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WSG's new Head of School


There is new leadership at the Wits School of Governance.

The new Head of the Wits School of Governance, Dr Mzukisi Qobo steps into his position in a precarious time but offers encouraging views as we navigate through this global dilemma, COVID-19.

The words you are about to read express a good blend of reality tempered with compassion. 

You start this chapter in the middle of a global pandemic, what does this all mean to you?

These are very extraordinary times that confound leaders and experts across the globe. It feels like we are in the midst of a hurricane. The era of COVID-19 has magnified our sense of fragility as human beings and shaken our certainty about what is normal and what we thought we knew. This health pandemic has forced us to re-examine the meaning of life and the value we place on economic activities in relation to our wellbeing and human relationships. It has revealed deep interconnections in the various aspects of our lives: health, relationships, social systems, and the economy.  

On the one hand it has awakened us to our shared humanity, and that irrespective of the station each of us occupy in life, we are vulnerable, we have fears, and we hold hopes that can be dimmed at a stroke. On the other hand, it has also cast a sharp spotlight on South Africa’s ugly reality, its socio-economic divides, and juxtapositions between poverty and affluence. It has rudely reminded me of my privileged position in relation to the majority of South Africans. More than ever before we are challenged to rethink the normative commitments of public policy and its allocative functions.

The challenge is not only for government but also for society broadly – especially those who are privileged as well as corporates – to strive for a more meaningful and a bigger cause – to equalise opportunities and expand the bounds of what is possible for many who are on the margins of society. I think this is an important challenge that leaders across all walks of life will need to rise to. Many of the things we thought we knew and the presuppositions we held firmly to before this crisis may turn out to be inadequate for preparing us for an unknown future, post COVID-19.

Many who were leaders in relatively normal times, relying on tried and tested routines, may very well need to reflect on their limitations, dig deep to find new sources of inspiration that could help them navigate turbulent times, and to have the humility to learn to lead anew, including taking lessons from those who may not have the formal title of a leader. I think we have a window of opportunity for self-renewal, for retooling institutions, and for taking bold and imaginative leaps to do things that were not tried before because bureaucratic structures would not allow it.

This era may prove to be regenerative at the personal, institutional, and systemic level.  So, for me personally, these are perplexing times that simultaneously trigger my own insecurities in having to navigate an unknown territory while fashioning a new map; and at the same time rekindle a sense of adventure in the possibilities to experiment with new and exciting ways of thinking and doing things. Overall, I am enthusiastic about the new challenge that lies ahead and working with a motivated team.

How important is good governance during a crisis and what is your opinion on how our government is performing at the moment?

Governance at multi-levels is under fire. Leaders are expected to create miracles and pull a rabbit out of a hat. The levels of expectations of what leaders ought to deliver are very high. The toolbox has limited options, so leaders will have to be a lot more creative and imaginative in solving complex challenges with limited resources. More importantly, I think, they have to have candour, grace, and allow themselves to be human and not be embarrassed by their vulnerabilities. This, obviously, will be uncomfortable. The governance structures that we are accustomed to may likely go through deep and painful process of change. This includes formal structures at the multilateral level, regional level, and domestic level. Multilaterally, new rules may yet be written, with leadership redistribution accelerating, as old powers give way to new configurations of power.

Countries will increasingly see value in coordinating and formulating collective action strategies at the regional level since systemic risks such as health pandemic diffuse across regions and globally at a lightning speed. At the domestic level, leaders will increasingly be drawn to transcend themselves and their functional areas and draw on the expertise and knowledge outside of their zones of comfort and spheres of expertise. Shared value will be the basis of collective action; and organisation of power and influence laterally to address difficult challenges in society, including those related to health, social structure and the economy, may become the chosen form of creating impact and improving implementation.

Governments can no longer be the only answer to societal challenges; they will need to work closely with a variety of actors, including business leaders, civic leaders, community organisations, and powerful individuals to augment resources and maximise the impact of public policy. So, governance as we know it may be altered by the events that confront us today, and we have got to reconceptualise it in a manner that is more diffused, that seeks greater inclusion, and that maximises impact, especially, for the most marginalised members of society.

And the predictable but necessary question for now, what are you looking forward to in this new role as Head of WSG.

I really look forward to working in an environment that affirms diversity, embraces a culture of respect, prides itself for excellence, and where everyone’s worth as a person is valued irrespective of formal title or status.

I also look forward to working with colleagues to engage in candid dialogues about positioning the Wits School of Governance for greater relevance especially in the times we live in; to respond to governance and public policy challenges in South Africa and the broader African continent; to attract talented staff and high calibre of graduate students; create a space where we continue to deliver quality academic programmes, generate great research outputs, and create an avenue for reflections and discussions on challenges that are at the heart of governance.

I envision this as a space where we bring in decision-makers to grapple with tough questions on public policy, governance and leadership. Importantly, I cannot wait to meet and get to know every single staff member from academics to professional support staff; and to work together with colleagues in building a great, impactful, and leading school of governance in the continent.

More about Dr Mzukisi Qobo

Mzukisi Qobo was previously an Associate Professor of Strategy and International Business at the Wits Business School. He was appointed by President Cyril Ramaphosa to serve on the Presidential Economic Advisory Council in 2019.

Qobo co-founded the Center for the Study of Governance Innovation at the University of Pretoria, South Africa, where he was also the deputy director.  In the past, he has held a senior leadership role in government as chief director responsible for developing South Africa’s trade policy at the Department of Trade and Industry. He has also led policy advisory work for government including on illicit financial flows (transparency in beneficial ownership) for the Department of Public Service and Administration; SMME Internationalisation Strategy for the Department of Small Business Development; and International Relations Strategy for the Gauteng Premier’s Office.

Qobo has been programme Head: Emerging Powers and Global Challenges at the South African Institute of International Affairs. He has written extensively on geopolitics, global governance, and leadership. He sits on the Board of Corruption Watch. He obtained his PhD from the University of Warwick, United Kingdom; MA from the University of Stellenbosch; and BA from the University of Cape Town.