The University of Cape Town in Transition

Dr Mamphela Ramphele, who is President of WAC4, was born on 28 December 1947 near Pietersburg, in South Africa’s Northern Province. She qualified as a General Medical Practitioner (MBChB) at Natal University in 1972 and obtained a PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town in 1991. She also holds a BCom degree in Administration from the University of South Africa. In 1975, Ramphele founded the Zanempilo Community Health Centre at King William’s Town, and was also Eastern Cape branch manager of the Black Community Programmes. Despite a seven-year banishment by the Nationalist government to Tzaneen from 1977 to 1984, Ramphele continued her work with the rural poor and established the Ithuseng Community Health Programme.

Dr Ramphele joined UCT as a Senior Researcher in 1986. In 1991 she became one of four Deputy Vice-Chancellors and, in 1996, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Some of her publications include her PhD thesis in Social Anthropology (“The Politics of Space”) published as a book,”A Bed Called Home”, on life in the migrant labour hostels in Cape Town; and her autobiography “Mamphela Ramphele – A Life”. Dr Ramphele has received numerous prestigious national and international awards, including honorary doctorates acknowledging her scholarship and contribution to development in South Africa. Here, in an extract from “UCT News”, she comments on some of the challenges in leading a university through its most important period of transformation…

As I write, I think back to the October day in 1996 when unseasonal rain interrupted the late Cape Spring to mark my installation as UCT’s 7th Vice-Chancellor. To me, the weather was a symbol of blessing and good fortune – as rain is in Africa. I used the occasion to make a public commitment that during my stewardship of UCT, I would strive to combine the quest for excellence and equity. South Africans, I said, had not struggled for liberation in order to gain equal access to mediocrity. They wanted, and deserved, the opportunity to achieve success in world-class institutions.

Any institution embarking on change needs a vision of where it is going. A lot of thought and discussion went into the four words that describe our Vision of UCT as a World-Class African University. We deliberately chose the formulation “World Class African University” rather than “World Class University in Africa” because we want to exemplify Africa’s capacity for excellence on its own ground, not an ersatz Oxford or Harvard. At the same time we recognise that we will only be able to earn “world class” status if we measure ourselves by the universal benchmarks of any out-standing university: excellent teaching, research and public service.

During the past year we have moved rapidly from vision to implementation, from theory to practice. Our pace has been set not only by the urgency of our task but by the financial constraints we face – constraints that are likely to intensify in the years ahead. If we are to achieve our Vision, we will have to get better as resources diminish. That means that we must identify what we should be doing (at the level of the best institutions anywhere) and what we should not be doing; it means that we will have to take deliberate, careful decisions on competing claims for resources; it means we will have to rely less on government subsidy and more on our own creative strategies to achieve greater “self-resourcing”. All these decisions require rigorous analysis and strategic planning.

Our first step in this direction was to set up an integrated planning system, to ensure that our financial and physical plans serve our academic priorities. The point of departure for this is our understanding of a university’s key purpose: to offer opportunities for students to develop the advanced skills a society needs for development and progress in a rapidly changing environment, and to undertake good research. No longer can graduates expect job security for life. They can, however, expect to play a key role in the global “knowledge society”, where they will prosper to the extent that they continue to learn and put their knowledge to work, solving problems, thinking creatively and critically, adapting to new circumstances (including advances in technology), respecting diversity and the opinions of others.

These qualities define what we call “graduateness” – the competencies and values that make a degree worth having. In order to be a World-Class African University we must ensure that we produce graduates of this calibre, not by chance, but as a deliberate objective. We owe this to the students of today and tomorrow, who deserve a qualification that measures up to the best available anywhere. And we owe it to a country and a continent that can potentially offer so much – socially, culturally, politically and economically – to human understanding and progress in the new millennium.

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