Wits vice-chancellor designate Zeblon Vilakazi. Picture: Supplied
Wits vice-chancellor designate Zeblon Vilakazi. Picture: Supplied

Just looking at bright-eyed nuclear physicist Zeblon Vilakazi you’d likely never guess how much he is fascinated by war. When he’s not poring over atomic nuclei and waxing lyrical about quantum computing, he likes to unwind with a good book about armed conflict.

"I’m particularly fond of war history," says Vilakazi. "Diplomacy, and how it fails and causes wars, and how people go back to the table again. I’m fascinated by that. By war strategy as well."

That fascination may serve him well as he prepares to take up the role of vice-chancellor (VC) at the University of the Witwatersrand. The institution itself resembled a war zone at the epicentre of the 2015 #FeesMustFall movement, which gave voice to the "missing middle" — students unable to keep up with university fee increases yet ineligible for financial aid.

Though the now departing VC, Adam Habib, was in the hot seat at the time, Vilakazi formed part of the management team, having come into Wits as deputy VC for research & postgraduate affairs in 2014. "There are good things we did as management and there were lots of things we could have done better, [but] you deal with the situation with the amount of information you have in front of you," he says.

"We were all trying to solve the question of how we balance our books. And clearly, there was noise on the ground that a 10% increase was beginning to squeeze — in particular the middle class.

"It’s something we could have been alert to, [we realise] with hindsight, if there had been early engagements. It’s about picking up issues early on, before they aggregate into a storm."

As Vilakazi moves into the top job in January, he faces the unprecedented challenge of running a university at a time of Covid-19, which has already turned the education sector on its head.

"If it were two years ago, or if there were no Covid at all, I would know what challenges we faced as a university," he says. "Funding, research direction, strategy, so on and so forth.

"But I think taking over post-Covid, or even during this crisis … will require a real sharpening of one’s thinking processes."

What Covid has done is to bring the future to the present, Vilakazi says. Though the university had deliberated about things like online education, "we never thought that the time [to implement that] would be now. We were thinking about it as something for the future," he says. "Online programming, teaching, augmented learning, Moocs [massive online open courses]. Those things were there, but on a small scale."

The crisis has forced Wits and other learning institutions to make alternative arrangements and provisions for students who do not have access to data and the devices that enable them to participate.

Class attendance is in fact higher than before, though how well remote learning is working will become known only after assessments.

Online processes for applications have now kicked in, and may also be used for enrolments. Student presence on campus in 2021 will depend on Covid infection rates, Vilakazi says.

It’s perhaps fortuitous, then, that someone who is tech savvy (to put it lightly) takes over at a time of accelerated digitisation and with a vision to lead Wits to the cutting edge of technology.

He’ll start with the reconfiguration of the university’s executive team to put into place a structure that speaks to his strategy, which will define the direction Wits takes over the next four years and beyond.

Vilakazi will also continue to push Wits’s research agenda, something close to his heart considering the university’s research output doubled under his leadership. Vilakazi himself has published 325 research papers and is highly cited.

He sees networks as a key enabler, and has established good networks with the likes of MIT university and technology company IBM. He plans to leverage his global profile to open more opportunities for Wits.

Though there are five months still before Vilakazi takes up the position as VC, his enthusiasm is palpable. "The university has given me an incredible mandate to take this institution to the next level, building on the successes we’ve achieved and having learnt from some of our failures as well."

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