality in North West.

Among the pupils of Utsane High School, our visiting alien would not have missed a starry-eyed, stocky, somewhat pugnacious and rather argumentative 16-year-old called Letlhokwa George Mpedi.

At that time, Letlhokwa had struck up an excellent mentee-mentor relationship with one of the teachers, Stephens Ramafoko, who doubled up as his private Kyokushin karate instructor. Stephens Ramafoko was to Letlhokwa George Mpedi what Mr Han (Jackie Chan) was to Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) in the 2010 Hollywood blockbuster The Karate Kid.

To this day, the newly appointed vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, credits his sense of discipline, penchant for hard work, and awareness of the importance of strategy and tactics, as well as his love of the law, to Ramafoko. Unbeknown to Letlhokwa at that time, Ramafoko, who later became a successful attorney, was enrolled part-time for a law degree.

A proud moment for Mpedi Snr 

If only Ntante Daniel Pule Mpedi was here to see his son, Letlhokwa George Mpedi, donning the hallowed mantle of vice-chancellor and principal at the University of Johannesburg.

Ahead of the formal occasion, I bet Mpedi Snr might have embarked on a sacred pilgrimage to the iconic villages of Serowe, Palapye and Pilikwe in Botswana. There, his great-grandparents’ graves are located. In those villages, the spirits of his BaNgwato ancestors hover over the rolling blue hills. Once there, Mpedi Snr would have performed the requisite rituals, complete with the necessary libations, designed to mark the significant milestone achieved by his son.

On his return from ancestral Botswana, Ntate Daniel Mpedi would be welcomed by an explosion of celebrations, singing and dancing, in the dusty streets of the village of Syferskuil, where Letlhokwa George Mpedi came of age.

Imagine the smile that would become a frequent visitor on the face of Daniel Mpedi, on the occasion of his son’s investiture as vice-chancellor and principal of UJ. Clad in one of his snazzy three-piece suites, the proud Daniel Mpedi would have taken his seat, alongside his wife, Josephine Hambile Mpedi, at the Sanlam Auditorium of the University of Johannesburg, on the evening of 10 March 2023.

But alas, Mpedi Snr will miss out on this historic occasion. Four decades ago, the twentysomething Daniel Mpedi, an earthmoving equipment operator in a construction firm, was fatally injured during an occupational accident in Heidelberg. Whereas Daniel Mpedi’s first two children, Lindiwe and Lempone, were teenagers then, his third child, Letlhokwa George Mpedi, was barely six, and the youngest two children, Mishack and Mokgadi, were mere toddlers.

‘Dreams from my father’ 

Letlhokwa Mpedi is no Barack Hussein Obama, and Mpedi Snr is no Obama Snr. But like Obama Snr (as told in Barack Obama’s memoir, Dreams from My Father), Mpedi Snr had dreams for his son too. His dream, which he shared with all who cared to listen, was that his son would become a lawyer one day.

Naturally, when his father died, young Letlhokwa felt cut off and disconnected from his source of being. This forced him and his siblings into premature maturity — ahead of their chronological ages. In his childhood search for context and the circumstances surrounding the demise of his father, Letlhokwa gravitated, from a very young age, towards the study of law.

The haunting dream of Mpedi Snr combined with the circumstances of Letlhokwa’s upbringing after the death of Mpedi Snr, created in Letlhokwa an even bigger appetite for the study of law. He was especially fascinated by social (security) law as an instrument of social justice. Because Mpedi Snr died during the cause and scope of his employment, the family became eligible for a small grant from the Workmen’s Compensation Fund — amounting to R222.22 per month.

Of course, this monthly grant of R222.22 was woefully inadequate to make ends meet for a family of six — five children plus their mother.  Josephine Hambile Mpedi had to seek other ways through which to multiply the money. So, she “conscripted” her children in a multifaceted mobile spaza shop that sold all manner of items, from socks to vegetables to curtains to self-made and remade clothes. No wonder Letlhokwa is a needlework virtuoso who is also excellent at knitting and can apparently cook up a storm in the kitchen.

On the surface, Letlhokwa’s home village, Syferskuil, like other villages scattered in the area between Hammanskraal, through Modimolle all the way to Mokopane, was intended to become a typical reservoir for cheap black labour, just like apartheid leader Hendrik Verwoerd intended.

But from high school all the way to university, Letlhokwa had special people who mentored, motivated and supported him: Professor Esther van Kerken (from the erstwhile Vista University), Professor Marius Olivier (former UJ professor and his LLD supervisor), Professor Evance Kalula (retired law professor from UCT), Professor Manfred Weiss (retired professor from JW Goethe University, Germany), the late professors Edwin Kaseke and Guy Mhone (from Wits University), Professor Dawie de Villiers (retired law professor from UJ), and Professor Jean Sonnekus (emeritus professor of law from UJ), to mention but a few.

Of all Letlhokwa’s mentors, the fiercest and most formidable was none other than his own mother, Josephine Hambile Mpedi, née Malope. From the first day Mpedi Snr expressed a wish for his son to become a lawyer, Mrs Mpedi took co-ownership of Letlhokwa’s destiny to become a lawyer. A strict and hard-to-please disciplinarian, she went on to do everything in her power to protect and nurture that dream. Indeed, she instilled the value of education into the very marrow of her children.

And guess where Letlhokwa first met his wife and partner, Bessy Mpedi (née Kgobe)? Inside the library at Vista University, Mamelodi Campus where they were both studying.

An internationally acclaimed scholar leader 

Armed with qualifications from Oxford and Harvard, a UJ doctorate in law and various awards and accolades from respected institutions across the globe, Prof Letlhokwa George Mpedi has supervised 13 masters’ students to completion. He is currently supervising five doctoral students.

Mpedi has published no less than 38 peer-reviewed articles, eight (co)-authored books, more than 60 chapters in peer-reviewed books, delivered up to 57 specialist keynote addresses and written more than a dozen opinion pieces. He is a highly esteemed researcher in his field.

All of the above beg the question as to why, of all the other jobs the immensely talented Mpedi could have done, he has chosen to serve as vice-chancellor and principal. This, during a time of great turmoil in the country in general and in higher education in particular.

His response to that question was: “If those of us who have the experience, the qualifications and the temperament to get the job done do not throw our hats into the ring, we have no right to complain when characters of lesser ability take up these jobs and mess them up”.

Having been vice-dean, executive dean and deputy vice-chancellor: academic, Mpedi has all the knowledge and experience necessary for him to excel as vice-chancellor and principal.

I bet that inside that hall in which Letlhokwa George Mpedi will be formally installed as vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Johannesburg on 10 March, no four people could be prouder of him than his mother, Josephine Hambile Mpedi, his partner Bessy Mpedi, his son, Daniel Thulaganyo Mpedi, and his only surviving sibling, Mishack.

Nor is there any doubt in my mind that his late father, his three late sisters and all his BaNgwato ancestors will be smiling down upon the Karate Kid from Syferskuil, all the way from the Serowe, Palapye and Pilikwe villages in the sky.

Professor Mpedi has far surpassed the dream of his father. He now has to help fulfil the dreams of young South Africans under his care.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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