Prof Letlhokwa George Mpedi

Vice-Chancellor | University of Johannesburg

AfricaLive: Since our last interview, it has been announced that in 2023 you will assume the role of Vice-Chancellor at the University of Johannesburg. How does this development make you feel?

Prof Mpedi: It has made me very proud because I am a University of Johannesburg man through and through. I completed my master’s program at the University of Johannesburg predecessor institution and I also hold a doctorate in law from this university.

I rose through the ranks from a researcher to a deputy director of the research center, to becoming the director and then an associate professor. I then became a professor, head of a department, vice-dean, executive dean, deputy vice-chancellor of academia, and now the vice-chancellor. 

This growth makes me proud and excited. I am excited because I know this environment well. I know the culture and I am steeped in the traditions of this institution. Most of all, I know the vision that led to the creation of this university and it is something I can identify with. I also identify strongly with what this institution seeks to do which is to show that access and quality are not mutually exclusive. 

I knew that one day I would become a university vice-chancellor. The question was when and where? I am grateful that it has happened at the University of Johannesburg and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

AfricaLive: Do you intend to make changes to the identity of the university or do you see your role as building on the identity already established?

Prof Mpedi: Being a University of Johannesburg man through and through, I have been part of many university projects and programs that sought to move the university forward. When this university was formed, the first vice-chancellor introduced the Global Excellence and Stature Strategy which we bought into, and the outgoing vice-chancellor Professor Marwala built on that strategy. 

Professor Marwala introduced our fourth industrial revolution strategy which we called the Global Excellence and Stature Strategy 4.0. His successes are why our university is seen as the premier 4IR university in Africa. 

My predecessors did a great job introducing the Global Excellence and Stature Strategy and the Global Excellence and Stature Strategy 4.0. I will build on their work by introducing the Global Excellence and Stature Strategy 4.0 for Societal Impact. The foundation has been laid and now the time has come for us to take this forward and ensure that everything we do affects society positively. 

We are ranked by the Times Higher Education Ranking (THE) as first in South Africa in impact and pursuing Sustainable Development Goals, and second overall in Africa. We want to solidify our position and do even more to impact our local communities, the environment, our country, and the rest of the continent. 

AfricaLive: How can institutions ensure that research is not done for the sake of it and that we have more research that leads to a visible change in society?

Prof Mpedi: One of our mantras is the promotion of conversation. Conversation among various stakeholders helps create a ‘buy-in’ effect that pools all efforts and minds together. We back this up with resources to ensure that our vision stands on solid ground. Through conversation, we can define various community challenges and come up with targeted research that can be accessed and tweaked to solve arising issues. This effort aligns well with our strategic plan. 

The beauty of our strategic plan is how much our students, staff, and university leadership have bought into it. We were recently reviewed by the Council on Higher Education and the Council affirmed what we felt about how much our community members had bought into our strategic plan. 

Our Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment also recently received an accreditation visit from the Engineering Council of South Africa. That Council also noted that our students, staff, and university management team were all in sync with the strategic plan and vision of the institution. The buy-in was built through conversations with different stakeholders, which was then backed up by resources. The resource part is important because a vision without resources backing it will remain just a vision. 

AfricaLive: What are the key research programs or industry partnerships that you would like to highlight to an international audience?

Prof Mpedi: Partnerships help us overcome challenges that would be insurmountable if we tried going it alone. I am proud to see that we have big partners onboard. One of them is the Nedbank, one of the biggest banks in South Africa, which sponsored our program that focuses on advancing artificial intelligence technologies. This program is domiciled in one of our flagship institutes which is the Institute of Intelligence Systems.

Alongside this, we have flagship outfits developed to nurture entrepreneurial minds and help create new projects. This is in line with one of our goals, which is to graduate job creators and not just job seekers.  

We have the Resolution Circle. This is a company wholly owned by us that helps tackle the knowledge gaps in the technology industry. The company offers programs that equip students with the technical skills needed in the age of the fourth industrial revolution. 

We also have a technology transfer office that works with the private sector and linked to this is a company known as UJ Invent. This works on the commercialization of the university’s intellectual property by partnering with outside stakeholders. 

Other noteworthy partnerships include networks with government institutions to develop skills among students. We do this through government institutions that we refer to as SETAs in South Africa. This is important because we want to ensure that the impact we create through these partnerships filters through society and can be further developed to have an even more positive impact. 

AfricaLive: Do you feel like the private sector is beginning to understand and buy into the fourth industrial revolution and your university’s role in fostering it?

Prof Mpedi: Yes, the industry is switched on when it comes to how important our work is. I can tell through the partnerships we are having with companies like Nedbank. Our business school which differentiates itself from the rest by being a leader in 4IR and digitalisation of business leadership is receiving a lot of attention from private businesses. The school has seen an increased number of requests for in-house training by private companies. 

We have also seen a surge in the number of people who want to enroll in our artificial intelligence and 4IR programs. This demand has led to our faculties increasing the number of programs offered for these two disciplines. On 30 November 2022, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), the University of Johannesburg (UJ), and the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) established the Artificial Intelligence Institute of South Africa as an innovation engine for public and private sectors. We have launched a National Artificial Intelligence Hub hosted by our business school. This development is a vote of confidence in our ability to drive the agenda of 4IR in our country. 

AfricaLive: Please highlight three of your most significant 4IR-related projects that will drive high impact in South African societies in the next few years.

Prof Mpedi: The first one is the Gwakwani Village Project. I highlighted it first because it is close to my heart and I plan to build on the work put into it by my predecessors. I am passionate about this project because if we can replicate it in other villages, we can change the lives of millions of people. 

