65-year-old PhD gradate doesn’t believe in the retirement concept

Delani Mthembu with certification confirming his PhD qualification, which was a proud moment for him and his family Picture: Abhi Indrarajan/UKZN

Delani Mthembu with certification confirming his PhD qualification, which was a proud moment for him and his family Picture: Abhi Indrarajan/UKZN

Published Sep 25, 2022


Durban - “It’s done.” That was the relief and feeling of accomplishment expressed by 65-year-old Dr Mlamuli Mthembu, who graduated with a PhD in leadership studies from the University of KwaZulu-Natal this week.

Mthembu, who was born and raised in Nquthu, northern KZN, but now lives in Bedfordview, Gauteng, was among many who featured at UKZN’s Spring graduation ceremonies this week.

As a former school teacher and principal, Mthembu is passionate about empowering educationists. He has evolved over the years into a leadership expert and coach working with top executives.

School leadership, in the context of the current complex and emerging dynamics of education, became the basis for his PhD research topic.

Given his dynamism and in-depth knowledge of subjects when he lectured part-time at universities, those who came under his tutelage often referred to him as “doctor” or “professor” before he achieved this latest title.

It motivated Mthembu, an Anglican priest who also worked in the public and private sectors previously, to pursue his PhD.

“The students referring to me as doctor and professor came from their appreciation of the knowledge and insights I shared with them.”

And he said he was blessed to have been mentored by many people who were “achievers” since his young days.

“Those two factors motivated me to join the club and complete the journey of achieving my PhD”.

Besides, Mthembu doesn’t believe in the “concept of retirement”.

“I believe people can change the kind of work they do at a mature age. We need input and insight. We need people to share work environment experiences they’ve gathered. That’s why I kept going because I wanted to make a contribution.”

The PhD journey began in 2015, with his research proposal going through rigorous vetting processes before securing approval, which came a year later.

As a distance student, Mthembu couldn’t attend course tutorials and also listed the process of gathering information from his research samples as another challenge.

Those included 14 Gauteng schools, education officials and NGOs, which required meticulous planning and much travel.

Making sense of volumes of data was his next big mission.

“While I like studying information, I am not a data analyst. So I had to get assistance from my daughter, friends and my son, who is also a PhD researcher.

“That was a learning experience,” Mthembu quipped.

“The PhD is the pinnacle of all my achievements. It is special when I look back seeing that it was done via correspondence.”

Mthembu said he always paid for his studies just as he had been doing since his school days.

His parents inculcated a determination to be “independent” from a young age.

“They wanted to teach us how to take responsibility for ourselves. I was born in Nquthu and schooled in Nkandla, a very rural area. As a child, you juggle between family chores, which includes herding cattle, and school work.

“During holidays, we worked for ourselves with uncles in Joburg to earn some cash.

“Our parents could provide for us, but they wanted us to take responsibility for our own lives,” he said.

Some key aspects that Mthembu believed educationists and leaders like principals needed to consider to successfully execute their duties included understanding the environment their school existed in and the constitutional responsibilities of their positions.

“You have to be a facilitator, influencer and mediator, while having to be firm on what needs to be done.

“They must have an aura, authority, respect, trustworthiness and inspirational presence that motivates people from all types of backgrounds.”

Mthembu said, ultimately, these leaders needed to assess whether they were producing calibre pupils who would add value to society.

On what’s left for him to achieve, Mthembu said: “I want to share my research widely, dissect it into pieces so that people can indulge in it in small bits.”