A vibrant academic atmosphere

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After being awarded a Mellon Postdoctoral Scholarship in the History Department in 2005/6, Professor Enocent Msindo was subsequently appointed as a lecturer on the Next Generation Academic Programme from 2007 to 2009, also funded by Mellon.  Today he is an NRF-rated researcher and an Associate Professor in the History Department.

Prof Msindo was in the United Kingdom at Cambridge University, where he completed his MPhil and PhD in History, when he saw Rhodes University’s advert for a postdoctoral fellow on H-NET – an online international interdisciplinary network of scholars and teachers that publishes peer-reviewed essays, discussions and academic jobs.

“At the time I was torn between going to the United States or returning to Africa,” Prof Msindo explains.

“I am originally from Zimbabwe but returning there was not an option because of the political situation and current lack of academic advancement opportunities. Rhodes, however, really stood out for me and the information I received from the University sounded very appealing.”

He also enjoyed the prospect of coming to another university town, but this time in Africa where he has wide-ranging research interests in African social and political history.

Mentored by Distinguished Professor Paul Maylam, who was the Head of the History Department at the time, and with vigorous academics on the staff, including Professor Julian Cobbing, Professor Msindo found himself in a vibrant academic atmosphere.

“Prof Maylam infused a wonderful atmosphere of leadership by example in the department, including taking on a heavy teaching load in addition to all his other university commitments,” Prof Msindo explains.

“He is also an outstanding scholar and mentor whose approach was to build on our strengths and to set a standard to which we could aspire. I have the greatest respect for him.

“As for Prof Cobbing … what an inspiring lecturer. In teaching history, he would bring students to a point of animated understanding of the relevance of history to their lives today.

“He conscientised them about their role in addressing the environmental, economic and political crises we face, including answering questions based in their current reality, such as why there is such violence in South Africa today.”

Prof Msindo says the vibrancy in the department was infectious and it attracted increasing numbers of students, with third year numbers doubling in recent years.

“We have a really stimulating environment in the History Department today. To enhance this, what we now need are scholarships for international Master’s and PhD students,” he says.

“There are so many enquiries but the research office hasn’t come up with funds for this. It’s important for academic excellence and diversity, and I am angry that I have lost many top-performing students because of this.

“These students could have developed into outstanding academics,” says Prof Msindo who also believes there needs to be far more transformation in the academic staff body, including greater inclusion of international academics.

“When I first arrived in 2005, I was shocked that the University was still so white, which isn’t normal for an African country. This changed quite a bit in Dr Badat’s time and has continued changing, though not enough.”

Prof Msindo says he was fortunate to be in the History Department where Prof Maylam was a strong proponent of transformation and the Next Generation Academic Programme.

“In all academic environments we should be far removed from calling people Indian or Zulu or, in my case, a black foreigner with permanent residence, but this is not always the case,” says Prof Msindo, who has researched and published on social and political identities such as ethnicity, nationalism and chieftaincy.

In 2012 Rochester University Press published his book on ethnicity and its intersection with other identities in Southern Zimbabwe titled Ethnicity in Zimbabwe: Transformations in Kalanga and Ndebele Societies, 1860-1990.

He is currently working on his next book in addition to lecturing and supervising five PhD students, all of whom are Zimbabwean.

“There is a strong link between Zimbabwe and Rhodes University, going back to the early 1900s. Initially it was mainly white Rhodesian/Zimbabwean students coming to Rhodes, but now it is predominantly black Zimbabwean students,”
he explains.

Education in Zimbabwe, which is modeled on the Cambridge system, is highly emphasised: “It’s a cultural enterprise in Zimbabwe and the government school education standards remain high because parents insist on children performing well at school. For many parents it is the only investment they can offer their children,” he explains.

Where Zimbabwe is strong on primary and secondary government schooling, South Africa is strong on university education.

To ensure the sustainability of this and given the ageing academic profile at all South African universities, Prof Msindo believes it is an extremely important development that lecturers who fulfill all the requirements of the Next Generation Academic Programme at Rhodes, are given a permanent lecturing post.

“When I joined the programme this was not formally in place and it was very unsettling for me to be in a position where I did not know whether there would be a post available in the History Department for me after the three years,” explains Prof Msindo who taught well, his valuations were good and he came with a strong research profile.

As it so happened, a post did come up as Prof Cobbing resigned. Should this not have happened, Rhodes might have lost a leading academic.

Prof Msindo adds that the programme, to CHERTL’s credit, has significantly developed over the past seven years, but that Rhodes still has a way to go in terms of its treatment of Postdoctoral Fellows.

“At Cambridge and other top international universities, Postdocs are treated as royalty and are highly paid,” he explains.

“I am committed to improving all these areas because I love Rhodes and I have made a life in Grahamstown. My wife Esther and I have built a home here, she is currently doing her Master’s degree and our children are at school here. For academics with a family, Grahamstown offers a good quality of life.”

Writer & Editor : Heather Dugmore

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