South Africa sorted over dinner

August 21, 1998

SOUTH Africa's first female black vice-chancellor says white males were her biggest allies during a difficult period of sweeping changes at her university.

Speaking this week at the Association of Commonwealth Universities general conference in Ottawa, Mamphele Ramphele told chancellors, vice-chancellors and leading administrators of the leadership techniques she employed over the past three years to steer the University of Cape Town towards a more equitable situation for non-white South Africans - a task she likened to repairing an airplane in mid-flight.

At first the proposed changes, including restructured faculties and decreased administration, were "frightening" to her deans and angered some of the university community. She said she tried to avoid marginalising any opposition, no matter how different its viewpoint was from her own.

"All of us had to find new pathways to the future. There were no pockets of experts with a monopoly of knowledge that could be turned into power," she said.

She dealt with some of the reaction by opening up her university residence to people with the widest possible range of views, to bring about informal discussions over wine and dinner. Through those informal contacts by which healthy debates could emerge, she was able to quell dissent, she told Commonwealth vice-chancellors, many of whom have gone through restructuring themselves.

Redress in the post-apartheid era was not used as a trump card. "I have at all times tried to avoid using guilt as a motivator," said the 50-year-old former African National Congress member.

She had found the post-apartheid era even more trying than the closing years of nationalist rule. "So much time and energy has been spent in developing the right processes that the project of good university governance has taken a back seat," Professor Ramphele said.

"The irony of the new South Africa is that one often finds oneself with strange bedfellows and even stranger enemies. My greatest supporters were white males who were senior scholars at UCT who valued my independence and willingness to hold unpopular views. Black student activists and some black staff were my greatest detractors."

They wanted to block an affirmative action plan, among other things, that they saw as replacing white mediocrity with black mediocrity, she said.

Her speech, central to the conference theme of university leadership and social change, had many vice-chancellors in the room showing their agreement.

Later, Sharon Siverts, new vice-chancellor of the University of Botswana, said Professor Ramphele's speech reminded her how constant communication is necessary for any changes to effectively take place. "You can't assume that if you have said something once, everyone has understood it and bought into it."

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