USAf’s new Director: Operations and Sector Support has always been passionate about the transformation of education

Published On: 25 April 2023|

Since assuming the position of Director of Operations and Sector Support at Universities South Africa (USAf) from 1 April, Mr Mahlubi “Chief” Mabizela has stepped into the role effortlessly. His extensive prior experience as a researcher and policymaker in higher education has prepared and enabled him to hit the ground running.

Mabizela has worked closely with USAf for a long time. And after 13 years as Chief Director for University Education Policy and Development Support at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) – coupled with previous education research positions at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and the Human Sciences Research Council – his level of knowledge of and insight into the sector is unmatchable.

He has both an overall perspective on the sector and the interrelationships of its various players, as well as insight into the specifics of all South Africa’s 26 public universities. Add hands-on management experience from leading task teams at DHET, plus his drive to make a difference, and Mabizela looks set to make a significant impact at USAf.

“Universities are implementing the policies I researched ‒ and knowing the nitty gritty of the research produced at all institutions has given me an advantage,” he said.

Speaking at the HSRC’s Social Sciences Research Awards event in Pretoria, in 2019.

His position as Director: Operations and Sector Support at USAf is “what some people call the chief operating officer,” because it involves driving all the organisation’s projects. He is project-managing them and, in a sense, project-managing their managers too. “I am there as their support – that is how I would like to look at it,” said Mabizela, who is second in command after the CEO.

Mammoth task ahead

Managing USAf’s projects is an intricate task. While USAf is ostensibly the representative body of all the country’s public universities, it is not just a figurehead. Its work is far-reaching and covers many facets of higher education.

USAf’s strategy groups cover funding, research and innovation, teaching and learning, transformation and the world of work. A new and sixth one, which will oversee leadership and management matters in higher education, is still to hold its first meeting. Mabizela calls higher education leadership and management “one of the biggest threats in our system.”

Other projects include multifaceted programmes, such as Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM), Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, and the Matriculation Board, responsible for policies on the admission of students to universities.

He represented USAf at the University of Zululand’s graduation ceremony on 18 April.

One project Mabizela expects to grow considerably is scholarships and bursaries, funded by the likes of banks and sector education and training authorities (SETAs), because it can help students who fall outside the scope of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

A human rights activist

Personality-wise, Mabizela scores; he has the motivation. When he states on his CV that he is interested in the transformation of education, those are no idle words. His zeal for human rights has manifested in many ways. He was general secretary of the SRC at UWC from 1989 to 1991, where he was ensconced until 2002. He first did a BSc in Education and his studies culminated in a master’s in education, with a thesis analysing private-public higher education patterns in South Africa. He was also an executive member of the UWC branch of the South African National Students Congress (SANSCO ‒ now SASCO) from 1988 to 1989.

During his tenure at the UWC with a friend, Mr Brian Phike (left) and the then Head of Food Services, Ms Shirley Fritz.

He also worked as a researcher on human rights violations at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for three years, contributing to the drafting of its final report. Memories of that experience live on in a book he co-edited with Wilhelm Verwoerd, a senior researcher at Stellenbosch University. He also wrote sections of the book, titled Truths Drawn in Jest: A Commentary on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission through Cartoons, published in 2000.

The price paid for political activism

Mabizela has suffered the price of his concern about human rights. He lost years of his education, both at high school and university, and was jailed twice, once for six months on the eve of his matric exams.

When a boarder at Freemantle Boys’ High School in Lady Frere in the Eastern Cape, he was part of a group that fought for a “democratically elected SRC and not the imposition of prefects”. A commotion was created while watching a film on a Friday evening and a student was stabbed, fortunately not fatally. On the following Monday, one of the boys went to the principal to confess his involvement in the commotion and named members of what was germinating possibly to be a branch of COSAS and Mabizela and sixteen others were arrested and spent two nights in jail. The case was dismissed for lack of evidence. He had just turned 15.

“I don’t remember receiving end-of-the-year results even though I sat for the exams. I was fine with counting that year as wasted,” he said.

He moved to Nompendulo High School in Zwelitsha in the former Ciskei, where he was arrested again. “The same issue of student political activism, and I was then a full member of COSAS” he said. He spent almost six months in jail.

