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Humble LenkaBula hailed as a “talented and outstanding woman” and “courageous mom”

Professor Puleng LenkaBula was inaugurated as Principal and Vice-Chancellor (VC) of Unisa on Thursday, 2 September 2021. In a move unprecedented since the establishment of the university 148 years ago, the VC assumed her duties on 1 January 2021.

A milestone moment

The inauguration and investiture of the VC was a herstorical moment for both Unisa and the country as she became the first woman, the first black woman and only the third black person to be appointed as the head of the institution in its 148 years of existence. In his welcome address, Busani Ngcaweni, Deputy Chairperson of the Unisa Council, emphasised that she was entrusted with the position due to her credible history. He added that to achieve the future that the institution envisages, Unisa requires men and women of courage to take the institution forward. “Professor LenkaBula is that woman,” he said.

Unisa Chancellor, Dr Thabo Mbeki investitures Prof Puleng LenkaBula, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Unisa

Unable to attend, President of the Republic of South Africa, His Excellency Cyril Ramaphosa, sent a delegation to deliver his congratulatory message. In his message, which was read by the master of ceremonies, Lerato Mbele, the President said: “On behalf of the government and the people of South Africa, I wish to congratulate you on your investiture as Vice-Chancellor of Unisa. We are confident that under your leadership, Unisa will play an even greater role in our national life as we strive to realise the UN’s sustainable goals and meet our own aspirations.”

President Ramaphosa stressed that the role of academia will be as important as ever as universities have a key role to play to prepare young people for the new world of work and productivity, and to train young people who will resolve society’s many problems.

“As a proudly African university,” said the President, “Unisa must also be at the forefront of research, capacity building, and innovation as we strive to meet our own aspirations of the Agenda 2063. Unisa is our country’s oldest and largest institution of higher learning. It is therefore an act of great significance that the university is for the first time being led by a woman.” Ramaphosa said that LenkaBula continued a long line of eminent women who were torch-bearers of freedom. He added: “Your appointment will no doubt inspire confidence to countless South African women to follow in your footsteps, most especially young women in academia. You take with you our very best wishes as you take up this new and challenging responsibility.”

Hearty congratulations from near and far

Several stakeholders also took to the platform to congratulate LenkaBula on her role as Vice-Chancellor, all noting the historic moment which her inauguration denotes for the institution and the country.

The National Student Representative Council was represented by Qhama Mati, who shared hearty congratulations on behalf of Unisa’s students. She also took time to share with the VC what students expect of her in the role. In her address, Mati said: “In line with today’s theme of Reclaiming Africa’s Intellectual Futures, let us not forget to pledge on the resolutions of societal challenges. It would be a futile exercise if we reclaim the future of Africa, yet remain the same as we were before we reclaimed it.”

Addressing the VC, Mati said, “As you are inaugurated today, mine is the honour to pass on a congratulatory message from the students of Unisa. This great institution operates and serves students across the globe. It is a household name that boast illustrious alumni. We expect that Unisa’s name should be become an even better name under your reign, a preferred and valued household name.”

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, also joined the festivities to celebrate LenkaBula’s inauguration. In his congratulatory address, he  also alluded to the fact that  this is indeed a historic moment for the university to install its first female Vice-Chancellor since its establishment. He added: “This is an important development to be proud of, but is also an indictment on us as a society that 26 years into democracy it is only now that one of our biggest institutions of higher learning is having its first female head.”

Nzimande said that this is a clear indication that perhaps the country is not moving as fast as it should in ensuring gender equality and representation in key leadership positions in various institutions across the country.  He added that it is something that the ministry will pay close attention to as it marches forward with its transformation agenda and efforts to make institutions fully inclusive and accommodative to all the people of South Africa, irrespective of race, gender, and class.

“I believe that the Unisa Council has made the right decision in appointing a person of your calibre as Vice-Chancellor to lead and steer this institution in the right direction, especially during these challenging times in the life of our universities,” said the Minister. “Unisa remains an important institution in South Africa, in terms of the provision of access to the largest number of our student population through distance education. Over the years, Unisa has established itself as a dedicated centre for open, distance and e-learning on the African continent and beyond. It has managed to make university education accessible to millions of people from different localities, young and old, who otherwise would not have had the opportunity to obtain tertiary qualifications on the practicalities of not being able to attend contact classes.”

