Home / Most Commented / News24.com | CPUT‘s new vice-chancellor hits the ground – and gardens – to restore glory

Building something great starts with the small details. And for CPUT‘s new vice-chancellor, Dr Chris Nhlapo, bringing back “the glory days” of the institution means starting with the basics – shiny floors, immaculate gardens and creating a space where campus inhabitants are happy.

In order to leave behind a university of technology that can be enjoyed by future generations, Nhlapho feels that building relations must be at the heart of their plans going forward.

“It is all about people; ensuring all stakeholders feel safe on campus [and that they] feel [that when they wake up] in the morning, they want to work and contribute.”

Nhlapo, 52, is not entering his office with blinkers. His recent appointment for a five-year term follows a year of acting in the position, a period which he describes as “trying times”.

The previous vice-chancellor, Prins Nevhutalu, resigned in October after the internal disciplinary committee found him guilty of “gross misconduct”.

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Before Nhlapo, Dr John Volmink and Professor Louis Fourie had both acted in his position.

It has been a time of instability and violence, with students disrupting academic activities and damaging infrastructure since 2014 in protest over issues such as outsourcing, financial exclusion and accommodation.

Damage to university property in 2015 amounted to R15m, peaked to around R35m in 2016 and cost R7m last year.

The university established a commission of inquiry in February to investigate key issues and a breakdown in relations between management and students. 

Ongoing engagement with students

On Monday, students at the Bellville campus stroll over green, manicured lawns and past plants hanging from baskets along the walkways. There is not a speck of rubbish in sight.

“I can safely say we have changed things around in terms of taking care of small things,” Nhlapo says with a smile.

He is a picture of calm in his somewhat dated wood-panel office, jazzed up with bright oil paintings and a golden chaise lounge as he explains his outlook in a sit-down interview with News24 on Monday.

He acknowledges how far the university has come but believes it is important to take stock of what has not yet been achieved.

The commission of inquiry will play a valuable role in this, he says.

“We have to go back and look at what went wrong, document 2015 to 2018, because it should actually go down in history as to what happened.

“It was Fees Must Fall, it was countrywide yes, but we were hard hit as an institution because there were a lot of other agendas that built up in the entire thing.”

What he has learnt is that students want ongoing engagement, not just communication in times of challenge or crisis.

“I have developed a culture of walking around the campus, grabbing something in the cafeteria, meeting students and actually talking with them,” he says. “While there are standing meetings between management and [the] SRC, more is needed.

“We need to engage with students at all times, listen to them and tell them what is possible and what is not.”

Respect and discipline

He is confident that everyone has learnt valuable lessons, including about engagement and negotiation over violence.

“Every student on campus is somebody‘s child. I start from there,” the father of two explains.

Respect and discipline from all parties are key.

“It is very important that if you say no [to] them, you have equally said no to your child. If something is wrong, it‘s wrong and if it‘s right, it‘s right. If something is actually wrong, I don‘t expect to be treated differently.”

The goal is not to punish people but to ensure everyone‘s rights are protected, especially the vulnerable.

Nhlapo grew up in the small Free State town of Paul Roux, walking long distances every day to attend school.

With robotics, artificial intelligence and big data playing an increasing role in society, he wants to equip students, so they can participate in the fourth industrial revolution, regardless of their background.

He wants students to know that hard work and “grit” pays off.

As for himself, he declares he is all for clean governance and a corruption-free administration.

“I can assure the community that with me, on campus, off campus, there are no (cutting) corners. We do things right.”