Tributes to an 'extraordinary' South African of intellect, courage and integrity

23 June 2008

Letter from the Chancellor, Mrs Graça Machel | Professor Martin West, Deputy Vice-Chancellor | Thulani Madinginye, president of the SRC | Geoff Budlender, Chair of Council | Professor Hugh Corder, Dean of the Faculty of Law | Theuns Eloff, chairperson of Higher Education South Africa

Letter from the Chancellor, Mrs Graça Machel

Professor Njabulo Ndebele is an extraordinary South African. I wanted to make that statement at the outset because in these most challenging of times we need extraordinary South Africans, people with the intellect, courage and - most of all - the integrity of Njabulo.

Njabulo is that rare sort of person who gives intellectuals a good name. An intellectual he certainly is - of the highest order - but there is nothing abstract or cloistered about how he has chosen to live his life. He is passionately engaged and apparently unafraid to tackle the most difficult of issues, sometimes drawing fierce attacks upon himself in the process, though he is a gentle, man. He is a fearless, free thinker whose wellspring is principle and compassion.

Njabulo has led this institution through its formative first years of the 21st century. It is a major achievement. His task was to move the university forward towards its transformational goals, fundamentally and fast, while simultaneously protecting and maintaining its internationally recognised academic standards. Easy to say, inestimably difficult to do.

Today, and especially today, in the context of events unfolding in the country, Njabulo and his colleagues can proudly say that UCT students have a sense of belonging.

Professor Martin West, Deputy Vice-Chancellor

The position of Vice-Chancellor at any university is no sinecure, least of all in South Africa. Professor Njabulo Ndebele is the first Vice-Chancellor in our history to have had a prior experience of being a Vice-Chancellor.

Accepting the call was surely the triumph of hope over experience! But we are indeed fortunate that he did so. He has led UCT through a vital period of consolidation, building on strong foundations left by his predecessors, and then into a period of consolidation, and then into a period of considerable development.

As Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ndebele developed a strong and inclusive leadership team, and gave them space to work.

He hands over a strong and stable institution, ready to face new challenges and opportunities. He has done all this with calm, thoughtfulness and dignity.

Thulani Madinginye, president of the SRC

Tonight is about a teacher whom so many revere for his patient methods of transferring knowledge and skills. Tonight is about a man who's always willing to learn from those around him.

Wherever the goes he will undoubtedly continue to learn, teach and shape societal opinion. He will continue to love and be loved.

Professor Ndebele, though you are leaving the institution, you will never leave our minds and hearts.

Geoff Budlender, Chair of Council

Njabulo Ndebele's leadership is first and foremost a moral leadership. If anything, it characterises the Ndebele Vice-Chancellorship.

The focus on moral issues does not always lead to simple solutions. The Vice-Chancellor is a person given to reflecting on ambiguity, complexity and contradiction.

He shuns the simplistic answer. That, I love to say, can sometimes be frustrating to those of us who want the quick answer. But no-one can doubt that underlying the engagement with ambiguity is a hard-edged clarity of moral vision.

The other quality of Njabulo Ndebele's leadership, which is reflected in the events of the past weeks, is the space he gives others to act. Sometimes we yearn for the leader who will stride out ahead of us, making the grand gesture, saying "Follow me".

This is not Njabulo Ndebele's style. The politics of the spectacle are inconsistent with his inner being. His style is different. It is building unity, leading a moral vision, creating space for others to express their passion and energy.

Professor Hugh Corder, Dean of the Faculty of Law

Thinking back over the last eight years, the main qualities that you have brought to the office of Vice- Chancellor are: calmness, reflectiveness, inclusiveness, integrity, human decency and courage.

Many would argue that the UCT of 2000 needed a period of consolidation after the many shake-ups of the previous five years or so (this was acknowledged even by your predecessor in office), which had unsettled many, even if for good reason. Your style of leadership restored a level of confidence and predictability, without losing sight of the overriding imperative for change and of our necessary commitment to social justice. A glance around this room will confirm the extent to which the complexion of the Senate has altered over this period.

Fundamental to your approach is the primacy of respect for others, to which the Khuluma initiative has contributed much.

Theuns Eloff, chairperson of Higher Education South Africa

Njabulo Ndebele must be saluted and thanked for the leadership role he played in the South African Higher Education sector for the past two decades. Not only is he one of the longest serving vice-chancellors (ever, I think!), but he remained committed to playing a leadership role longer than anyone I know of.

His quiet analysis and powerful intellectual input will be sorely missed. His principled stance on academic freedom and the autonomy of universities will be constant reminders of what we as new-generation university leaders should uphold.

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