TUT’s Zwelibanzi Mpehle a gentle soul whose untimely death left an irreparable void
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Professor Mashupye H Maserumule
Pretoria - We are told that life precedes death; there is no death without life; death is part of life; or perhaps, conversely, life is part of death.
Death is an inevitable certainty of life. What is uncertain is the time of death. When death strikes, no matter at what age the deceased was, it inflicts excruciating pain, so much so that a deathless life becomes our wish.
Science explains reasons for mortality, but not to the extent of how to come to terms with death, especially of those whose impact in society is invaluable.
This was my pickle at the funeral of Professor Zwelibanzi Mpehle on December 31 2020. He was the head of the department of public management at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and the president of the South African Association of Public Administration and Management – a professional association of academics and practitioners in the field of public administration in South Africa established to promote public service excellence through scholarship and research.
Mpehle took his last breath in the morning of December 27 2020. Complications related to hypertension, not Covid-19 as rumour mongering which has been doing the rounds largely in the social media peddling this falsehood, is the cause of his untimely death.
Outpouring messages of condolences across the country described him as a gentle soul, a generous human being, and a quintessential intellectual being in the service of humanity.
It is because of this that, as I was just about to take a podium at his funeral to talk about him as a leader of the faculty which the department he headed is part of, I wondered how I could even begin to say farewell to this outstanding academic and a colleague who still had so much to offer.
For example, his academic achievements had given us hope that we are changing the existing reality about the paucity of black professoriate in this country, not only for reasons of equity, but for epistemic justice as the core of the decoloniality project. That he was sharp witted with extraordinary intellectual consciousness was writ large in his enthusiastic embrace of efforts I had initiated when I was the head of the department, which he took over, to change the public management programme.
This is because I had found, in my various research endeavours that in many ways public administration and public management as fields of study in South Africa continue to show vestiges of colonialism and the absurdity of neo-liberalism at the level of their epistemological dispositions. This had to be changed.
Mpehle became a dependable ally in this pursuit, which resulted in the Council of Higher Education’s approval and South African Qualification Authority’s registration of TUT’s public affairs programme to replace public management.
An important philosophical proposition, which undergirded this paradigm shifts in our curriculum development endeavours, especially as it pertains to the teaching of students for employment in the administration of the state is that, in the words of Janet Denhardt and Robert Denhardt, “ government shouldn’t be run like a business; it should be run like a democracy”.
Of critically importance, among all his achievements, was his managing of the New Generation of Academics Programme, which was one of the best in the faculty of humanities, as in less than five years the candidate he was mentoring – Daniel Mlambo- got his Phd degree. The programme is a prestigious programme of the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation designed to replenish the aging professoriate in South Africa.
Mpehle’s life straddled various pursuits of human endeavours. He shaped lives and corrected many who were in conflict social norms, with his calm demeanour which many mistook, to their folly, as meek. Mpehle had this selfless posture - a rare trait in this rapacious world where selfishness has contaminated the moral fibre of society, and has hollowed out our humanity.
Many come to work, not to necessarily work, but to manipulate any opportunity that work environments create to satisfy their greed. Mpehle detested this. He understood the virtue of being a teacher, a professor and an academic leader as being about what is in the interest of students.
For a while, Mpehle was indisposed, but continued to do his work at home. He marked students’ scripts to generate their marks, which were submitted on time. I got overwhelmed by emotions when a colleague who works in his office shared his last sms message to her, which he had sent on December 14, 2020.
I want to share with you the contents of that message, just to show you his selfless concern for others:
Hi Josephine. I am at home and not feeling ok at all. I will send my wife now to bring the moderation papers for VCA (this is a code of a subject he was teaching). Please print the mark sheets for both VCA117V B5 and B7 so that she can take them to exams today.
This is what he did, when he was bedridden at home, just to ensure that his students get their feedback on their assessments on time. People like Mpehle are a rarity to humanity, and we can only wish to have them in abundance in our universities and the public service because they are an incarnation of altruism.
Beyond TUT, Mpehle was the president of the South African Association of Public Administration and Management. That he could lead this Association is because he epitomised what it represents, in terms of its commitment to contribute towards creating a just society. I picked up his extraordinary acumen in 2012, when the residues of the era that had been outpaced by the context of the epoch which had tried to re-inscribe themselves to disrupt the transformation agenda, and therefore hold progress at ransom.
Mpehle is one of those who fought ferociously against this revisionism. He remained true to the principle, and defended the course when some auctioned their intellectual souls for a place in the hegemony that defined them as the ‘other’. He refused to be defined as the ‘other’, because he has never been the ‘other’.
That today in the fraternity we have a premier scholarly publication – Journal of Public Administration, which the Association he led owns, and is edited by black intellectuals, vindicates the tenacity of his leadership to cognitive justice. He joined the pantheon of our course with an impeccable inscription of his name in the history of the fraternity, which include professors Yogi Penceliah of the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pholoso Disoloane of the University of South Africa and Dr Peter Veeran of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology. All these are soldiers who died with their boots on, fighting for cognitive justice in the fraternity. Their lives did not cease at the time when they took their last breaths. They continue to live in their legacies.
Farewell my friend; may your soul rest in eternal peace; you fought the good fight, you finished the race, and you kept the faith. You are the martyr of justice in the knowledge economy.
* Maserumule is Professor of Public Affairs at the Tshwane University of Technology and Chief Editor of Journal of Public Administration.