Black woman scores v-c first

October 26, 1995

Former black consciousness activist Mamphela Ramphela is to be the first black leader of an historically white university and South Africa's second woman vice chancellor.

She was chosen last week as the new vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town. Her appointment follows a fascinating leadership tussle, with political undertones, between what local newspapers described as a "black radical" and a "white establishment figure", David Woods.

Another leading contender for the post, which attracted 24 applicants, was University of the North vice chancellor Njabulo Ndebele, but he withdrew.

The choice facing the Cape Town selection committee was tough: both Dr Ramphela and Professor Woods are deputy vice chancellors and were considered outstanding candidates.

While Dr Ramphela was the obvious choice for the new South Africa - there would probably have been a political outcry had she not been chosen - Professor Woods almost certainly enjoyed the support of the university's still mostly white male academic staff.

Dr Ramphela succeeds retiring vice chancellor Stuart Saunders. She is a medical doctor who became embroiled in the anti-apartheid struggle during the 1970s and dedicated more than a decade of her life to health in poor communities. She returned to academe to become a social anthropologist and prolific author.

She was as outspoken during the leadership campaign as Professor Woods was reticent. Dr Ramphela reportedly claimed that the university produced "good little Englishmen", that all graduates should be fluent in Xhosa, and that the university will have to change more to suit the new South Africa.

She believes ardently in preserving academic excellence at South Africa's top research university. "The attainment of excellence and equity in education will be critical to South Africa's development," she said on accepting the post.

Professor Woods will become the new vice chancellor of Rhodes University next April, on the retirement of Derek Henderson. His appointment was announced on October 18, the day after the Cape Town selection committee opted for his rival and the day before the senate ratified Dr Ramphela's appointment.

The Rhodes decision, too, had its difficulties: a previous attempt to elect a vice chancellor was abandoned after objections to the way in which the selection process was handled.

Mamphela Ramphela will be profiled in next week's THES.

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