‘Kid from Katlehong’ has big plans for Wits
“When I formally take over it will be a different story, but having been deputy vice-chancellor for the past seven years, I’m more or less familiar, but know that stepping into the VC’s position, one cannot underestimate the gap between DVC and VC, I’m aware of it,” said the latest success from the East Rand.
Google Vilakazi’s hometown Katlehong (dubbed place of success), one will find that it is also home to football hero Sibusiso Khumalo, rap star Kwesta, and Tshepang Motsieloa, politician, among others.
The East Rand’s Benoni was put on the global map by Hollywood star Charlize Theron, but Vilakazi easily rivals her in the science community and is globally recognised for his expertise in physics and nuclear research.
“Professor Zeblon Vilakazi is the epitome of a world-class researcher who is globally recognised for his scientific work, and for his contribution towards developing higher education in Africa. He is a truly talented individual who is an inspiring exemplar for all Africans,” said Isaac Shongwe, chairperson of the Wits Council, the highest decision-making body of the university.
Vilakazi is the current vice-principal and deputy vice-chancellor for research and postgraduate studies at Wits. Under his leadership, Wits’ research output has more than doubled, with the university increasingly producing more research with impact.
He replaces outgoing head Professor Adam Habib, who leaves at the end of the year to lead the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, UK.
“For a person of my generation, the idea of even being a student at Wits, were one needed ministerial approval, the idea of being VC was so removed, as a student one had to bash all doors to get to Wits, many will know the challenges of being a student,” he said.
Vilakazi said as a vice-chancellor, he hopes that this prestigious post would help a stronger message to youngsters all over South Africa that a kid from Katlehong through Bantu education was able to go to some of the top institutions in the world and become head.
He is happy to be able to inspire youth as a beacon of hope.
Asked his key challenges once he formally steps into the hot seat on 1 January 2021, Vilakazi said he wants to improve infrastructure and prioritise safety on campus to creative a space where students walk about freely in an intellectual and creative haven.
Second, he would like to talk to students, staff and faculties, helping to create an enabling environment so everyone “feels that this is their home”.
The third goal, he concedes is harder, at institutional level making Wits University inclusive for all.
Throw into the mix the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, Vilakazi knows that he has his work cut out.
“Covid-19 has fast-forwarded the future of learning but engagements with telcons has enabled Wits to leapfrog into online learning,” he said.
Vilakazi has less than six months to work out his plan of action and vision Wits.
For now, he’s just taking it in.
“I am committed to working with my esteemed colleagues, fellow academics and smart, savvy students to create new knowledge and to develop the high-level skills required to move South Africa, and our economy forward.
“We also need to continue to develop the originators, innovators and critical thinkers who can help us solve the problems of the 21st century,” he said.