Full circle for new humanities dean

17 February 2014
"I'm not one to live in a comfort zone" - Prof Sakhela Buhlungu, new Dean of Humanities.
"I'm not one to live in a comfort zone" - Prof Sakhela Buhlungu, new Dean of Humanities.

In Professor Sakhela Buhlungu's office suite in the Beattie Building you can hear sounds reminiscent of warriors. They're chanting: "a 'U', a 'U', a 'UCT!'."

Humanities freshers.

It's O-Week and the otherwise quiet locale - in January the academic staff are only beginning to trickle back - is beginning to buzz.

It's a good time for a new dean to be starting. Although Buhlungu arrived at UCT in November last year, it was to work an overlap period with former Dean of Humanities, Professor Paula Ensor.

He looks fresh, alert, keen. Ten years ago the new captain of UCT's largest faculty wouldn't have imagined himself here. The industrial sociologist, steeped in the study of the history, contributions, and future of South Africa's trade union movements, simply wanted to teach and write.

But the transition from academic to manager is important at this time in his career. He'd had some tough encounters with "terrible HoDs" in his time. Some years ago an opportunity came up to fill in as an acting head of department at the University of Pretoria, where he worked.

The experience made him think more carefully about the value of savvy academic leadership in higher education.

"You can't simply leave the running to others. You have to step up and do something - for yourself and for other people." Later he adds: "I'm not one to live in a comfort zone."

With a broad vision to position the humanities faculty as the best on the continent, his first task is to familiarise himself with the nooks and crannies of the faculty - its diverse offerings and scholarly wealth.

He's aware that it's an important time for humanities. There's been plenty of talk about the diminishing value of humanities degrees - and even more talk of the urgent need to teach critical and imaginative thinking and communication skills.

Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande has promised a new era having accepted the charter for humanities and the social sciences - following the work of the task team he appointed in 2010 and headed by UCT's Professor Ari Sitas. One of the proposals is a National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences, to revitalise these areas.

Buhlungu's own sense for the faculty seems to mirror this. He wants to champion the faculty's flagship schools, institutes and centres - areas of rich scholarship; from gender and African studies, social development, anthropology, linguistics, and culture - and bring them to the public arena.

"The Michaelis School of Fine Art is doing some wonderful things; the South African College of Music is sending opera stars out into the world. We have amazing staff, and we're producing great work and scholarship."

There is some consolidation and realignment planned, and some work to be done regarding staffing in the faculty - particularly in the light of the large number of senior academics due to retire. Succession planning is vital.

"It's time for a regeneration of the academic labour force," he says. "It's a serious thing, and we can't afford to ad hoc the process." Black women are particularly scarce in the faculty, and there are too few in senior positions.

And he's puzzled. Diversification is crucial to harnessing different worldviews and knowledge. But where are all the coloured students? "It's one sector that's getting left behind, and no-one is noticing it."

The UCT campus is still a familiar place; Buhlungu did his BA honours in African Studies here from 1985 to 1986. But he doesn't have fond memories of Cape Town and didn't much like the city then ("It could brush up its image a bit").

He grew up in the Eastern Cape, and he describes a child frightened of the violent thunderstorms - part of a large family, the children three years apart, the regular intervals marking his father's visits. He was a migrant worker on the mines near Brakpan. The young Buhlungu attended Jongilizwe College in Tsolo in the Eastern Cape, meant for the sons of chiefs and headmen, and intended to perpetuate the homeland system.

It was a defining experience ("Every child needs a stint in boarding school"). It was there he met Bantu Holomisa, and Dumisa Ntsebeza. The political activist and advocate was one of his favourite teachers.

After initially studying at the University of Transkei, he had another defining experience while immersed in the trade unions and labour organisations in the early 1980s and 1990s.

His later scholarly work reflected the changing nature of trade unionism in South Africa and Africa, union movements' political engagement, industrial relations, political activism, and the 'new' social movements.

Asked to describe himself, Buhlungu chooses the words carefully: curious, adventurous, thinker, determined, quiet. "I'm in a process of self-discovery. I like to surprise myself."

Beyond the faculty meetings - and travels to meet alumni around the country - Buhlungu is gradually reconnecting with Cape Town. His family is in Pretoria until their family home has been sold and he is still supervising students at the University of Pretoria.

Together with Andries Bezuidenhout, he's also working on a book on mining and how it has shaped the lives of South Africans. The book, Enclave South Africa: Mining and the post-apartheid social order, shows how old forms of social control have given way to new ones, and how divisions of race and class have continued into the present.

"But one thing has remained throughout - life for most miners remains unpleasant and violent," he adds.


  • With a PhD in sociology from Wits (2001), Buhlungu was Professor of Sociology and deputy dean of postgraduate studies and ethics at the University of Pretoria.
  • From 2011 to 2012 he was Ela Bhatt Visiting Professor in the International Centre for Development and Decent Work at the University of Kassel, Germany.
  • Buhlungu also taught Sociology at the Universities of Johannesburg and the Witwatersrand, where he was co-director of the Sociology of Work Unit (SWOP), a research centre focusing on work and labour issues.
  • From 2006 to 2007 he was head of the Department of Sociology at Wits.
  • He has published extensively on these and other topics. Recent publications include COSATU'S Contested Legacy: South African Trade Unions in the Second Decade of Democracy (edited with Malehoko Tshoaedi, HSRC Press 2012, Brill 2013).

Story by Helen Swingler. Image by Micheal Hammond.

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