Dr Anshu Padayachee: Tributes pour in for HE trailblazer
Gender and human rights activist Padayachee, 69, passed away on 20 July. Being ill did not stop her from working until just before hospitalisation, as the pioneering chief executive officer of the Technological Higher Education Network South Africa (THENSA).
Speaking about Padayachee, a relative, who asked not to be named, told University World News: “She sat side by side with Dr Nzimande [who was a sociology lecturer at the time] at the former offices of the University of Durban-Westville (before its merger with the University of KwaZulu-Natal) and talked to him frequently about her vision for the higher education sector. He [Nzimande] would remember Anshu always had a firm hand and firmer voice.”
Her colleagues at THENSA recalled how she would pick up the phone and tell any minister how to put things right, and if they didn’t, she would be in their office the next day.
“Many a minister has dreaded Anshu’s call, including Nzimande,” said a colleague.
A life defined by social justice
Announcing Padayachee’s death, THENSA said in a statement: “Anshu was the heart and soul of THENSA, leading our company to new and exciting heights, dating back to our days as the South African Technology Network (SATN) [which was later renamed THENSA].”
Describing the late CEO as a ‘superwoman’ due to her exceptional work ethic, the statement added that Padayachee “maintained an unparalleled enthusiasm and commitment to revolutionising the landscape of higher education in South Africa, changing the lives of students and staff from our member institutions and anyone who was fortunate enough to be within her ambit”.
“Few people could match her passion for skills development and capacity building, particularly among young people, disabled people, black women and the underprivileged. Her life was defined by social justice and service to her country, which she always viewed with optimism and potential,” the statement said.
Academic and manager
As a manager, Padayachee was the acting vice-chancellor (2001-2003) and the deputy vice-chancellor of the former ML Sultan Technikon (1998-2002), which became part of the Durban University of Technology after several mergers in the South African higher education system during the early 2000s.
Padayachee, a qualified and registered hypnotherapist and a trained counsellor in domestic violence, had a DPhil in criminology from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom – an area in which she did groundbreaking work.
According to her professional biography, her doctoral dissertation on domestic violence was used extensively as a source guide for the promulgation of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act and the subsequent Domestic Violence Act. She developed and designed three training manuals and training programmes in domestic violence for the police, social services and crisis interventionists.
Padayachee also cemented her name in this space as the founder of the first NGO focused on domestic violence, the Advice Desk for Abused Women, along with Judge Navi Pillay, a top South African jurist and former United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the early 1990s.
As an academic, Padayachee had written and published widely in criminology, domestic violence, education and research, leadership and development and, more recently, produced works on the waste economy and development of the poor.
She had been a visiting professor and guest lecturer in countries across the world and has been the recipient of 56 international and national awards for community service.
She was supported in her endeavours by her husband, Dr Preggy Padayachee, himself an educator for many decades. The couple leave three children and three grandchildren.
THENSA originally began as SATN with five universities of technology among its members in 2006 but renamed and repositioned itself in January 2021 after a review of its work. It currently has 11 institutions among its members, with the Commonwealth Association of Technical Universities and Polytechnics in Africa and its nearly 200 members also joining THENSA.
Padayachee said at the time that changes in policy, curriculum and innovation agendas in the South African higher education sector prompted the organisation’s repositioning. Still, a further impetus emanated from calls by President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nzimande, who asked the sector to focus on science and technology to meet the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
In response to these calls, the network has also aligned its work with targets set by the South African government’s National Development Plan, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Africa 2063 Agenda while continuing its strong partnerships with business and industry.
Under her guidance, THENSA has set up various research clusters in areas including space science, work-integrated learning, or WIL, entrepreneurship and food security. She was also instrumental in establishing a science park consortium for THENSA as well as establishing partners between THENSA and university consortia in Europe, and other countries, including Ireland, Australia, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Italy and Spain.
Padayachee was on a first-name basis with, not only politicians, but vice-chancellors and other academics, as well as ambassadors, including those from the Netherlands, Ireland, and Sweden.
Dr Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, the first woman president of Mauritius and a scientist, described Padayachee as a powerhouse in the sector.
Ireland’s Ambassador, Fionnuala Gilsenan, told University World News that, when she arrived in South Africa in 2019, Padayachee took her to a meal at an Indian restaurant in Durban.
Currently in Durban as part of a Global Irish diaspora conference, the ambassador was reflecting on her relationship with Padayachee.
“She was unique, with a special kind of enthusiasm and passion she brought to her work. There was a tenaciousness to her, combined with vision. Anshu had a sense of possibility, despite all obstacles; they did not stop her from an ambitious sense of possibilities, which is what impressed me so much,” said Gilsenan.
Regarding the work Padayachee participated in, the ambassador said THENSA engaged in a partnership with universities of technologies in Ireland; in addition, there is a National Qualifications Framework shared between South Africa and Ireland, with plans to expand on regional technical colleges, which are now part of the universities of technology initiative.
The ambassador said Padayachee saw enormous potential in the partnership, understood that the relationship between the Irish and South Africa was uncomplicated, and saw the union as making a difference in society.
Gilsenan said she extended sympathies to the family via a phone call and could not fathom the severity of the loss of such a larger-than-life personality.
“As a person, as a professional, the gap she leaves is enormous. She is such a huge loss to the university community in South Africa. I hope that, over the decades, her works have inspired many who will emerge and assume the mantle,” she said.
Her funeral took place in Durban on 22 July.