HE minister walks the talk by earning a doctorate

South Africa’s most high-profile recipient of a doctorate – Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor – is not yet comfortable with the idea of being addressed by her newly-earned honorific.

“Good afternoon, Dr Pandor.”

“Hello, I’m just a minister,” she said in a telephone interview the day after being capped with her PhD in higher education from the University of Pretoria on 16 April. Her research thesis, entitled “The contested meaning of transformation in higher education in post-apartheid South Africa”, took almost six years to complete, earning her a doctorate at the age of 65.

“I’ve stopped my staff from calling me ‘doctor’,” she said. “It feels odd,” she told University World News.

“Maybe I’ll get used to it,” she said, adding that for several years she has had to deal with being introduced erroneously at public events as “Dr Pandor”.

“I used to cringe. Now at least I won’t have to correct them,” she said lightly.

Trademark humility

In a statement on the University of Pretoria’s website, her supervisor, Dean of Education Professor Chika Sehoole, confirmed the minister’s trademark sense of humility: “After I agreed to supervise her, she set the rules for the relationship. She said to me, ‘Now you are my professor, I am your student. You call me Naledi, and I will call you Professor’. That was a shocker! I could not believe it, especially given our previous relationship in the Department of Education.”

Sehoole, a National Research Foundation-rated scientist, had previously worked as a chief director in the Department of Education under Pandor.

Sehoole admits being the minister’s doctoral supervisor was no easy feat since he had to call her by her name. But she was a good student determined not to produce a substandard effort, attending classes and awaiting her turn in line along with other students.

“She came to defend her proposal, queuing with other students outside the room, waiting her turn. She managed to defend her proposal in the first year of her studies, which was a remarkable achievement, given her tight schedule,” Sehoole said.

As a minister, Pandor is known to be accommodating to both the media and members of the public.

She said she personally registered for her degree and admits to having had a bout of nerves at being a mature student. But she kept her focus, determined to succeed. “It was a lot of hard work; certainly it has given me insight into the higher education sector,” she says.

National calls for more PhDs

Only a month ago at a conference at the University of Johannesburg, Pandor called for stronger growth in the number of doctorates being produced in South Africa. She said although she was initially reticent about mixing with millennials on campus, she believed universities should do more to encourage adults to take up continuous learning opportunities.

A former teacher, Pandor was first appointed to cabinet in 2004, steering the education ministry, and thereafter the science and technology ministry and the ministry of home affairs. She became minister of higher education and training in February 2018.

While conducting research towards her PhD, she said she had to reduce the number of meetings she took towards the latter years of her study in order to cope.

But the hard work has paid off.

Comparative studies

“It [the PhD research] has certainly given me insight into higher education, enabling me to conduct some comparative studies into how other countries addressed issues related to social equity and highlighted bold steps which we as a country still have to pursue,” she said.

Asked about her plans after the 8 May elections, Pandor was coy, saying she did not know if she might have an opportunity to put what she had learnt in her research into action.

Pandor, who already holds masters degrees in education policy and practice in multiracial societies, and linguistics, insists she would like to remain rooted in the education space.

Asked about her legacy, Pandor said she hopes that her efforts towards stabilising and improving the National Student Financial Aid Scheme would be one of the highlights, along with the government’s steps towards settling the historic debt owed to universities by over 52,000 students.

She also said she hopes the investment in infrastructure which she initiated in her previous education role in 2007 continues to assist in transforming the higher education sector and making it more effective.

While her achievement drew praise from political and academic intelligentsia, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, Minister in the Presidency Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and former public protector Thuli Madonsela, Pandor said her achievement has also inspired her colleagues, including Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training Buti Manamela and other officials in the department, to emulate her.

“It’s heart-warming to hear people saying that and being excited. These are among the contributions one has to make hopefully to develop our nation.”

But don’t call her ‘Doctor’ … just yet.