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Tribute to Professor Peliwe Lolwana


The WITS REAL Centre Mourns the Passing of Founding Director Professor Peliwe Lolwana.

South Africa lost an outstanding educational leader at the end of 2023 with the untimely passing of Professor Peliwe Lolwana, founding director of the Centre for Researching Education and Labour (REAL Centre).

We at the REAL Centre feel this loss particularly strongly because the existence of our Centre owes so much to her vision, persistence, and leadership during our early years.

Professor Lolwana’s distinguished career took her to all corners of South Africa’s education system, where her particular approach to analysing and interpretating the facts before proposing workable, forward-looking solutions shaped many institutions and policy processes.

Her burning desire to provide more and better education opportunities for people outside the formal system drove Professor Lolwana to create the REAL Centre at Wits University. She believed strongly that policy solutions require thoughtful and engaged research, and that this exploration of existing realities would require much better insight into current problems and possible solutions. This led her to Wits, where the Education Policy Unit (EPU) had passed its zenith.

Many believed the EPU had served its purpose, and could be scrapped without replacement, but Professor Lolwana had a better plan. She saw an opportunity to build something new, productive, and capable of adding significantly to national and international policy debates. It initially remained the Wits EPU, with an added research program on education and labour. Rrealising that her approach needed a more appropriate institutional structure, Professor Lolwana took the Unit through the formal processes the university required to change the EPU into a Centre in 2012.

In the early days it was her thinking which framed a large part of the Centre’s research agenda. This was the start of what is today a flourishing research and postgraduate program with a large number of Masters and PhD students from across the African continent. In a context in which many people initially didn’t really understand what she was trying to do, Professor Lolwana patiently built the REAL Centre from almost nothing into a significant contributor to knowledge and practical policies.

She had a particular knack for building new, forward-looking institutions from outdated versions of themselves. She transformed the old Central Organisation for Trades Testing (COTT) into the Institute for the Development of Learnerships and Assessments (INDLELA), and served as its first director. Subsequently, she was the founding CEO of the school education quality assurance body, Umalusi, leading its transformation from the South African Certification Body and heading it for eight years.

The REAL Centre is one of several thriving children she conceived and pushed against all odds to build. Like all good parents, Peliwe did not feel the need to control this child as it grew, but left it in the hands of her successor, Professor Stephanie Allais in 2014. Prof Allais remains at the REAL Centre in the role of Research Chair of Skills Development, and was in turn succeeded in 2017 as director by Dr Presha Ramsarup.

Professor Lolwana nevertheless remained close to the Centre, always a quick call away, willing to offer sage advice and occasionally a gentle reminder not to stray too far from REAL’s stated purpose. She was always available for events, and to assist with projects. At the time of her passing she was working with REAL on a research program exploring community colleges as possible sites for supporting second chance matrics, and thinking about new work opportunities for young people in rural areas.

She was respected universally in all organisations she led. She never stood on ceremony, worked in t-shirts and jeans, often drove a small bakkie able to take on rural roads, lectured staff on reusing paperclips to avoid wasting taxpayers’ money, and insisted on all staff having tea together once a day. She read widely, drew on a broad range of perspectives and insights, and was open to ideas from people at all levels of the organisations she led. In all the places she worked and shared ideas, she exhorted staff to think critically and to reflect on how best to provide value to the public.

In retirement Professor Lolwana remained a formidable educational leader and thinker, often saying she was the busiest retired person she knew. At the time of her passing she was chairperson of the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), where she was leading an internal review process. Professor Lolwana was also the past chair of the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) and served on a number of ministerial commissions and committees.

Her ability to turn ideas into reality and her strength in bringing people together led institutions and companies to invite her to join boards, councils, and other oversight and leadership structures. She served in many commissions tasked with transforming education, among them the National Policy Education Initiative (NEPI), the National Commission for Higher Education (NCHE), and the National Committee on Further Education and Training (NCFET). She was a member of the Human Resource Development Council, chaired the East Cape Midlands TVET College Council and was a member of the Hotazel Manganese Mining Trust (HMMET) as well as the board of Conservation South Africa (CSA).

In South Africa, on the continent, and in the Commonwealth, Professor Lolwana served a number of education and training Associations, Boards, Foundations and Councils in various roles. She consulted to the World Bank, UNESCO, Nuffic, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), Norrag (the Network for International policies and cooperation in education), and the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), amongst many others.

Professor Lolwana held a Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She was twice awarded a Fulbright scholarship, and her research was over the years sponsored by the Kellogg, Rockefeller, and Ford Foundations and Swiss Development Aid, among others.

REAL owes a huge debt of gratitude to Professor Lolwana for the invaluable contribution she made to the Centre’s existence, direction, and significance in national and international policy formulation and debates. We send our heartfelt condolences to her family, colleagues, and friends.

Her fighting spirit, wisdom, commitment and dedication will be cherished and remain a guiding light to us all. REAL will always remain a tribute of her leadership. We will work to ensure that her vision and dedication continue to shape the future of South Africa’s educational landscape and to uplift young people, particularly those on society’s periphery.