Linda Ronnie: from high school rebel to professor

30 November 2020 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo UCT. Read time >10 min.
Prof Linda Ronnie: “The ad hom process is much easier if you’re well supported and mentored by your head of department.”
Prof Linda Ronnie: “The ad hom process is much easier if you’re well supported and mentored by your head of department.”

Linda Ronnie’s ad hominem promotion to full professor marks a turning point for the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Faculty of Commerce. Professor Ronnie, who is the faculty dean, is the first woman of colour to achieve this rank. It brings a sense of achievement – and relief after the arduous ad hom process – but she’s also annoyed. “The first black woman? In 2020? Why has it taken so long?”

While she’s delighted and honoured to have her peers validate her scholarly contributions to the academy, the news of her ad hom promotion was clouded by a reminder: There’s far to go in transforming the professoriate.

“The numbers of women and women of colour are seriously low,” Ronnie said. Only 31% of UCT professors are women while 44% of these are women of colour (2018 statistics).


“We understand that an inclusive UCT is not an event, but it does require deliberate and sustained action.”

“Transformation at UCT is embedded in our core business of teaching, research and social responsiveness. We understand that an inclusive UCT is not an event, but it does require deliberate and sustained action,” said Professor Loretta Feris, the deputy vice-chancellor for transformation.

As the dean of Commerce since 2018 (a role she will relinquish in March 2021), Ronnie and her leadership team and faculty transformation committee have worked hard to embed transformation into the faculty’s mechanisms and processes. The aim is to build capacity among black and women staff and overhaul the faculty’s global north-oriented curricula.

Teaching, her first love

As a researcher in organisational behaviour and people management, Ronnie well understands the imperative to change.

She joined the UCT Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB) in 2002 after 15 years in industry. At the UCT GSB she was the director of the Associate in Management and the Postgraduate Diploma in Business Administration programmes as well as convenor of the MBA programme.

Many years of teaching and researching people management in organisations at the UCT GSB illuminated the need for transformation. One of her contributions to transformation in research is an Emerald / Association of African Business Schools Emerging Markets Case Writing Competition award she won with a co-author in 2015. There are few case studies that are applicable to the developing world.

Ronnie is also a Distinguished Teacher awardee (2014), something she cherishes. Feedback from students (“I’m a bit of a softie; I keep all these student emails.”) confirms her rapport with them, her ability to translate knowledge to diverse audiences and to stand in their shoes.

Teaching is her first love, born out by a raft of accolades over the years. Her most recent recognition was from the 2018 full-time MBA class, who set very high lecturer standards and chose her as Lecturer of the Year.

“The honour was particularly meaningful as this course represents the node of my teaching and research work: it’s where I disseminate the knowledge derived from my own research in people management, where I implement and test findings related to management education pedagogy, and where my students provide me with insights about their work and learning experiences. This serves as a feedback loop for my future work as a teacher and researcher.”


“Knowledge transfer is one of the most important activities a professional can engage in to empower people.”

The relational aspect of her teaching and supervision is grounded in transformation.

“I view my supervision as both a collaboration conducted in true partnership with my students, and as an opportunity to mentor the next generation of South African academics and leaders,” she said.

“As I know from my own research and experiences, knowledge transfer is one of the most important activities a professional can engage in to empower people and strengthen the organisation.”

Self-driven process

Promoted to associate professor in 2018, Ronnie said that she realised late in her academic life that the trajectory to full professor would be a largely self-driven process. In earlier years she was putting her heart and soul into teaching, mentoring students, serving on selection committees and being “a good organisational citizen”. She realised that little of it would count without a solid publications record.

“I want to make that point, especially to those I mentor and to younger academics,” said Ronnie.

“It’s hard when you start.”


“Ask what is the most significant part about your work? What makes it stand out empirically and intellectually?”

She still smarts from early publication rejections, which implied she was not good enough. But she always had a plan B, C and D.

“I always had other journals lined up. If the paper was rejected, I would rejig it and send it off to the next one on the list.”

But it’s important to ensure the content has wide appeal.

“It’s not enough to [show] how unique it is because it has an African context. Ask what is the most significant part about your work? What makes it stand out empirically and intellectually? What makes it interesting to people in Russia, Australia, Nigeria?”

That’s number one. The second point she makes it that the ad hom process is much easier if you’re well supported and mentored by your head of department.

“There’s got to be support for sabbaticals, for example, particularly in a faculty such as Commerce, where there’s lots of teaching.”

It also helps to have a supportive network of family, especially women, who play so many other roles in addition to their academic lives.

