Her professorship a ‘pivotal moment’, says black academic

An academic from the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s school of built environment and development studies has become the first black woman in South Africa to obtain a full professorship in the discipline of town and regional planning.

Professor Hangwelani Hope Magidimisha-Chipungu’s latest achievement builds on an earlier first. In 2015, she became the first black woman in South Africa to obtain a PhD in the same field.

Her biggest achievement, Magidimisha-Chipungu told University World News, revolves around her ability to overcome the stereotypes that often define how a woman should appear and progress within her chosen discipline.

“Breaking free from these preconceived notions has been both empowering and enlightening. In a field where gender biases still linger, I have managed to challenge and redefine those limitations, proving that a woman’s potential knows no bounds.

“By transcending stereotypes, I have opened doors, not just for myself, but for others who may be facing similar challenges,” Magidimisha-Chipungu said after an announcement by the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) about her achievement.

She believes that, through her involvement in university structures such as the senate and various other committees, she has been able to shape the academic landscape and foster an environment of growth and collaboration.

In addition, she believes serving as a national planning commissioner in the office of South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has enabled her to contribute to South Africa’s strategic planning. Similarly, her roles as the city planning commissioner for eThekwini Municipality and advisory committees show her commitment to fostering equitable spatial development.

She is also the South African Research Chair for inclusive cities, and alternate chair for the South African Council for Planners.

Having grown up in a rural area, Magidimisha-Chipungu developed a curiosity about cities and city life from childhood. Maps intrigued her as she could look up different cities across South Africa – and the rest of the world.

When she grew older and moved to the city, her fascination grew deeper, ultimately guiding her to pursue the field of planning, geography and environmental studies because she realised she wanted to contribute to the creation of more sustainable, inclusive and vibrant communities.

Speaking about her achievement, describing it as a “pivotal moment” in her career, she said: “It’s a milestone that fills me with excitement and a deep sense of satisfaction as it represents the culmination of years of dedicated hard work. I am reminded of the hard work invested in research and teaching and I eagerly anticipate using this achievement as a platform to further advance knowledge in my field and guide future scholars.”

UWN: What has your professorship journey been like? What challenges did you encounter and how did you tackle them?

HM: My journey has been a dynamic and transformative one, shaped by a series of challenges that ultimately propelled me forward. At the onset of my career, I found myself confronted with significant resistance from my male colleagues and counterparts.

It was evident that my presence as a black female, driven by a fervent zeal for my field, was a departure from the norm they were accustomed to. This departure seemed to unsettle them, making it difficult for them to share the same table with me on equal terms.

One of the most striking hurdles I faced was the preconceived notion surrounding my age. Despite my qualifications and expertise, there was a tendency for my male colleagues to perceive me as their junior, a sentiment that, unfortunately, disregarded my substantial accomplishments.

This trifecta of challenges – age, gender, and skin colour – presented a perplexing and often frustrating situation. It was disheartening to witness how these biases could overshadow my hard-earned qualifications.

In the face of these challenges, I was confronted with a pivotal choice: to either withdraw from the table in response to these barriers or to remain steadfast and strive to alter the status quo. More often than not, I chose the latter path.

This decision wasn’t easy; it required me to develop a resilient, almost impervious, demeanour. The constant headwinds pushed me to cultivate a thick skin, enabling me to stay committed to my aspirations and goals, despite external scepticism.

However, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the invaluable role played by my support system in this journey. Without the encouragement of my husband, who believed in my capabilities, the path forward might have seemed even more daunting.

His unwavering support provided me with the strength to navigate the complexities of my environment, helping me reaffirm my worth and expertise in the face of the adversity I encountered.

As time progressed, I found that perseverance and resilience paid off. Slowly, but surely, my presence at the table became less of an anomaly and more of a testament to the diversity and inclusivity that should be inherent in academia.

While the challenges persist to varying degrees, they have become stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks, shaping me into a professor with a broader perspective and a deeper understanding of the significance of representation and equity in education.

UWN: There still exists a huge gap in professionalism in your area of speciality [urban transformation] in Africa. How can this gap be bridged?

HM: Addressing the substantial gap in professionalism within the realm of urban transformation in Africa requires a multifaceted approach that integrates several key factors.