“I would have completed my matric at 17. I repeated both standards 9 and 10 because of those incidents.”

He moved on to Fort Hare University to study a BSc in geography and botany, as “life sciences were my love from high school”. There he was regional coordinator of the education charter campaign for the South African Students Congress (SASCO ‒ then AZASO). In his second year, in 1986, he was expelled for his political activism.

“That was not very strange at the time because several of us went through those hula hoops of the struggle. Some paid the ultimate price,” said Mabizela.

Origins of the name ‘Chief’

It was at Freemantle High that he acquired his nickname. The boys loved playing games in the dorm, mostly card games such as Crazy Eight, and would also get up to mischief such as hiding people’s belongings. Smart and keen to outmanoeuvre his opponents, he ended up by being called a thief. “And they started to call me ‘Cheat’. And then they changed it to ‘Chief’. And it stuck, forever. Since then, name has followed me wherever I went. It was by coincidence that I became a Chief Director in the department.”

His outlook on higher education

His move from government to USAf was the result of needing to “explore and apply” his knowledge and experience where it can benefit the system, as opposed to a single institution. “The attraction is the vast potential that USAf has for the higher education system and the possibility of being creative in exploring that potential.”

He has loads of ideas about how USAf can leverage its strength as the representative of all public universities.

“We need to highlight the footprint of higher education more. And make sure that the graduates we produce have a minimum standard. The Council on Higher Education (CHE) looks at the standard of qualifications, but USAf needs to look at the tacit knowledge you need to get at university, outside of the classroom. That’s USAf’s huge potential.

“For instance, decolonisation of education and transformation, which #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall highlighted. We need to decolonise in terms of the curriculum, in terms of the spaces within institutions, but not only at one institution. And we need to measure transformation in terms of certain things that cut across all the universities. We need to say ‘this is the minimum’ and USAf is there for that, working with other entities like the CHE, like SAQA (the South African Qualifications Authority), like the department.”

He has engaged with a range of stakeholders over the years, including media. Here he was being interviewed in 2016 on the students’ #FeesMustFall campaign.

He would like to see USAf be responsible for knowledge administration in the higher education system. “The way I like to put it is that USAf is presiding over the knowledge reservoir of the country – the academics, the students.” He wants to increase public awareness of USAf’s importance in this regard by setting it up as the home of the database of the country’s research. That way, if anyone wants to be connected to a researcher in a particular discipline, USAf would be able to advise them: “We can connect you to so many academics at 15 of the 26 universities, which one would you want to work with?”

Recognising strength in diversity

It is about unlocking the power of all the universities, not only those known in the industry as “the big five”. USAf’s research database would also be available for collaboration to those outside South Africa so they can be directed beyond the well-known institutions.

“Not all the institutions should be like Wits, UP or UCT. We need to recognise Walter Sisulu University and its medical school, for example, which is a big issue for the country, not just for the Eastern Cape. I would like us to make sure these institutions expand their impact.”

He strongly believes that the public needs to be informed of research happening at universities –“research of significance, the research that makes impact out there. People should know that our universities are collaborating to find solutions to societal problems. Those solutions can’t be piecemeal. They are not one pill that will cure poverty or inequality in the country. But we are coming up with different types of solutions through research conducted at different universities but collaborating and converging over the same theme. South Africa has a higher education system with impact. And I would like to see USAf facilitating that impact.”

He hails from Stutterheim

With his two late-teen daughters, namely Sandiso (left) and Saneliso Mabizela.

A divorced father of three children in their late teens, the man who still calls Stutterheim in the Eastern Cape home, relaxes by cycling — not in slow ambles around the block, but in serious races to ensure he is on form.

He has done more than ten 94.7 Ride Joburg cycle challenges as well as some Cape Town Cycle Tours.

He does not cycle for a club because he feels he does not have the time to commit himself fully to the responsibilities of belonging to one. He already belongs to many groups: until recently, he has been on the boards of the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences and Higher Health (since its days as Higher Education and Training HIV and AIDS programme) – and Mabizela is not someone who does things half-heartedly.

Now that he is in a senior position at USAf ‒ where his skills and experience can play a role and where he is in a position to initiate changes and make its work even more impactful ‒ his influence on higher education in South Africa will continue to make its mark.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.