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Outgoing IAPO Director, Professor Kalula: “I leave with a heightened sense of humanity”

13 Dec 2017 - 10:30
Emeritus Professor Evance Kalula

On the evening of 12 December 2012, Professor Evance Kalula collapsed in the back of a car after one of his first events as director of IAPO. His heart condition had worsened and he was given only weeks to live. Miraculously, a donor heart was found just nine days later. Kalula underwent a successful heart transplant and after a period of recovery he returned to work.

“Now, five years exactly after that surgery, I feel the same way about my new heart as I do about my time as director,” he explains, “I feel grateful.” He adds: “Of course, that’s not to say that either experience has been without its challenges.”

A new approach to internationalisation

IAPO was created in 1996 with the mission to enhance internationalisation at UCT. “South Africa’s first democratic elections had occurred only two years before and at the time the great Deputy Vice-Chancellor Martin West had worked hard to show the leaders of African universities that UCT was an outward-looking institution,” explains Kalula. “Following on from this legacy, Vice-Chancellor Max Price emphasised the idea of UCT becoming an Afropolitan university.” At the time, the term Afropolitan was defined by Deputy Vice-Chancellor Thandabantu Nhlapo as “the university’s aspiration to embrace more meaningfully and more visibly its African identity and to play a significant continental role as one of Africa’s leading institutions”.

According to Kalula, the combination of these two ideas resulted in one of the biggest changes he has witnessed at during his time at UCT and specifically at IAPO: the broadening definition of what internationalisation means. “In the past, the focus used to be on mobility and scholarships. These days it is far more research-based,” he says. “The Research Office has done wonders to create an international research profile for UCT, but it is not just about the rankings: it is also about building long-term human capacity.

As examples, Kalula points to the contribution of programmes like the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program, a 10-year initiative to educate young Africans and provide access to quality and relevant education, and the Universities Science, Humanities, Law and Engineering Partnerships in Africa (USHEPiA), a long-running collaboration of eight African universities that focuses on building research capacity institutions across the continent. “I believe there is now a cohort of over 60 researchers that have passed through the programme and the vast majority of them have remained in their home countries.”

On the subject of new timber

Kalula had already been offered a nomination for director of IAPO before 2012, but he turned it down. At the time, he decided to get his full professorship first and pursue the research interests that led to him becoming an NRF A-rated researcher. “In hindsight, I am very glad that I had the opportunity to take up other roles within the university as a Council and Senate member as well as a Warden. This breadth of experience is also partly the reason why I feel qualified to say that when it comes to creating a new generation of young, black academics, I don’t believe UCT has pursued an agenda of transformation as aggressively as it could have.”

In contrast, Kalula describes the radical transformation programmes that many African universities undertook after independence. “If you look at countries like Zambia, Kenya and Ghana, there was a clear push to create a new generation of young, black academics in the wake of staff members that were often expats. These young academics were often given teaching positions before being encouraged to seek their PhDs at international institutions and then return home. The programmes were also centrally located in the chancellors office.” At UCT this task was devolved to individual faculties, and in Kalula’s opinion, it was often taken up with varying degrees of enthusiasm. “The result is that UCT has an ageing and still predominantly white cohort of academics and this needs to change in the future,” he says.

“Humanity is an ocean.”

“I do believe that the current challenges that UCT faces have rattled our partners,” says Kalula. “I believe you can see this in the fact that the study abroad semester has seen some declining numbers recently, and of course internationalisation becomes more of a focus when such things start affecting the financial bottom line.” He nonetheless believes that UCT is meeting these challenges. “It is my firm belief that in a 100 years this institution will still be flourishing.”

“When I became director, IAPO was a divided workplace and although there is still much to be done I am proud to say that I believe I leave it as a department at peace with itself,” Kalula says. “My hope in the future is that we can turn out truly global graduates and I believe IAPO has an important role to play in doing this by making local students our partners in internationalisation.”

Kalula believes that the creation of a student representative council (SRC) international desk is a step in the right direction, and that other measures ­ such as teaching lecturers how to deal with a diverse class of students that come from many different countries ­ are other examples of ways to create a global orientation for UCT graduates and staff alike.

“Perhaps it is because I was given the ultimate gift of a new heart,” says Kalula, “but I cannot help but feel optimistic for UCT’s future. There are important questions to be answered, but the questions are necessary. Personally, I feel enormously thankful. And as Gandhi says, we must keep our faith: ‘Humanity is an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.’”

Story Ambre Nicolson. Portrait Lerato Mokhethi.