the first black dean of engineering at a major South African university,
Raymond Nkado is breaking down a number of barriers for black students,
who account for half of the nation's engineering students.
entrance to the Great Hall auditorium, on the campus of Johannesburg's
University of the Witwatersrand, a young woman passes out practice tests
to the students streaming in. It is the day before the start of the
2002 academic year, and the students she greets are gathering to hear
the dean of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment deliver
his welcome address to first-year engineering students. As a nattily
dressed black man reaches the door, she holds out the test and asks,
are you a student? He pauses, replies, Well, yes,
and takes the paper. Dean Raymond Nkado, who is 41, walks toward the
podium, practice test in hand, to deliver his address. He doesn't look
back to see the young woman at the door, doubled over with embarrassment.
she can be forgiven her faux pas. Nkado, who took over the office just
this year, represents an entirely new phenomenon. He is the first black
dean ever at Wits. He is also the first African to run a faculty of
engineering at a major South African university. Though black students
account for some half of the engineering students at Wits, the sight
of a black engineering lecturer is still a novelty in post-apartheid
South Africa. Nkado is truly breaking new ground, signifying both the
hope and the challenges that lie ahead in bringing engineering education
into alignment with the realities of a new South Africa.
first words of his address, it is clear that Nkado is from a different
Africa than the one that gave birth to the students before him. His
perfect English is tinged with the accent of his native Nigeria, nearly
2,500 miles from Johannesburg. Though this might differentiate him from
the students, Nkado fits right in among new engineering academic hires
in South Africa, whose nationalities read like a list of delegates from
the Organization of African Unity. The Department of Electrical and
Information Engineering at Wits, for example, now has two lecturers
from Tanzania and one from Zimbabwe, all of whom are black. Another
25 faculty members in the department are white.
by their absence on engineering faculty lists are black South Africans.
The University of Cape Town has scoured the continent and poached Africa's
best universities for engineering academics but still has only three
black South Africans among some 100 faculty members. By contrast, 60
percent of the students are black South Africans.
fundamental reason why universities struggle to attract black South
African engineers is that in the 1960s and '70s and much of the '80s,
those same universities weren't educating any. More recent black graduates
have depended upon corporate scholarships in order to afford tuition.
These grants commit them to take a job with their sponsor upon graduation.
Once they have tasted the corporate life, luring them back for higher
degrees and academic salaries proves difficult. Cyril O'Connor, dean
of the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment at Cape Town,
says that any South African with a bachelor's degree in engineering
and four years of experience can earn more in industry than a senior
lecturer with a Ph.D.
Mohlasedi, who has worked in a variety of corporate, government, and
consulting positions, says that Nkado tried to lure him to academia
when the Nigerian was supervising Mohlasedi's master's degree at Wits.
But Mohlasedi resisted. I have seen some measure of poverty,
he explains. I wouldn't like to see it continue in my lineage.
Nkado believes that a first step in addressing the shortage is to attack
the pay differential. How can a university expect to retain the
brightest academics and then pay them the lowest salaries? he
asks. Something is wrong.
recruitment method Nkado will not endorse is the lowering of hiring
standards. I wouldn't want to pursue equity or transformation
to the detriment of the students themselves, he says, and
you wouldn't want to deny the contribution of your existing members
of staff. He backs the university's policy of equity:
choosing the black candidate when two candidates are otherwise equally
qualified. He distinguishes this from affirmative action, which he defines
as a situation where one candidate has 85 percent or 70 percent
competency, but because he or she is a person of color, you give that
person the opportunity.
credentials will give pause to anyone who might label his appointment
affirmative. From his bachelor's degree at Nigeria's Ahmadu
Bello University, where he was named top engineering student, to his
master of business administration degree from Wits University, where
he won best graduating part-time M.B.A., accolades have followed Nkado.
I, for one, always like to be on top of the pack, he chuckles.