“My mom is courageous”

Representing the VC’s family was Lebogang Bula, the VC’s son. Speaking fondly of his mom, Bula said: “Tonight’s inauguration of Professor LenkaBula is a historical moment. My mom prides herself on the things she has experienced, ranging from the very bad to the very good. Her universal concern for and dedication to improving livelihoods through academia is something truly remarkable.” Bula shared with the audience how as a history student he would often engage with his mom, the VC, on contentious topics concerning social norms and events that largely devalue the roles of females in society.

“Allow me therefore to revise the statement I made earlier and say tonight is a herstorical moment as it is part of the much-needed transformation by acknowledging the barriers which have previously dismissed more than capable contributors to society. My mom has become something I hope we cherish and further reflect on along with many other figures who are just as worthy,” said Bula.

“As Professor LenkaBula is inaugurated as VC tonight, all my family and friends can confirm that, in my mom, a talented and courageous woman has joined the ranks of university leaders,” he said. “I look forward to seeing her impact on many lives. I look forward to seeing my mom aspire to improve the social wellbeing of as many people as possible through her academic efforts.”

“I stand humbled and affirmed”

Taking the podium to express her gratitude for the congratulatory messages, her appointment, and the inauguration, the VC said: “I stand humbled and affirmed. I would like to state my humility and also say that I am truly excited about what lies ahead as I steer this great university to what is a new future alongside you. I acknowledge the warm and generous welcome I have received from the university community. I also want to thank the Council for the trust it has shown in me. I do not take lightly the responsibility that has been entrusted to me.”

“I stand humbled and affirmed”- Prof Puleng LenkaBula

Explaining what she professes, LenkaBula said: “When I worked at the many universities that have been reflected on, I never saw many people that looked like me. And I had to ensure that my voice was audible, even when it was shaking. Precisely because it is not exciting and it is not humane to only feel excited about being the only or the first, it is important, as Mme Charlotte Maxeke has taught us, to hold hands.”  

The VC said that Unisa boasts a high number of South African professors who have risen through the academic ranks through the transformative agenda and have also shared their success with other universities. “We continue in the same trajectory,” she said, “to ensure that South African scholars get the requisite training, support, development, and encouragement to move beyond the local context to pursue the continental and global arena, putting paid to the apartheid system that denied us the idea of being intertwined with the continent. We cannot produce scholarship that that continues to mimic the very colonial systems that we want to overcome, hence we need to exercise within our universities the idea of shared knowledge systems within the continent and country to move from the margins to the centre as to shape, recreate and realise the important and congruent ideas that universities ought to form.”

Explaining her vision, the VC said one of her many priorities is to accelerate the push for African knowledge systems to be at the centre of what Unisa teaches, researches, and engages on. “The work we do must be at the height of social awareness and responsiveness. We must encourage research and practices that do not merely mimic Western knowledge systems,” she said.

“I do not doubt that the coming years are full of opportunities and advancement,” continued the VC. “I also want to add that many times universities are too far from society. Please feel free to partner with us in ensuring that universities are not institutions but communities that humanise, transform and invite dignity and respect the gift of life.”

The VC said she intends to ensure that Unisa does not only become a centre of academic excellence, success and opportunities for the marginalised, but also a lever of optimum and impactful participation in the global knowledge arena.

The Chancellor congratulates the Vice-Chancellor

Closing the ceremony, Dr Thabo Mbeki, Former President of South Africa and Chancellor of Unisa, concurred with LenkaBula and said, “To be the African university means that we understand where Africa wants to be tomorrow. What Africa needs fundamentally is change. The question we must ask ourselves therefore as the African university shaping futures in the service of humanity is: how does a university position itself in the process of change?”

Expressing his confidence in LenkaBula, Mbeki said, “I do not doubt that in our VC we have an outstanding woman whose leadership will put to shame misogyny. We as Unisa are proud of what we have done when we appointed the very first woman to lead this nearly 150-year-old institution. All of us will work and cooperate to work with her to fashion this excellent and iconic university.”

“Best wishes for your success as you lead this institution to even higher levels,” closed Mbeki.

To read the VC's inauguration address, click here [PDF]

 *By Tshimangadzo Mphaphuli, Senior Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2021/09/03