Fulu Netswera. Picture: SUPPLIED
Fulu Netswera. Picture: SUPPLIED

When Fulu Netswera was first approached to become director of North West University’s (NWU) Graduate School of Business & Government Leadership, he hesitated. The school is based in Potchefstroom, which, like the university, is sometimes perceived as a bastion of Afrikanerdom.

"I thought: ‘I’m not going there, it’s a white town’," he recalls. But the university’s headhunters persisted and he was persuaded to take the job in January. "I said I would see how things pan out."

As it happens, they’ve panned out quite well. "There’s been no hostility to my presence," he says. "People across the school and university have been very welcoming."

That’s just as well, because Netswera has some delicate decisions to make in coming months. One involves transformation. Of the school’s 26 full-time faculty, only two are black. Most of the others are Afrikaners. There’s a similar imbalance among part-time lecturers. Most MBA students are black.

He wants to appoint more black full-time academics, but first he has to find them. SA business schools can’t compete with salaries thrown by business and industry at young black SA talent. There can be no question of employing second-tier academics, because that would undermine everything the school has striven for in recent years.

It is accredited by the UK-based Association of MBAs and is preparing to pursue accreditation with the US-based Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. International affiliations are major drawcards for students and corporate customers.

Netswera says: "There can be no cutting of corners. Black or white, everyone must meet the standards we and our partners demand."

His second "eggshell" challenge relates to the use of Afrikaans as a teaching medium. The school is one of only two (with Free State University) offering MBA lectures in the language. Netswera says many Afrikaans-speaking students accept that it makes sense to be taught in English, the international business language. But a number of local employers, some of which sponsor students, want to retain Afrikaans for cultural reasons. A possible compromise is to use the language for block-release programmes.

Netswera is also involved in softening the merger of formerly independent institutions that make up the NWU school. The old Potchefstroom Business School catered for the private sector, while a Mafikeng school looked after government. Both campuses — and a third, satellite one, in Vanderbijlpark — are now part of a unified school. But differences in approach still exist. "I think it will take another year to get everything in place," he says.

Netswera, 47, who replaced the long-serving Tommy du Plessis as director, previously headed the Turfloop Graduate School of Leadership at Limpopo University. His academic qualifications include a master’s and doctorate in philosophy from Stellenbosch University and a postgraduate diploma in management studies from the UK. He was a chief researcher at the Human Sciences Research Council, a senior researcher at the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research, and research management director at Unisa.