Nkado also has a Ph.D. in construction management from the University
of Reading in Britain. Most recently, he headed the Department of Quantity
Surveying at South Africa's University of Port Elizabeth. (Quantity
surveying, along with architecture, town planning, construction management,
and property management, falls under the recently amalgamated Faculty
of Engineering and the Built Environment at Wits.)
Battle, an African American lecturing in mechanical engineering at Wits,
the significance of her new boss's appointment goes beyond the message
that, Wits is transforming and not stuck, as she says. More
so, it's that he's competent, she adds. I don't think anybody's
going to say that this was done for affirmative action. Nkado
himself says that he told the selection committee that if they would
hire him on the basis of affirmative action, then I didn't wish
to be considered for the post; I wanted to be appointed on merit.
Nkado does see advantages to his skin color as he seeks to motivate
students. My understanding of the role model is credibility,
he explains. You look at the person giving you the message and
ask yourself, 'What is his background? How can I believe him?' If you
look at that person and you have sufficient conviction that the person
possibly shared your experience, then you would believe the message.
means a lot to Neo Madigoe, who has just heard Nkado exhort a roomful
of future engineers to join, the Triangular Student Movementthat's
bedroom, classroom, and library. (Nkado regularly tells engineering
students that they should study 70 hours a week.) Madigoe, a recent
high school graduate who is spending a year in a Wits bridging program,
which introduces promising students to engineering, says, white
people are always telling you that you have to work hard, but now it
comes from a black manthat's true motivation.
also believes that black faculty can break down barriers for black students.
In the old South Africa, he explains, a student put this lecturer
on a pedestal, so that even asking questions or interacting with a lecturer
requires a lot of courage; it would be a different experience if that
lecturer had come from your community. Several black faculty members,
including Battle, say that African students who might resist visiting
the office of a white professor seek out lecturers of their own skin
color. Mercy Shuma-Iwisi, a Tanzanian who started lecturing at Wits
last year, found that in her first quarter, the only students to visit
her office were Africans, though she questions whether this was because
of a greater comfort level or a greater need for help.
University of Cape Town, Dean O'Connor has noticed that each year, when
a Zambian professor takes over the lectures in Introduction to Pyro-
and Hydrometallurgy for three weeks, the performance of the black students
in the course shoots up. O'Connor is so convinced of the positive impact
African lecturers make that he has created a fund to bring Africanincluding
African Americanengineering academics to Cape Town for six-month
teaching-and-research sabbaticals. This is not something we're
doing to be politically correct, he adds.
and students say that an equally important change has taken place as
white lecturers have become more sensitive to the rapidly changing complexion
of engineering classes. Mohlasedi spent most of the 1990s at Wits, completing
both a bachelor's and master's degree. He says that first he found a
general attitude for certain lecturers to go about their business as
though you do not exist. But, he adds, by the time I was
about to exit, things were very much OK; almost all the lecturers had
Nkado believes that the expectation of racism among students is now
a greater problem than racism itself among faculty members. The
students' perceptions that the academic has something against him is
something that we must deal with, he says, because it's
not always substantiated by facts. Nkado has even approached the
Students' Representative Council, seeking ways to reduce the perception
that lecturers are out to get you, as he describes it. I
want to try to get the students to understand that about 80 percent
of their success lies in their own hands and that they must use that
80 percent, he explains. It's one of the many motivating messages
that Nkado may succeed in sending, where a white dean might have failed.
Nkado transmits by his mere presence. I certainly hope that the
fact that I'm an African and have achieved academic and intellectual
success would motivate them, Nkado says. I want to present
a picture to the students of someone they can look up to, someone they
can say to themselves, if this person can succeed to the extent he has,
so can I.' This idea has already hit home with Bennitta Senyatsi,
an enthusiastic and articulate first-year student of industrial engineering.
Seeing Nkado at the head of the engineering faculty, gives Africans
a kick, she says. It inspires us. Senyatsi even sees
herself one day joining the new vanguard of black engineering academics
in South Africa. Who knows? she adds. I might take
his place to be dean in 25 years.
Boroughs is a freelance writer based in South Africa. He can be reached
by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.