On Monday, 6 June 2022, the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) vice-chancellor (VC), Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, presented a public lecture as part of the University of Ottawa’s Excellence in Education lecture series. Despite taking place at 22:00 South African time, the online portion of the event was well attended by UCT staff and students.
Titled “Walking the tightrope between the boardroom and the picket line: Reflections of a transformative university leader”, the lecture focused on Professor Phakeng’s experiences since becoming VC of Africa’s foremost institution for tertiary education in 2018.
Since taking office nearly four years ago, Phakeng has focused on driving a radical transformation agenda while ensuring that UCT remains the top university on the African continent. This, however, has not been without its challenges, as the institution has faced a major crisis each year since. “In this talk,” said Phakeng, “I will share my experience, focusing mainly on what it means to be a courageous, transformative leader. I will also share my vision for the future.”
Leadership as a balancing act
Phakeng began her address by reflecting on her journey thus far as VC of UCT. She highlighted that while the challenges are not an extraordinary occurrence for leaders, difficulties can be exacerbated by the world’s perception of African woman leaders.
“Being a black African woman leader in a previously white male-dominated world is an act of disruption.”
“Leadership is difficult at the best of times. It’s even more difficult at this time of uncertainty. It’s difficult whoever you are but being a black African woman leader in a previously white male-dominated world is an act of disruption.
“When my appointment as VC was announced to the various constituencies, I received congratulatory messages from people who I viewed to be on opposing sides of this line. That was setting the scene for the challenge.
“At one end, the people on the picket line; marginalised people who were representative of those who are seeking change – and with good reason – and saw themselves as the ones who could bring change. On the other end of the tightrope, the boardroom representing the systems that uphold the values of the ‘old guard’ – the beliefs that an institution’s excellence depends on sticking to tradition.”
Understanding the natural dichotomy between these two views, Phakeng knew that it would be impossible to always satisfy everyone. Despite this, she said, she understood her assignment as a leader to be a balancing act that would require an attitude of resoluteness and purposefulness.
Transformation: an emotional issue
While the critical lens through which leaders are viewed can be challenging for anyone, the VC highlighted that this can be especially harsh for women – and women of colour in particular. Criticism notwithstanding, Phakeng believes that it is time to tap into the power that this diversity brings.
“I believe in diversity in leadership, and I think it’s time for women leadership. The time for masculine power has run out; in fact, the world is where we are because masculine power hasn’t delivered. If we were fair, open and honest, we would say, ‘Well, we are here because the world has drawn its leaders from only one side of the spectrum’,” she said.
“Transformation is a heart conversation, not a head conversation.”
Phakeng pointed out that driving the transformation in institutions that will ultimately lead to improved outcomes can be challenging. This in no small part due to the microscope under which many women and other leaders from previously marginalised communities are observed by those who are resistant to change.
To enact meaningful change, the VC noted, leaders must overcome the resistance to change by changing perceptions and conversations held by an institution’s people.
“There is an obsession with the idea that if we transform, we will lose excellence. There are people who are convinced that if we change the status quo [we’re] going to fail. We cannot overlook the individuals involved in the process of transformation because it is the people who are having the conversations and interactions who make the change.
“Transformation is a heart conversation, not a head conversation. People know that they should transform, but for some reason they don’t. Changing this will not come from education, knowledge or wisdom, because transformation is as much an emotional issue as it is an academic issue. People are happy in their comfort zone – and transformation is uncomfortable.
“What transformation means is a distribution of privilege. People want to hang on to that privilege that they’ve always enjoyed because if they give it up, life might be harder for them. They are likely to face more opposition and competition. So, it is very difficult for people to engage with transformation,” Phakeng explained.
Excellence, transformation and sustainability
Reflecting on how she has handled the challenges that occupying the office of vice-chancellor has brought, Phakeng noted that her primary commitment has been to remain steadfast in her values and allowing these to guide her decisions in unleashing human potential at UCT.
“If you are never criticised and never chased as a leader, you are not doing a good job.”
“When I took office, I introduced three pillars that were going to define my vision for the university to help us deal with the issues that we were facing. The first pillar is excellence. The second pillar is transformation. The third one is sustainability,” she said.
These pillars, said Phakeng, are envisioned to work in concert with one another to help UCT reach its greatest heights.
According to the VC, excellence cannot be achieved while anyone is being marginalised, as an institution can only “win” and continue to do so sustainably when all of its people are given a fair opportunity to participate.
However, she acknowledged that this approach has not gone without criticism, all of which is part of walking the tight rope. “I never expected to make anyone happy all the time, but the decisive leader will always be criticised. You have got to know that if you make decisions, you will be criticised. If you are never criticised and never chased as a leader, you are not doing a good job,” she noted.
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