Outgoing UJ vice-chancellor dreams big about Africa

When outgoing University of Johannesburg (UJ) Vice-Chancellor Professor Tshilidzi Marwala relocates to Tokyo, Japan, next year, he has no intention to leave the African continent behind.

Marwala wants to ensure that his work to advance the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) does not stop when he takes up his new job in Japan.

As one of the continent’s foremost authorities on the 4IR, Marwala told University World News that he plans to engage more strongly with Africa once he takes up his new role as rector at the United Nations University (UNU) on 1 March 2023. UNU is the academic and research arm of the UN.

“My idea for this new role in the UN is, firstly, to advance the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are about the reduction of poverty and hunger, reduction of inequality in all its dimensions, whether it is gender, race and class, issues of sustainability, whether it is water, whether it is energy…,” Marwala said.

Following his appointment on 25 July 2022, Marwala was described by the UNU statement as an accomplished scholar and thought leader with multi-disciplinary research interests that include the theory and application of artificial intelligence to engineering, computer science, finance, social science and medicine.

He has an extensive track record in human capacity development and is committed to leveraging technology and global connectedness toward pursuing the SDGs.

He said this exciting new job, which puts him in a critical decision-making role at the UN, will be driven by a determination to mobilise people on the African continent “because Africa suffers more than any other continent”. While the role of the rector is a global one, Marwala said Africa was an essential part of it because many issues must be fixed.

The list of priorities he wants to tackle is substantial and ranges from climate change to development, issues of good neighbourhoods, examining challenges in cities or rural areas, and even space.

“Of course, that [space exploration] is very important but also mobilising people, including the people from the African continent, because many of the challenges that we face – migration, inequality and hunger and development – the African continent suffers more than any other continent,” he said.

“But the focus will be on a global role. Africa is an essential part of that global role because so many issues need to be fixed. So, I’m excited.”

Marwala said he wants to work on how 4IR can help champion the achievement of the SDGs. His next role will combine academia and diplomacy. “So, I am the rector of the United Nations University. But at the same time, I’m [at a rank equivalent to] the under-secretary-general of the United Nations,” he said.

Marwala is the third South African to hold a senior role with the United Nations. He will be walking in the footsteps of former UN high commissioner for human rights Judge Navi Pillay, and former executive director of UN Women, the incoming UJ Chancellor, Dr Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.

He described them as giants in whose footsteps he would be walking.

A secure legacy

Marwala’s legacy at UJ is secure. The transformation imperative was at the heart of his agenda. For him, it was about changing the mindset of people to be more developmentally oriented and to be more responsible for the environment around them to understand that as human beings, they have a role to play in society.

He spoke with pride about an initiative dubbed ‘Africa by Bus’. The initiative will see UJ staff and students travel into the rest of the African continent to understand its challenges and opportunities in order to play a meaningful role in the continent’s development. More than 10,000 staff and students have visited different parts of Africa on study visits.

The second area of pride has been his pet project to create a culture of reading on campus. He said societies that read are better developed than societies that do not. The Vice-Chancellor’s Book Club would meet to discuss books he had read.

He is also proud to have introduced a compulsory course in artificial intelligence (AI). He partnered with the University of Venda, Walter Sisulu University and the University of Zululand to offer them the AI course for free to help change people’s mindsets and create new 4IR champions.

Marwala says that he leaves the university in good shape and that his successor would inherit what he terms the most dynamic university in Africa.

The ‘most dynamic university’

With an audit of institutions currently underway by the Department of Higher Education and Training, Marwala is confident that UJ will have submitted more research output than any other university.

In 2022 UJ was ranked second by QS rankings, first in the Times Higher Education Impact Rankings in South Africa, and second on the African continent. He leaves UJ on a much stronger financial footing, too, cash-flush with almost ZAR5 billion (US$285 million) in reserves, compared to ZAR1 billion when he took office.

Although he signed a contract last year, Marwala knew that he was not going to complete his term. This is a a trend followed by vice-chancellors throughout the country who left early in their second term including the most recent departees, Professor Adam Habib at the University of Witwatersrand and Professor Cheryl de la Rey at the University of Pretoria, who, respectively, left to become the director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London and vice-chancellor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.

“I knew that a person of my age would normally not finish the second term. That was other people’s advice because, by the time I finished my second term, I would have been 55. And it was not the time to retire,” he said.

In his new role Marwala will oversee the UNU as a global think tank with 13 institutes in 12 countries.

He will be the seventh rector of the United Nations University, succeeding Professor David M Malone of Canada, who has served as rector since 2013.

Some were surprised by Marwala’s decision to leave, and there were rumours that South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa had asked him to reconsider, given his importance to the country’s 4IR project.

“I go to the United Nations not as an individual, but as a South African who was supported by his government. I don’t take that for granted. So, the president is behind me going to the United Nations; I fully consulted our government. I’m going to work for the world and will continue working with the African continent,” he said.