One prominent aspect that emerges as a pivotal solution is the increased participation of women in this field. While it’s evident that gender diversity brings a wealth of perspectives and ideas, it’s important to recognise that women’s inclusion alone won’t suffice. To truly bridge this gap, a holistic strategy must be implemented.

To begin with, intentionality in urban transformation efforts is paramount. We must move beyond superficial gestures and proactively foster an environment that nurtures professionalism. This involves targeted initiatives to encourage the training and development of individuals within the field. By investing in educational programmes, workshops and mentorship opportunities, we can ensure a steady pipeline of competent professionals who are well equipped to contribute effectively.

Parallel to this, the translation of policies into action becomes crucial. Africa has witnessed the formulation of numerous transformative policies, but their impact remains limited due to inadequate implementation.

It’s imperative to establish mechanisms that expedite the execution of these policies. This could involve collaboration between governments, private sectors and local communities to streamline processes and facilitate timely execution.

A central pillar in bridging the professionalism gap is the creation of a collaborative platform. This platform would serve as a hub for knowledge exchange and shared implementation experiences.

By pooling together the collective wisdom of professionals across various regions, we can learn from successes and failures alike. This mutual learning process not only enriches our understanding, but also aids in avoiding redundant mistakes and maximising effective approaches.

Furthermore, embracing the notion of ‘learning from one another’ amplifies the collective potential of the urban transformation field. This concept emphasises the importance of cross-country cooperation, whereby practitioners from diverse African nations collaborate and contribute insights.

By transcending borders, we can tap into a vast pool of experiences, local challenges and innovative solutions. This synergy has the potential to expedite progress and elevate professionalism standards across the continent.

UWN: Are there any specific skills in academia that university students need to transform urban environments?

HM: Students need a combination of technical skills and a proactive attitude. The curriculum should equip them with urban planning expertise, addressing aspects like design and infrastructure. However, the willingness to engage, empathise and collaborate with communities comes from the students, themselves. This synergy between skills learned and the right mindset is essential for creating successful, inclusive urban transformations.

UWN: Do you think that urban environments across Africa are providing for the full needs of inhabitants?

HM: This is a complex question ... and the answer is leaning toward the negative side. This conclusion is supported by the phenomenon of young Africans migrating in large numbers to Europe at all costs, in search of better opportunities. While some improvements can be observed in certain areas of Africa, the majority of urban spaces still lack essential services and infrastructure. This migration trend highlights the deficiencies in these environments and emphasises the need for comprehensive improvements to enhance the quality of life for residents.

UWN: How can government stakeholders and academics collaborate to foster healthy urban environments across Africa?

HM: Collaboration between government stakeholders and academics is essential for creating healthy urban environments in Africa. Establishing a think tank that brings together their expertise allows for the development of context-specific solutions to the unique challenges faced by African cities.

This approach emphasises the value of local knowledge and encourages ongoing dialogue, leading to well-informed policies and strategies rooted in research and diverse perspectives.

UWN: In your experience, what should a good urban environment look like?

HM: A good urban environment should embody the principles of inclusivity and resilience, as these two factors are crucial for creating vibrant and sustainable communities. Inclusivity ensures that all individuals are welcomed and valued, while resilience entails adapting and enduring challenges.

This involves diverse housing, job opportunities and accessible public spaces. Green areas and citizen involvement are key, fostering unity and better solutions. Ultimately, combining inclusivity and resilience results in a city where people can flourish, requiring collaborative efforts for long-term success.

UWN: Do you think that studying urban environments in universities is essential? If yes, why?

HM: It is crucial due to the significant role of town and regional planning in shaping how people experience cities. This profession holds the potential to enhance the quality of life, especially in regions like Africa that face unique urbanisation challenges.

To harness this potential, universities should offer well-resourced degree programmes in urban planning to equip future planners with the knowledge and skills needed to make positive urban transformations.

UWN: How can young university people tap into your strides?

HM: Young university students can tap into my experiences as a global scholar by initiating contact through e-mail or social media, expressing genuine interest, and preparing specific questions. Proposing virtual meetings or participating in public talks can facilitate personalised discussions.

Sustained communication, updates on their own progress, and joining relevant networks are key to building a lasting connection. The focus is on proactive engagement, respectful interaction and a willingness to learn, as I am open to sharing insights with anyone interested.

Magidimisha-Chipungu can be contacted on