Earlier this week Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng was chosen as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town. "My goal," she said in her first statement as Vice-Chancellor, "is to transform the university while building on its excellence." Her appointment was undoubtedly important for the University and the transformation journey it has been on.
According to 2017 figures, there are 247 professors working at the University of Cape Town. 145 are white, 38 are black, 67 are foreign nationals and seven did not disclose their race. With these demographics, it is even more important that Professor Phakeng sits at the top. Who sits there matters.
The black UCT students on campus need to feel, now more than ever, that the person at the top might just understand their lives better. Students need to see that black South African women can be as successful as Professor Phakeng. And for all of the white students who never had a black principal stand before them when they were at school, it matters that they now see a black woman leading them. Her being black matters.
Professor Phakeng's appointment also sends out an important message to the schools that feed the undergraduate pool of students - many of which are former Model-C and private schools - about what is needed and what is possible. The demographics of the UCT professors is not that different to what we find at former Model-C and private schools when we look around their staffrooms. And, in these schools, there are very few black leaders sitting at the top.
Meneer, in the clip below, is one of the few black principals who does sit there. He is the first black principal of the traditional boys' school that he runs. Like Professor Phakeng, Meneer didn't get the job because he is black. He was chosen because he is a great principal. But that he is black matters.
In his school, the black learners, who are in the majority, finally feel that their principal really understands their world. Whether he does fully (they are teenagers after all) is not as important as their perception that he does. They feel they belong in that school because they look up at assembly each week and they see something of themselves. There is only one white boy at Meneer's school. We are pretty sure that seeing Meneer in a position of authority each day might leave him with a different understanding from boys like him at other traditional schools where most of the black men they encounter work in the grounds or clean the buildings.
It matters that Meneer is black. Schools like his need more people like him.