Gwakwani was a forgotten village in the Limpopo province with no infrastructure to speak of. A partnership between our Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, and a private company known as Schneider Electric has recently seen the village go from having zero infrastructure to becoming a smart village. 

This was done using solar panels with sensors that help our engineers troubleshoot problems from Johannesburg. They have also used solar to set up a bakery that has hired several people and have set up irrigation systems everywhere. 

This is a village that went from dull to full of opportunities for locals. It is an example of what university-private company partnerships can achieve. 

The second project is our 3D printing of concrete houses. We are still piloting this project as we seek to help address the serious housing shortage in South Africa. This technology will be useful in addressing the sprouting of squatter camps and shanty towns. We are cognizant of the fact that access to housing is a human right and we are working with the National Department of Science and Innovation to ensure this project has a big impact. 

As we move to the demonstration phase, we must think of the impact this project could have on industry workers such as brick layers. We want to avoid solving one problem by creating another. This technology will require workers to get reskilled to keep up with the trends of the industry. 

The third project is the Process Energy & Environmental Technology Station (UJ PEETS). This project is about improving the competitiveness of the industry in the green economy through the application of specialised knowledge and technology transfer. Here we support various capacity-building and policy-influencing initiatives to grow the green economy while providing engineering and technology solutions to support small and medium enterprises. 

AfricaLive: When it comes to embracing technology and the opportunities provided by the fourth industrial revolution, how can you ensure that humans are at the center of it and that the unintended consequences that may affect humans are considered?

Prof Mpedi: Every technology presents some drawbacks. As much as many people will benefit from these technologies, there will be people that may suffer. Our goal is ti minimize the risks as much as we can through reskilling and upskilling. It starts with acknowledging that there will be victims and then exploring ways to empower those people. 

Empowerment will help reduce or eliminate resistance to new technologies. This is why I have stepped into my role with impact as my main mission. The Gwakwani project is an example of the impact and one that we would like to replicate all over the country and region. 

AfricaLive: If you can attract more partnerships, what would be your ambition in this area, and are you open to international partnerships?

Prof Mpedi: We are very open to international partnerships. We are ready for partnerships on energy, water, and other areas that can make a difference in our communities. 

AfricaLive: On internationalisation, because of the legacy of Africa’s colonial past, many academics admit that there are stronger ties between African and European universities than there are between different African universities. 

What’s your view on internationalisation, and how can this be turned around?

Prof Mpedi: This is indeed true and I noticed it when I was deputy vice-chancellor. The tendency is to fly over Africa and go to Europe. Working with Europe and North America is not the problem. The problem is working with those overseas institutions and neglecting potential partnerships with sister universities here in Africa. We are working to improve relations between us and other African universities.

We have built great partnerships with universities across the continent and particularly in the SADC region. We have also spread our wings and linked up with universities in Ghana and Nigeria. These developments are positive, but much more can be done. 

As a visiting professor at the University of the Cape Coast in Ghana, I got to learn a lot about other parts of our continent. I realised that there is a need for cultural and knowledge exchange among Africans. This is why we have a program known as the Africa by Bus Program. We have recently renamed it to become the Africa by Bus Innovation Program. Students and academics get on buses and drive to other African countries just to experience the culture. 

The project has seen our students and staff drive to Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Tanzania. This has been an eye-opener because students who had never left South Africa got to travel and mingle with fellow Africans from other countries. We have engineering students from other countries who meet up with our engineering students and carry out projects together. This, coupled with the cultural exchange, will help open the eyes of our youth and they will see opportunities all over the continent. 

One of my fondest memories of this program is when I was a dean. We sent some students to Botswana and they got to visit a university plant where they make beauty products from donkey milk. Our law students, on the other hand, got to sit through a tribal court session to see how tribesmen were handling disputes. 

As much as we want to strengthen our connection with the global north, we want to do more in the global south. We have our eyes set on South America. I want to build exchange partnerships with South American universities so that we have vibrant student exchange programs set up. 

AfricaLive: As you seek to build new partnerships, what do you consider to be the building blocks of successful international partnerships?

Prof Mpedi: One of the building blocks is creating partnerships where the stakeholders are on equal footing. The days of big brother-small brother partnerships are long gone. Another building block is interpersonal connections. Partnerships are built and bound together by people, not the documents signed. The best practice is to make people comfortable and make it worth their while. 

When people from overseas universities spend 10 hours flying to South Africa, we have to make it worth their while. This is why we take them on Safari tours and also barbeque with them. We do this as we discuss exciting projects and partnership possibilities. This helps create bonds that last the test of time.

Another building block for successful partnerships is senior academics mentoring and bringing onboard junior academics. We have worked on this through our thriving partnership with the University of Augsburg in Germany. This partnership has led to the publishing of three peer-reviewed books and our professors bring onboard junior colleagues to learn. 

The idea is to have all our specialised professors working closely with a protege so that when they retire, their ideas and knowledge don’t go with them. This model has been adopted by our many partner universities such as the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia and many others. 

AfricaLive: We have had a few turbulent years in the recent past with South Africa bearing the brunt of the tough last three or four years. 

How are you feeling about the future of South Africa as a nation?

Prof Mpedi: I would say the future looks good because I believe in the resilience of South Africans. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for surviving some of the worst periods in the history of our country. 

It is true that our country is dealing with energy and governance problems but I see all this as a learning experience. We should learn from these issues and look to elevate. We must carefully choose our leaders as we go into the future and also take stock of the good things that are happening. 

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