“It’s a challenge for women to carve out these bits of time. So, the playing field for men and women researchers is certainly not the same. Along with others, I’ve just submitted a paper on what the lockdown was like for women academics, and all the data bears that out. Somehow, and I don’t know where, women must also find time to publish while juggling multiple responsibilities,” she said.


“For the past three years, my personal life absolutely took a backseat.”

Without a “wonderfully supportive husband” and support from colleagues at the UCT GSB, such as John Luiz, things would have been immeasurably tougher.

“For the past three years, my personal life absolutely took a backseat in pursuit of my professorship. My family had to hear the constant ‘I can’t do that now; I’m working on a paper.’ ”

Interestingly, her two years as dean were her most prolific in terms of research.

“And that’s because of the supportive ethos in the faculty. I have a fantastic leadership team, and Freda Williams, my PA, encouraged me to take my research morning – and then jealously guarded that time!”

Last year Ronnie won the award for the best paper by a first-time author at the 2019 Actuarial Society of South Africa convention.

The third point she makes is: attend conferences, present your work, network and form collaborations.

Make them proud

Congratulations on her promotion have poured in across the divide, from both academic colleagues and professional, administrative support and service (PASS) staff.

She read a few examples off her computer.

“You are an inspiration to us all. Well done on the promotion. To achieve this while managing the faculty is a real feat. I’m so pleased for you.”

“Absolutely wonderful news. I’m so happy for you. Well deserved. A brilliant achievement.”

“All the hard work and long hours paid off! Absolutely delighted.”

“Your dedication and enthusiasm are really inspiring.”

“Congratulations my dean.” (She loves that one.)

And one that makes her laugh: “Linda, now you can rest on your laurels.”

Others in the faculty have also recognised the significance of the moment.

Her colleague Suki Goodman, the head of the School of Management Studies, also promoted to professor during this current cycle, wrote: “As the commerce faculty in 2020, we have shared a historic UCT moment, being shepherded by the person who broke the spell, the first black womxn to put a stake in the commerce professoriate sand. The faculty has been fortunate to share in the most recent part of Linda’s professional journey. Our faculty’s newly launched initiative, Commerce Cares, epitomises Linda’s management style and her pedagogic orientation.

“We read in leadership texts that authentic is the new charismatic. Authenticity permits, and permission is empowering. The job of an HOD can get pretty hairy sometimes, and working under Linda has helped me mature into the complexity.

“Wholehearted congratulations, Professor Ronnie. Researcher, teacher, leader, dean and mostly, happily for us, a truly open, present and authentic human being.”

High school rebel to role model

That brings her to the role model aspect of her career and promotion.

The Commerce Transformation Committee’s Associate Professor Ameeta Jaga commented on this when she said, “Prof Ronnie’s promotion as the first permanent black female professor in Commerce sends a message to all young black women that change is possible, that they can aspire to these roles because there is now a role model in the faculty.”

Ronnie is very conscious of that but recalls that she didn’t get off to a good start.


“I was known as a high school terror.”

“I was known as a high school terror,” she said, confessing (mock horror) that she was expelled from more than one high school. A former head described her antics as “creative”. She’d find new ways to bunk on school premises, often behind the prefabricated classrooms where she could play Crosby, Stills & Nash (“None of that ‘House of the rising sun’ stuff!”) on her guitar. She had the best of both worlds as her friends would join her at break.

That she came to UCT and became a professor was perhaps foretold in her family history. Her grandfather Henry de Bruyn was one of the first people of colour to work at UCT prior to 1919. Though he started as a cleaner in the zoology department, he became a laboratory assistant, and it was said that De Bruyn had the knowledge of a “well-trained naturalist”.

The then head of Zoology, Professor Thomas Alan Stephenson, twice wrote to the university’s leadership to ask that De Bruyn get a salary increase and a pension. At the time of the first appeal, De Bruyn had been in the service of the university for 28 years, having been trained by Professor Stephenson and his predecessors, professors John Gilchrist and Lancelot Hogben.

In another time he might have become a professor too. What would he have said of her achievement?

“You’re a De Bruyn!” she chirped.

But it’s not enough, added Ronnie.

“One could say, ‘Oh, how many things have changed because Henry de Bruyn’s granddaughter could be the dean and a professor. But look, she’s still the first black woman in 2020!’ So, how many things have really changed? We’ve got a long way to go. I am hoping that I will be one of very, very many women who completely deserve to be acknowledged in a similar way – not only in the faculty, but in the university. I think it’s essential. But you can’t be what you can’t see. If other women see that it’s possible, they can do it too.”

This cycle’s ad hominem promotions are effective from January 2021.

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