USAf’s new CEO aims to uphold the organisation’s reputation and respect as she takes it forward

Published On: 6 October 2022|

The newly appointed Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa (USAf) says she is delighted to be a part of what she calls a “well-respected, well-run, tight-knit ship that is Universities South Africa — effective and efficient at mobilising the higher education sector and giving it a clear voice in the system.”

During this, her first week at the helm, Dr Phethiwe Matutu (left) says she applied for the CEO position because she saw this as a wonderful opportunity to contribute to the public higher education system.

Having interacted with the organisation from way back in its HESA era, she says “it feels as if I have been working towards participating in this organisation all my life.

“If one looks at the trajectory of my career — starting as an academic, going on to policy formulation, growing human capacity development (HCD) initiatives within government. Then moving on to the National Research Foundation (NRF) to further drive organisational strategy, strategic partnerships, and information and analysis… it is a perfect fit for the kind of career trajectory I have had – not one that many people have followed.”

Her career trajectory in brief

Until most recently, Dr Matutu was Group Executive: Strategy, Planning and Partnerships of the NRF. She worked at the former Department of Science and Technology (DST) for nine years, as Chief Director: Human Capital and Science Promotion (HC&SP), overseeing HCD related entities, the drafting of legislation, guiding documents and the implementation of HCD & SP programmes.

At the NRF, Dr Matutu led the development of key planning documents for the organisation including: the NRF Vision 2030 and its five-year implementation plan, Strategy 2025, and Strategic Partnerships Strategy. She led the development of the ‘NRF Framework to Advance the Societal and Knowledge Impact of Research’. Under her leadership at the NRF she oversaw the online register of grants integrated in the business intelligence (BI) systems, leading to the soaring of the numbers of the NRF BI systems users.

She has served as a member of the Human Resource Development Council of South Africa (HRDC-SA); was a Ministerial appointee in the Council of Walter Sisulu University, was in the Ministerial Task Team responsible for drafting the Implementation Plan of the White Paper on Post-School Education and Training; was a member of the Department of Higher Education and Training Creative Outputs Reviews Panel.

With 16 years’ teaching experience under her belt, Dr Matutu’s teaching career focused on making Mathematics accessible, particularly to the previously marginalised groups. She had a key focus on mathematics development programmes at the universities she taught at (namely Rhodes University, University of Stellenbosch, University of Cape Town (UCT), University of the Western Cape and University of the North – Qwaqwa branch) and was seen as a role model by many.

At a workshop where Dr Matutu was presenting to Mathematical Sciences researchers at the University of Pretoria, two years ago, with Professor Loyiso Nongxa (second from left in the top photo) looking on

She now serves as an Advisory Board Member in the National Graduate Academy for Mathematical and Statistical Sciences, a consortium of South African Universities that collaborate around the training of mathematicians, statisticians, and data scientists.

During her teaching years she also contributed to maths scholarship through publishing. She was an external theses’ examiner for various universities; was an NRF grant-holder; reviewed articles in journals and research projects for funding agencies such as the NRF and SA-USA Fulbright. She constantly presented at, and organised local and international conferences and was a visiting academic to research institutions.

From Mqanduli to Higher Education boardrooms

Phethiwe Matutu was one of nine children raised by shopkeeper parents in a tiny village in the Eastern Cape, Mqanduli.

The trailblazing new CEO went from modest beginnings to being a highly respected scientist, earning a Doctorate in Mathematics among her qualifications.

Dr Matutu owes her life choices to her father, Nkosi Fulinzima Matutu, who insisted that all nine of his children choose science careers after their early rural schooling in the former Transkei village.

Her formative years

“I grew up in a family where education was valued,” she said. “Before they bought their general dealer store, my mother, Elizabeth Matutu, was a nursing sister and my father was a manager at an insurance company. He was very strict, insisting that no matter what you went on to do, every one of us children first had to earn a science-related qualification; a BSc or something similar,” Dr Matutu said.

family moments
Family moments as siblings gathered to celebrate their mother’s milestone.

The Matutu family went on to produce architects, doctors, designers, nurses and teachers – careers all thoroughly grounded in basic sciences.

