Leaders in science and medicine are inspiring change


Today, the buzzword in leadership is “transformation”. Transformational leadership is a style of leadership where the leader, along with their team, is able to identify the challenges ahead and the resources available, is able build a long-term vision for the team and is constantly engaging and involving the employees to perform to the best of their abilities and grow professionally and personally in the process.

In September this year, two stalwart scientists from the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences (FMHS), Stellenbosch University, contributed to transformational leadership and were awarded prestigious accolades for the profound impact that their research has had on the health of South Africans.

Professor Soraya Seedat and Professor Gerhard Walzl were each recently awarded a Gold Scientific Merit Award from the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) that recognises excellence in health sciences. Professor Anna-Lise Williamsonfrom the University of Cape Town (UCT) was the third recipient of the SAMRC Gold Award in recognition of her work in vaccinology.

These gold medals are awarded annually to established senior scientists who have made seminal scientific contributions that have impacted on people’s health, especially those living in developing countries.

Seedat, who holds the South African Research Chair in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and who also co-directs the SAMRC’s unit on anxiety and stress disorders, and whose research has contributed to the field of psychiatry and mental health said, “I feel very honoured by this award and am privileged to have enjoyed the support of the SAMRC since I first set out as an early-career researcher.”

Walzl, who is the Executive Head of the FMHS’ Department of Biomedical Sciences and the Director of the National Research Foundation/Department of Science and Technology Centre of Excellence for Biomedical Tuberculosis Research, said this award recognised the work that he and his team have done in TB biomarkers, including work on diagnostics, treatment response evaluation and understanding protective immune responses.

He said, “As a team, the Immunology Research Group has managed to secure large international grants, make important inroads into the field of TB biomarkers, publish in top journals, secure patents and to be on the brink of establishing new tools for implementation in the TB field.”

Walzi’s advice to young researchers is to follow their passion and to team up with like-minded people following the same goal. “Find the best people to join and then work very hard,” he said.

Seedat echoed this message saying, “Perseverance is key. Small incremental accomplishments will pave the way for bigger successes, but this can take time. Challenge the ideas of your supervisors and don’t be afraid to ask. And never settle for less than what you deserve.”

Meanwhile, South African excellence in science and technology was also on show at the SA Innovation Summit (SAIS), which took place in Cape Town from September 12 to 14. One of the speakers at the summit’s many breakout sessions was a champion of transformational leadership, the UCT Vice-Chancellor, Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng.

I had met Prof. Phakeng a few days before the SA Innovation Summit, at an event hosted by Aspiring Black Leaders (ABL)—an organisation that provides networking events and educational workshops for aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs with the aim of increasing diversity within the entrepreneurial space—where she spoke on the topic of transformational leadership.

In her frank and disarming manner, Prof. Phakeng spoke of the various challenges she had faced along the way, about how these challenges helped mould her into the woman she is today and how they shaped her view of what it means to be a leader who brings about societal change.

Prof. Phakeng’s entire life has been a preparation for her transforming leadership of a venerable South African institution—UCT.

She was the first black female South African to obtain a PhD in Mathematics Education and to be rated an internationally acclaimed researcher by South Africa’s prestigious National Research Foundation—the intermediary agency between the policies and strategies of the Government of South Africa and South Africa’s research institutions.

An accomplished and much sought-after speaker, she has been invited as a speaker and visiting professor at international conferences and universities in Australia, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, India, Italy, Jamaica, Kenya, Lebanon, Lesotho, Mexico, Mozambique, Namibia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Senegal, South Korea, Sweden, the UK and USA. She has won several awards for her research and community work, including the Order of the Baobab (Silver), which was bestowed upon her by the President of South Africa in April 2016.

Prof. Phakeng was elected as a member of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf) in November 2007; an honorary member of the Golden Key International Honour Society in May 2009 and an honorary life member of the Association for Mathematics Education of South Africa (AMESA) in July 2009.

She serves as a trustee of the FirstRand Foundation and is a member of the Board of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG). She has served as a member of the board of the CSIR from 2015 to 2017.

Kgethi, as she is popularly known by her colleagues, obtained her first degree from the University of Bophuthatswana (now the North-West University) in 1987, majoring in pure mathematics and obtaining a solid 74% for her final year pure mathematics module. She completed all her postgraduate studies at the University of the Witwatersrand—where she also served for five years as President of Convocation (2011–2016)—which ended with a PhD in Mathematics Education in 2002.

Her career as an academic began at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she started as a Research Assistant in 1996 and left in December 2007 as an Associate Professor of Mathematics Education—and Founding Director of the award-winning Marang Centre for Mathematics and Science Education—to take up the position of Executive Dean of the College of Science, Engineering and Technology at Unisa in January 2008.

She had a successful tenure as the Dean at Unisa and was promoted to serve as the Vice-Principal of a newly-established portfolio of research and innovation on 1 July 2011. When her five-year term ended in 2016, she joined UCT.

