The Special Board meeting of 9 September proved to be a solemn moment as the Board of Directors came to terms with the final departure of Professor Ahmed Bawa, who has occupied the Chief Executive Officer position for the past six and half years.
Convened specially to bid the outgoing CEO goodbye ahead of his departure for an overseas engagement, the gathering was – understandably — not a full house. However, the central message in the Directors’ sentiments was that USAf was parting with a leadership giant.
A doer, solid leader and great achiever
Hailing from the Tshwane University of Technology, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Tinyiko Maluleke (left), said every country needs a USAf that functions the way this organisation has been run, under Professor Bawa’s leadership. “We wish him all of the best in the future, with great appreciation for what he has achieved in the Secretariat.”
A peer from Stellenbosch University and Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Professor Wim De Villiers echoed: “What a tour de force!!! It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with you, Ahmed. South Africa’s Higher Education sector is hugely fortunate to have had your wisdom. Well done! I applaud you and can only wish you well. I do look forward to interacting with you some more in future.”
Another well-wish came from Professor Andrews Crouch, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley: “Whatever you are going to reinvent yourself into, all the best, and go well.”
Professor Dan Kgwadi (right), recently installed as Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the Vaal University of Technology, said he and Professor Bawa had known each other from their physics days at the Durban University of Technology. “You’ve done a lot for the sector,” he said. “If I could nominate anyone for one of the Presidential Orders, your name would be a fitting contender. You’ve been a leader of note. But it is proper to say you can’t retire. The older and the more experienced you become, the more informed and knowledgeable you are to write a book that you can leave behind for future generations.”
Unique approach to navigating crises
Expressing what he called “a deep sense of gratitude”, Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of Pretoria added that “Ahmed was always alert to the crises in the Higher Education sector. How he negotiated unfolding situations and promote the sector was unique. I got to know him when he became CEO of USAf – we were once neighbours in Johannesburg, and, while sitting on the Gautrain we discussed a lot. He sounded a lot like a Humanities person.
He perfectly understood the role of the CEO: to promote the entire Higher Education sector, regardless of disciplines.”
Acknowledging that all CEOs bring with them their own style of leadership, Professor Kupe said he did not doubt that the Board would adapt to the style that Professor Bawa’s successor was bringing in.
Respect for every perspective
For Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng (left), Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town, Professor Bawa had stood out for his attention to detail. “As I congratulate you for your tenure, I also commend you for respecting every one’s contribution in the USAf Board. It was unusual to find all individuals being acknowledged the way you did, in this house. Because of that, I felt safe. With your willingness and open-mindedness to reason, you instilled a sense of fairness in our engagement. You acknowledged other centres of power amidst the masculinity of power which prevails in boardrooms but has not achieved much. You even acknowledged a firebrand like me.
“As Tawana says, all CEOs bring with them their own way of leading. But I appreciate your contribution and ability to bring us all back to track while ensuring that all of us contributed to the Higher Education discourse.”
A steady sound board
The final word came from Professor Sibongile Muthwa (left), USAf’s Chairperson and Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Nelson Mandela University, who said this of Professor Bawa: “You’ve been a steady sound board and a senior colleague with a deep sense of social justice. Your capacity to cross disciplines with agility was remarkable. In a short space of time, you placed USAf on a global platform in all spheres of science. I have personally learnt a lot from the so-what questions that you so typically presented in our Board engagements.
“Yes, we’ve faced a lot of complexities, but you walked us into highly politicised spaces with humility and fidelity. I’m very proud of that and, on behalf of the Board, the Higher Education sector including students, I am proud to say you’ve been quite a steady hand. As you change direction for a short while, you have a patriotic duty to stay in the sector. I will personally stay in touch while settling the new CEO into position to ensure some sense of continuity. Together with the Executive Committee, we will keep in touch.”
Professor Muthwa expressed the deepest gratitude to Professor Bawa who stayed at the helm for one and a half year beyond his preferred retirement age, as USAf searched for a successor. She also extended more gratitude to Dr Linda Meyer, whose imminent departure, at the end of 2022, Professor Bawa had just announced to the Board.
The Chairperson also mentioned that other Vice-Chancellors who could not attend this short-notice meeting, would be sending their well wishes to Professor Bawa, in person.
“We thank you, Prof Bawa, for taking this time to listen to our collective understanding of your contribution to this organisation.”
In response, Professor Bawa (left) reiterated what he had expressed to staff at the USAf Office, to the effect that he was not gone forever. “I will be in Japan for only six months, after which I will be accessible.” On special invitation by the President of the University of Tokyo, Professor Bawa will be working with a team on a knowledge project for the world. They will essentially be helping to mould Japan’s universities into social institutions.
Officially, Professor Bawa’s last day was 30 September. His first two weeks in Tokyo coincided with a leave of absence taken from 13 September.
Professor Bawa’s summarised bio
Except for stints with the Ford Foundation and with the City University of New York, Professor Bawa’s career has largely been in South Africa’s public university sector. From 1996 to 2022, he served in many capacities on the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors Association (SAUVCA), Higher Education South Africa (HESA) and Universities South Africa (USAf). Under HESA, he was a member of the Research and Innovation Strategy Group.
When he was appointed Vice-Chancellor of the Durban University of Technology in September 2010, he became a member of the HESA Board of Directors, later actively participating in the process of changing the organisation’s name to Universities South Africa in July 2015.
He was later appointed HESA’s Chairperson of the Board from January 2012, for a two-year term, following which he became the Chair of USAf’s Finance and Investment Committee, one of USAf’s six governance structures. He took up the position of USAf’s CEO from May 2016, a position he has held until 30 September 2022.
‘Mateboho Green is USAf’s Manager: Corporate Communication.