Having qualified with a BSc at the University of Transkei, due to excellent performance, Dr Matutu was invited to do her honour’s degree full-time – all expenses paid – at Rhodes University. “That offer by Rhodes University set me on a positive career trajectory in Mathematics due to the resources the institution had, the networks and the ability to nurture my career.”

She went on to receive a distinction in her masters, after which she decided she wanted to teach.

A bona fide mathematician and social justice activist

Dr Matutu holds a PhD in Mathematics from UCT, which she completed while teaching at the same institution. She obtained a Master’s in Science, Mathematics with distinction from Rhodes University, an Honours in Science, Mathematics, from the same institution and a BSc in Mathematics and Chemistry from the former University of Transkei.   She attended the “Insight into King IV” at the Institute of Directors in South Africa to advance her governance capabilities, her competence in equity, diversity and inclusion has been broadened by obtaining an “Equity and Transformation Facilitator certificate” from Wits University. Her ability to develop solutions that result in shared value for society has been honed by obtaining an “Integrating Societal Impact in a Research Strategy certificate” from Network for Advancing and Evaluating the Societal Impact of Science, in Norway. She also has an Assessor’s Accreditation Certificate from Rhodes University.

Forging ahead with USAf

For the foreseeable future, Dr Matutu will be heading USAf’s Office and secretariat, leading a 52-odd strong team of men and women. USAf is the representative body of South Africa’s 26 public universities. USAf endorses a comprehensive and equitable national higher education system that is responsive to the challenges facing South Africa. Through lobbying and advocacy, USAf promotes and facilitates an optimal environment conducive for universities to function effectually and maximally contribute to the social, cultural, and economic advancement of South Africa and its people.

“The organisation was headed by Professor Ahmed Bawa, and it has undergone a lot of growth in terms of visibility, and of being the reference point for higher education within the system. Looking at the growth that has happened over the past six to seven years, I would like to consolidate that growth and build on the excellent work that is in place.

“Professor Bawa has given USAf focus with the development of a clear strategy for the organisation. The strategy has a focus on student growth and development; institutional and sector sustainability; and engagement. The key thing for me right now is to take that work forward to respond to the changing higher education environment, and to address some of the challenges confronting the sector.

“It’s about strategic focus, building on ongoing work, being a reliable voice of the public higher education system, and, ultimately, enabling long-term sustainability of South Africa’s higher education system.

Her expectations

Dr Matutu describes herself as a person who is pleased by achievement while being strategically focused.

“So, the alignment of strategy with achievement gives me a kick. To achieve this, I hope to work with all other stakeholders in the higher education sector for the greater good of the system.

Importance of collaboration

In her Curriculum Vitae, Dr Matutu mentions stakeholder engagement, human capacity development and change management among her strengths. “I’ve been in the system for some time as evidenced by the institutions where I have worked and the committees on which I have served.

“The kind of work that I have carried out at the NRF, and former DST, has exposed me to international partners. I have had the benefit of that experience and exposure, which will come handy in my new position.

“When it comes to dealing with complex problems and competing priorities, one needs an institution such as USAf – where different institutions come together as a collective to make decisions, implement them, and learn from one another.

“In my view, the issue of engagement, both internally within USAf and with external stakeholders – with the intention of achieving USAf’s goals – is a modality without which we cannot manage. We need that collaborative interconnectedness. Engagement for me is ensuring that we have mutual benefit with partners with whom we work.”

Women in Higher Education

Dr Matutu believes that representation of women in the higher echelons of the higher education sector remains a challenge, particularly when relating to black women.

She says: “While progress has been made, the sector still battles with equity, diversity and inclusion. The Transformation Strategy Group of USAf continues to advise the Board/sector on issues pertaining to the transformation agenda, including gender equity and inclusion. Our programme offerings have a gender focus as well.”

Personal interests and family

travel moments

Away from the corridors of power, Dr Matutu spends her leisure time taking walks, and spending time with her family and friends.

She is married to Professor Sizwe Mabizela with whom she has two daughters, Zama and Zinzi. She also has an eldest daughter, Lulu.

Charmain Naidoo is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.