Today marks my first official day as Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ). As I walked into my offices in Madibeng, I must admit it was somewhat of a surreal experience. I began my university journey in these very walls at the then Vista University. I am the son of a construction worker and a first-generation student. As I trawled through the law libraries and soaked up the wisdom of my lecturers and peers, my father’s words rang through my head. As he had said since I could remember, “One day, you will be a lawyer.” This was a mantra I tirelessly worked towards. It led me to my master’s degree at the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU) and beyond. My academic journey has been defined by this very experience. It was here that I learnt of the transformative impact teaching, learning and research can have. It was here that I found my place in the legal fraternity and academia. My journey has been as intertwined with the various institutions that make up UJ, as they have been with mine. Despite this long history we have together, today does not feel as daunting as I had anticipated.
This is largely because of UJ’s unique approach to the transition and handover process has prepared me for this moment. In the months since the announcement of my appointment, I have spent a great deal of time learning from Prof Tshilidzi Marwala. This is quite a remarkable process that UJ has implemented. In this time, I began to get a real sense of the foundations and structures that make up this institution. Prof Marwala has been a great source of inspiration, wisdom, counsel and support.
UJ, in recent years, has risen to impressive heights, and our feats are nothing short of extraordinary. As I ready myself to step up to the mantle and lead from the helm of the University, I am ever mindful of the astonishing institution I am inheriting. In our country’s democratic history, UJ is still considered relatively young, despite the weight we hold of various historically important institutions. This is a story I want to build on as we commence with a new chapter. The commitment to innovation, Pan-Africanism and the emergence as a fourth industrial revolution (4IR) University has become part of our DNA. This will continue to remain our focus and ethos going forward. However, we cannot ignore the context of the world around us. Steep rises in inequality, growing divisions, pandemics, climate change and leadership crises are but a few descriptors of our current era. We are undoubtedly a world in crisis which is reflected in our country and this vibrant city.
Alongside our commitment to excellence and innovation, we have a responsibility to ensure that we emphasise humanity in our approach. To allude to the words of former president Nelson Mandela, the African concept of Ubuntu has long taught us, “we are human only through the humanity of others”. As we continue to rise through global rankings and research metrics, my call is for us to adopt a human-centric understanding of our mandate. This will be built on the foundations of the Global Excellence and Stature (GES 4.0) initiatives and will ensure that we provide some of the answers to the great challenges of our time. While we have made strides in implementing structures and systems to support the sustainable development goals (SDGs), there is more still to be done. Importantly, working on the thesis of Ubuntu, this is not a task any one individual can embark on alone. To quote Charles Darwin, “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too), those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
In this regard, there are many exciting initiatives I want to take forward. For instance, a Johannesburg debating union that is quintessentially African in its approach; a reimagining of the VC Reading Club as High Tea with the VC to engage on books and topics of interests; and a digital twin of our bricks and mortar campus through increased online access. At my inauguration and the months to follow, I will share more of my vision and ideas. As I settle into my new role, I look forward to engaging with UJ’s various stakeholders – staff, students, unions, council, management and our external partners alike. I look forward to hearing your thoughts and ideas. Change is always a daunting prospect, but I assure you that this is a path we will walk together. My promise, to lean into UJ’s tagline, is that we will continue to reimagine the future at every tier at UJ! As we walk this new path, I am certain that it is your tenacity and resilience that will see us continue to rise and rise again to heights unknown. As the great poet Maya Angelou reminds us in the final lines of her seminal work ‘Still I rise’,
Kea leboha, Ngiyabonga, baie dankie, ria livhuwa, thank you!
Prof Letlhokwa Mpedi