Defend Truth


Prof Thoko Mayekiso — the SA woman who turned a golf course into a university


Prof Tinyiko Maluleke is the vice-chancellor and principal of the Tshwane University of Technology.

It would be difficult to find someone who has made a more outstanding contribution to higher education in democratic-era South Africa than Professor Thoko Mayekiso.

In his memorable toast to Albert Einstein, Nobel Prize laureate George Bernard Shaw distinguished between great people who build empires and even greater people who create universes. The very idea that anyone can create a universe is metaphorical, if only because no one can conjure up or duplicate space, time, matter, life forms and energy.  

Nevertheless, in his speech, Shaw contrasted Albert Einstein, the universe builder, with Napoleon Bonaparte, the empire builder, and concluded of the latter — somewhat tongue-in-cheek — that “it would perhaps have been better for the human race if he had never been born”. Shaw did not mean to underestimate the impact of those who have built empires. However, he argued that a lot more credit and recognition should be given to persons and institutions that enable us to gain scientific insight into the nature and workings of the universe. 

Psychology professor Thoko Mayekiso, the founding vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Mpumalanga, is one such builder of universes.

Professor Thoko Mayekiso with the Author (Supplied)

She was born in Mcobotini, a sprawling village set upon one of the many hilly inclines of Lusikisiki in the Eastern Cape. Mcobotini is not too far from the villages of Nkantolo and Mbhongweni where Struggle icons Oliver Tambo and Winnie Mandela, respectively, were born. 

Tambo described the terrain of the place of his birth and childhood as one that “commanded a wide view … as it swept from the vicinity of my home and stretched away as far as the eye could see — [where] the panorama bordered on a high range of mountains”.  Such is the idyllic and picturesque setting in which the village of Mcobotini nestles. 

Within Mcobotini, Mayekiso’s homestead sat smack in the middle of a “mini forest” of fruit trees, shrubs, flowers and vegetables, set against what Winnie Mandela’s biographer, Anné Mariè du Preez Bezdrob described as “vast plains of savannah, cultivated blocks of maize and other crops and clumps of trees”. The “mini forest” and the homestead were named Caledonia by the man who landscaped and diligently built it all, Thoko’s father, Sitututu Mayekiso. 

Thokozile is the middle and second child of parents who were educators themselves — Sitututu Upington Mayekiso and Nozipho Muriel Mayekiso, a woman who hailed from Qumbu. For Thoko, as it was for her two brothers, Monde and Mahlubi, getting educated was the family rite of passage deeply embedded for three generations into what it means to be a Mayekiso. At the age of four, Thoko Mayekiso accompanied Monde to school and joined the class of first-graders, three years earlier than she should have.

Her grandparents were part of the first generation of educated people in their villages. Mayekiso fondly remembers how her grandparents helped her with her homework at primary school. Most grandparents required their grandchildren to read letters for their illiterate grandparents in those days, not vice versa. 

Like father, like daughter

Her father, a high school principal, was one of Thoko Mayekiso’s greatest inspirations. He taught her geography privately while she was doing matric at Mfundisweni High School in Flagstaff. Being the only girl-child in the family, Mayekiso remembers how her father would often say to her: “Ntombi, you are a girl of determination. You must never lose that sense of determination”. Again and again, whenever faced with challenges, Mayekiso goes back to those words of encouragement. 

Her father considered Thoko to be the one child who had actively taken after him. For Thoko, this fatherly anointment was as surprising as it was heartwarming, because her elder brother Monde was as academically gifted. It was a tremendous boost to her sense of purpose. 

Nevertheless, Sitututu Mayekiso would have been a tough act to follow for anyone, especially his children. Not only was he an A-student of exceptional talent, but he was also an accomplished teacher and an over-achiever of note — Fort Hare graduate, high school principal and college rector. 

Being her father’s daughter, Thoko did not disappoint. She went to Fort Hare, where she completed her BA degree, majoring in geography and psychology. She also completed a BA honours degree in psychology. She went on to obtain her master’s degree in psychology at Fort Hare and her PhD in psychology (cum laude) from the Freie Universität Berlin.  Mayekiso is a registered Health Professions Council of South Africa clinical psychologist. She is a renowned researcher and postgraduate supervisor in her field. 

Starting as a senior lecturer at the former University of Transkei (now part of Walter Sisulu University), she moved to Wits University as a professor and head of school, before going to Nelson Mandela University as executive dean,  later becoming a deputy vice-chancellor there.

Her toughest assignment yet

Fast-forward to October 2014 when Thoko Mayekiso arrived at Mbombela in Mpumalanga. She was taken to a nine-hole golf course that hung off the side of a hill whose summit pierced the sky, along the road to White River. On the other side of the hill was a small, somewhat unkempt banana plantation. At the foot of the hill was a sprinkling of dilapidated buildings adorned with red corrugated iron roofs. 

When Mayekiso stood on that hill in October 2014, the University of Mpumalanga existed only in a Government Gazette, in the minutes of a university council meeting and more crucially, in her mind. 

The council of the future University of Mpumalanga had given Mayekiso her toughest assignment yet: to turn a golf course into a university campus. She was offered the disparate pieces of a former college, scattered in various parts of Mpumalanga, as some of the “material” with which to build the new university. 

Over the past 10 years, Mayekiso, project-managed the conceptual and physical construction of the University of Mpumalanga. 

I asked her if she would do it again. 

“Has a better opportunity ever been offered to anyone to contribute to the development of their own country? Of course, I would do it over and over again,” she smiled.

Mayekiso remains humble and sober about her role as the founding vice-chancellor and principal of the first of only two universities founded in South Africa since the advent of democracy in the country. 

She says all the credit belongs to the staff and students of the University of Mpumalanga. 

It would be difficult to find someone who has made a more outstanding contribution to higher education in democratic-era South Africa. Professor Thoko Mayekiso is an institution-builder par excellence, the creator of a universe, à la George Bernard Shaw. She and her colleagues have given South Africa a gift that will keep giving for decades and centuries to come — the University of Mpumalanga. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • David McCormick says:

    Well done Professor Mayekiso and your team. DM, thanks for sharing this information.

  • Sekhohliwe Lamola says:

    Dr Thoko Mayekiso’s story is like breath of fresh air in the midst of puerile and decadent political realm. One can only wishes that her life’s story inspire a whole lot of generation of great-builders of national institutions for positive posterity.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Unfortunately .. it seems that the cyclical nature of humanity produces not only giants like Gandhi but also the tyrannous, war mongers like Modhi … both with their roots in the same part (province) of India !

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    In your opening two paragraphs, of an otherwise lyrical meander of almost mythical dimensions, you describe what has become the obsession/pursuit of the ‘great’ by so many .. instead of the ‘good’ . Thanks

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