Father inspired new Rhodes VC

FROM a rural village to vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, Dr Sizwe Mabizela's academic journey to the top was encouraged at the knee of his working class father. "My father constantly told us he had no material possessions to bequeath, only education," he recalled.

A mathematician who grew up in an era when apartheid leader Hendrick Verwoerd said there was "no point teaching a black person mathematics", Mabizela recently made history when he became the first black African vice-chancellor in the 110-year history of the university.

Following in the footsteps of friend and mentor Dr Saleem Badat, the first black vice-chancellor, Mabizela spent eight years as his deputy before heading the university in an acting capacity when Badat resigned several months ago.

He said he had no plans to deviate from the Badat trajectory, which aimed to make quality education more accessible to talented but poor, rural and working-class students who would normally fall through the cracks.

Growing up in rural Balderskraal near Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, Mabizela said he was instilled with a love for education from the start, by his father Christopher.
"It cannot and should not be that talented young persons should be denied access because of their meagre means. That does not sit well with me. We can do better than that as a university and society."

According to Mabizela, it was vital to have diversity at Rhodes as it added "something special" to the holistic development of students.

"If you only interacted with people from the same background as you, your education would be poorer.

"It is very important to create opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds." He said the university was investing its own resources to raise funds to provide financial support for needy students.

Shipped off to boarding school, Mabizela later did his BSc and masters degrees at the University of Fort Hare, and even spent time hiding in Duncan Village before moving to Pennsylvania in America in 1986 where he did his PhD. He described the turbulent years during the state of emergencies in the 1980s when political activists disappeared without a trace.

"We were dodging bullets everywhere we went. They were difficult times. This was when apartheid was at its highest." Because of his own rural roots, Mabizela said he knew about the challenges faced by students from similar backgrounds.

"One thing that breaks my heart at Rhodes University is that, by and large, students come from better backgrounds." However, he added some students could not even afford toiletries and needed to be supported. "We need to sensitise our students that not everyone comes from well-off backgrounds. There is incredible poverty among some of our students."

Mabizela said he had an ambitious three-pillared vision for the town and university, which needed each other to survive. These were: working with the Makana Municipality to improve service delivery to everyone; playing a catalytic role in helping to make sure everyone in the town had access to quality education, and turning the area into a wireless city. — davidm@dispatch.co.za

Article by: David Macgregor
Article source: Daily Dispatch

Source:  Daily Dispatch

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