According to her official bio: “Prof. Phakeng began her term of office as the Vice-Chancellor of UCT on 1 July 2018, where she had been serving as the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation since January 2017.”

Looking at some of her statements since she ascended to the office of Vice-Chancellor in July this year suggests that overall transformation, excellence and sustainability are Prof. Phakeng’s mantras. Time and again, in interviews and talks, she mentions the three words, as she did in her first missive to members of the UCT community on 2 July the day after she took office when she said: “Three key cornerstones of my vision are to promote the transformation of our institution, to ensure excellence in all we do and to work tirelessly to guarantee the sustainability of our institution for generations to come.”

In an interview she gave to a reporter shortly after assuming the office of the Vice-Chancellor of UCT, Prof. Phakeng stated that her priorities were the interrelated concepts of transformation, excellence and sustainability.

“Excellence without transformation is not sustainable, but transformation without excellence has no integrity at all,” she said.

In fact, from everything I could gather about her, Prof. Phakeng does not only talk about transformation, excellence and sustainability, she lives it too. For instance, in a complete (and for some) shocking, break from the past, she will not be having an inauguration ceremony. She said this is in line with her values and conscience, both anchored in a personal faith, which does not allow her to spend money on things she deems quite unnecessary when there is a squeeze on funds.

“I am the Vice-Chancellor and while it is not my money to spend, I will not have an inauguration, which costs about R1 million, as that kind of spending doesn’t resonate with my values. I know it is tradition and some people are upset, but I am sure I can give the university the benefit of my being Vice-Chancellor without spending the money,” she said.

Speaking at the ABL event, Prof. Phakeng returned to her theme saying, “Transformative leadership cannot happen if we choose to settle with the histories and traditions of an office. It is impossible to be a transformational leader without authenticity.”

She said, “I could go with the comfort, I could go with the status, I could go with the luxury, but I choose to stick with my values. You cannot be transformative without your authenticity.”

In her opinion, such money could be better spent on paying off amounts owed by indigent students who fail to graduate because of debt. Meanwhile, she has pledged 10% of her pay to fund black postgraduate students. This adds up to R200 000 per year.

She spoke of transforming leadership and explained this meant focusing on the various ways in which leaders are created and transformed (from being ordinary transactional brokers and dealmakers) to bring about real social change that, in turn, empowers those around them. Keeping the flag of transformational leadership flying in the field of his practice is Dr Howard Manyonga. Dr Manyonga is not only an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist but he also has an MBA for good measure.

In an interview, he said that when it comes to leadership, he believes, “The ultimate measure of success of any leader should surely be the magnitude and scope of their impact on individuals in their society, and beyond.”

When asked when he decided he wanted to become a doctor and what led to his specialisation as an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Dr Manyonga said, “I spent the formative years of my life on the Zambezi escarpment, in a place called Bakasa in the north of Zimbabwe. My father, who was a Teacher, was frequently asked to ferry the very ill and dying to the nearest hospital 23-miles away on a dirt road. The majority of the patients were accompanied by traditional healers and midwives, who were the community’s primary caregivers. It was here where my interest in healthcare and social issues was ignited. Another major influence, which led me to specialise in gynaecology and obstetrics, was my paternal grandmother, who was a prominent traditional midwife. She continued to practice long after I qualified as a medical doctor.”

As well as his medical qualifications, Dr Manyonga also obtained an MBA, which he found useful when it came to running his practice. “Running my own practice, which is essentially a small business, requires knowledge about budgeting, people management and, of course, risk management. My undergraduate and postgraduate training had not prepared me for the complexity that confronted me as a novice sole practitioner in a private practice.

“I was fortunate to have shared rooms with a senior colleague who, very early on, helped me to think widely about how to remain competitive. With his encouragement, I started spending two afternoons a week with a management consulting firm in Cape Town. That exposure convinced me that an MBA was the best way for me to develop my business skills in a complex healthcare environment,” he said.

Dr Manyonga previously ran a private practice for eight years before going into health systems management. He has headed Women’s Health at the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute where he led the effort to develop task-shifting models in maternity and cervical cancer screening. Most recently, he was the COO of Marie Stopes South Africa.

Today, he heads up The Birthing Team—a programme in which maternity care and antenatal education are delivered by teams of healthcare professionals. “The Birthing Team offers pregnant women an all-inclusive affordable, end-to-end maternity care programme at a fixed price. Our aim is to close the gap between maternity care in the public sector and the expensive private sector. Our model is based on a team structure where pregnancy and birth are overseen by medical teams made up of midwives, obstetricians, paediatricians and anaesthetists. We believe that when maternity care is delivered by a team versus individual practitioners, the risk of poor outcomes is reduced, and the patient experience is also improved.

“Our team structure is very different to what currently exists in the private sector, where practitioners don’t work together as a team and, as a result, there’s a lack of care coordination,” he concluded.

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Issue 58