Professor Francis Petersen (left), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Free State, has been elected the new Chairperson of the Board of Directors of Universities South Africa (USAf) for the next two years commencing 1 January 2024. He will be deputised by Professor Rushiella Songca, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Walter Sisulu University, whose two-year term will run concurrently with that of Professor Petersen, effective from 1 January 2024.
Professor Petersen rises to the Chairpersonship after a two-year term as USAf’s Vice-Chairperson – a position he assumed when his predecessor, Professor Wim de Villiers of Stellenbosch University stepped down from, two years ago.
An engineer by profession, he has a long history in executive and senior academic positions, including as a Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town. Registered as a professional engineer with the Engineering Council of South Africa, he has served as a member of an International Panel on Sustainability for AngloGold Ashanti, was a former adviser to the Anglo-American Platinum Beneficiation Fund and remains a Fellow of both the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and the South African Academy of Engineers. He has also served in senior positions in industry, including as a non-executive director on the Board of Royal Bafokeng Platinum. He is a former Chairman of the Board of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and a former member of the National Advisory Council on Innovation (NACI), among many other positions.
USAf’s new Vice-Chairperson, Professor Rushiella Songca (right), is, in turn, the first female to be appointed Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Walter Sisulu University (WSU). A lawyer by profession, she is an admitted Advocate of the High Court of South Africa and, for the past two years, has served USAf in another capacity as the Chair of the Legal Advisory Committee.
She previously held the position of Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic Affairs and Research at WSU and is a founding member and member of the Editorial Board of the International Journal of African Renaissance Studies.
The new office bearers were elected at the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the USAf Board that was held on the same day as the last Board meeting for 2023, on 27 October 2023. In accepting his appointment, Professor Petersen expressed gratitude to the Board for their confidence in him, and to Professor Sibongile Muthwa, from whom he is taking over the reins. He said he would continue to make Professor Muthwa his sounding board where necessary, in future.
Although Professor Songca was elected in absentia, having tendered her apology, she has since accepted her nomination and will resume her new functions in January 2024.
Speaking at the opening of the AGM, Professor Thoko Mayekiso (below), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Mpumalanga (UMP) and Chairperson of USAf’s Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG), lauded both the outgoing Chair and Deputy for having performed their functions with distinction. She added that Professor Muthwa had distinguished herself as a leader, saying her demonstrated abilities spoke volumes of her remarkable leadership prowess.
“It could not have been easy juggling so many tasks [as the Nelson Mandela University Vice-Chancellor and the Chair of the USAf Board] and making a success of all of them,” Professor Mayekiso went on to say. “You did a sterling job of leading this organisation through challenging times over the past four years. Through your leadership, you ensured that the environment in which universities operate was an optimal one. That you have continued to enjoy cordial relationships with our critical stakeholders, in particular, the Department of Higher Education and Training — being at the coalface as a leader — cannot have always been easy.
You thus carried the banner of women and remained true to the issues of gender justice, social justice, inclusion, equity, and active democratic participation.”
She had similarly kind words for Professor Petersen, whom she credited for “visionary and transformative leadership. Thank you for the excellent role you have played as the Vice- Chairperson.” She made these remarks ahead of the election of the new leadership, and, recognising that Professor Petersen had just completed his first term in office, Professor Mayekiso said “I have no doubt that you will be available in future to continue to provide leadership to USAf.”
In conclusion, the UMP Vice-Chancellor and Principal said the myriad challenges facing higher education, including the issue of funding and sustainability, student access with success, and many others, “continue to demand our attention. We thank both of you for serving us ably and so selflessly. We are comforted by the fact that both of you are not leaving the sector and that the sector will therefore continue to benefit from your wisdom in the years to come. Thank you.”
Professor Tinyiko Maluleke, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Tshwane University of Technology said he echoed those words and asked that those sentiments be regarded as representing the rest of the Board.
Other developments from the USAf AGM
Given that this was USAf’s first AGM after two new vice-chancellors assumed new roles at their respective institutions, Professor Muthwa officially welcomed into the Board of Directors of USAf, Professor Pamela Dube, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the Central University of
Technology, who assumed her new role from 1 January 2023, and Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg, who took over from Professor Tshilidzi Marwala from 1 March 2023.
Professor Muthwa congratulated the two for their appointment to the USAf Board.
Updates from governance committees
Other developments concerned several of USAf’s governance committees. The Board approved the revised Investment Strategy of USAf, as presented by the Finance and Investment Committee. The Strategy, in the main, is an instrument used to grow USAf’s funds and to ensure the best possible returns at the least level of risk. The Board also approved the appointment of Dr Reshma Mathura (left) to the membership of the Finance and Investment Committee. Dr Mathura is currently the Executive Director: Finance at the University of South Africa, and her membership is effective from 2 January 2024, for a period of three years.
Regarding the Audit and Risk Committee, the Boardapproved the audited financial statements of the Committee of Technikon Principals (CTP) and the Committee of University Principals (CUP), a combination of which is known as the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors’ Association (SAUVCA) and which, together with USAf, form a Group. The Board also approved the terms of reference of the Audit and Risk Committee as amended.
Still regarding the Audit and Risk Committee, the Board noted that the term of the current Chairperson,Mr Saleem Kharwa, expires on 31 December 2023. The Board approved and embraced Mr Kharwa’s offer to continue serving for another three years. Still within the ambit of this Committee, the USAf Board approved the appointment of BDO South Africa as the new firm of external auditors replacing PricewaterhouseCoopers, whose term comes to an end this year.
Another approval, granted to the Admissions Committee, concerned the incorporation into the Committee’s membership, of Dr Abbey Mathekga, now Director: Enrolment and Student Administration at the University of Pretoria. Having served USAf for many years during its HESA (Higher Education South Africa) days as Director: Matriculation Board, the Committee felt that Dr Mathekga understood the Matriculation Board well and could make a significant contribution to the running of the Admissions Committee.
Alongside endorsing the nomination of Dr Mathekga to this Committee, the Board approved a 7% increase in the exemption fee applications for 2024, considering inflation and the Matriculation Board’s declining revenue.
Within the Human Resources and Remuneration Committee, the Board noted that the membership of Dr Kgomotso Kasonkola, Senior/Executive Director:Human Resources at the University of the Witwatersrand, would expireon 31 December 2023. The Board also endorsed continuity of Dr Kasonkola’s membership, following his own declaration of availability to continue to serve on the HR and Remuneration Committee.
As Professor Muthwa (above) adjourned the virtual AGM and handed over the reins to Professor Petersen, she said although USAf had recovered from CoViD-19, which had necessitated meeting online, in the first place, “we have not recovered from meeting online. Meeting face-to-face supports our collegiality and networking, and to strengthening relationships. We must not give up on resuming our face-to-face interactions.”
On that note, she extended her gratitude to all the Vice-Chancellors in attendance and for their participation. She then adjourned her very last AGM (ahead of the upcoming Executive Committee meeting) as the Chairperson of USAf.
‘Mateboho Green is the Manager: Corporate Communication at Universities South Africa.