Unpacking the role of leaders in a time of crisis

The University of Johannesburg (UJ) in partnership with the OR Tambo School of Leadership hosted a discussion forum on the topic: ‘Leadership in the time of the Covid-19 crisis’ on Wednesday 08 September, 2021.

The conversation focused on the sub themes; lessons learnt by universities that will prepare them for the post Covid era, the role of women leaders in responding to the crisis, re-thinking leadership in efforts to rebuild South Africa in post-Covid and digital transformation in the Higher Education (HE) sector in South Africa.

Speaking at the event, UJ Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tshilidzi Marwala said the pandemic had shone a spotlight on leadership and it was necessary to educate a new crop of leaders so that they will be equal to the task of the new normal.

“It has proved to be a true test on leadership. Leaders have had to take extraordinary measures, create marshal plans and deploy resources. We need to establish what leadership in the 21st century should look like. As this period has demonstrated, to be a leader is not simply to take up a title and a position. If we are to use the pandemic as a yardstick for leadership strategies going forward, it must remain stuck in our mind what accounted for our successes.”

Prof Marwala added that each time such events occurred, it was critical to reflect on the experiences- negatives and historic moments- experienced by leaders.

Former United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, said it was important to acknowledge that the pandemic was a socio-economic crisis that impacted on people across the board.

“The pandemic is a health pandemic but it is also an economic crisis. It is also harsher on those who have less. This is one pandemic that has been most severe on those who have less and those whose needs have been neglected for a long time.”

She said in order to address and recover from the pandemic, it was important to first solve the problems of those who do not have.

“When the next crisis comes, we are not as exposed as we are today. It is not whether another pandemic will come, it is when and whether we will be ready to deal with it.

We have our hands full of the challenge and it is clear we need to stand up and take the situation by our hands.”

Reflecting on the HE responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, Prof Ihron Rensburg, Ombud (Interim) of University of Cape Town and chairperson of the South Africa National UNESCO Commission said universities had been able to demonstrate that they had immense capabilities to respond in an emergency.

“As we celebrate the successes of our universities, let us also take heed that our schools and colleges have not done nearly as well. Unless this is remediated urgently, the valuable gains made in schools and college education since the advent of our democracy will be wiped out within the next year or two.”

Prof Rensburg also touched on digital transformation in the HE sector, saying that while data prices were reset downwards for students, there may be a need for radical intervention such as universities considering taking on the role of the original providers of electronic bandwidth and data through a special dispensation from ICASA.

“Leaders must continuously assess their vulnerabilities, watch out for their strengths, relearn how to learn and reconnect with and put to use their networks.”

Professor Kammila Naidoo, Executive Dean in the Faculty of Humanities at UJ said the collaboration with the OR Tambo School of Leadership was an opportunity to deeply reflect on the roles of previous leaders as well as to rethink, reimagine and to rebuild leadership.


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