Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, University of the Witswatersrand, South Africa

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by Sarah Marten

Professor Tawana Kupe works at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg in South Africa as the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities. His background is in media studies, and Professor Kupe is a frequent guest on South African TV and radio where his expert opinion on topical media issues is highly-valued. He moved to South Africa having previously worked in Zimbabwe as a Lecturer in Media Studies. He recently talked to Sarah Marten about his experience of working in South Africa.

Why did you choose to work in South Africa?

Before moving to the University of the Witswatersrand I spent two years working in Grahamstown as a Lecturer in Media Studies at Rhodes University. I was invited to apply for this job, after meeting academic colleagues at a conference in Mozambique. Rhodes University has a great reputation and is regarded as one of the best universities in South Africa.

The idea of working in the newly democratic South Africa where Nelson Mandela was still president at the time also appealed to me. Even though I had lived in Zimbabwe, I had never visited South Africa before, apart from passing through the country at the airport.  This was a very interesting time to be working in South Africa, and there was the feeling that this was the start of something new.

How was the move to South Africa?

When I first came to Rhodes University in Grahamstown I found the town quite small, as this was unlike anything I had encountered before, especially since I had spent several years studying in Oslo during my PhD. After a couple of years at Rhodes I was invited to apply to the University of the Witswatersrand (known as Wits) to set up their newly-formed Media Studies department. This was exciting as Johannesburg is a large city with so much to offer – lots of media companies and a varied cultural life, including film and theatre. Media Studies is relatively new to South Africa, and even now it can be hard to find staff with a PhD in this discipline.

I moved to South Africa with my wife and my two-year-old son, although I spent the first month or so over here on my own before returning to Zimbabwe to collect them. When I initially came to work here I thought I might stay for three years – the duration of my initial contract – and then move to another country, perhaps in Africa or further afield.

Was it easy to settle-in?

I found the transition very easy, as I have travelled quite widely and I had no anxieties about moving here. But my wife found it a little harder, especially since she was not permitted to work when we first arrived. Looking after our young son and then soon after another baby occupied her in the early days, although since then she has been able to find a suitable job and is very happy here.

Family and friends in Zimbabwe are not that far away – the short flight takes an hour and the drive six or seven hours. My wife and children go home fairly regularly, although the demands of this job make that less possible for me. There is also a large Zimbabwean community here in Johannesburg, so we feel quite at home.

People here in South Africa are very friendly and welcoming. Right on the first day I was invited to have dinner at a colleague’s house and from that day onwards it has been very easy to make friends. I speak Zulu and several other African languages, and although all the work at the University is conducted in English having this understanding is beneficial.

What about your accommodation?

Back in Zimbabwe we had been renting, and so with no property to sell, moving to South Africa did not present a big problem. The university paid our relocation expenses and we decided to bring our furniture with us having heard that this could be quite an expensive purchase in South Africa.

When we first arrived the University provided a lovely furnished flat, and once our furniture had arrived from Zimbabwe the rent was reduced as the university-owned furniture was removed. Buying property out here in South Africa is possible, but clearly depends on your personal circumstances. I would recommend renting first and then studying the market trends carefully before buying.

Did you need a visa or work permit?

Obtaining the necessary work permit was a straightforward process that took about two months from start to finish. I applied to the South African Consulate in Harare, Zimbabwe, and needed to complete a simple, albeit lengthy form and supply my passport and a CV. Rhodes University had already sent me the form and completed their part of this – they dealt with the necessary administration very efficiently. To being with this work permit needed to be renewed each year, although this is no longer necessary now that I have permanent residency. Becoming a permanent resident is a long process, which in my case took about two years.

How does the HE sector differ from the Zimbabwe?

Back in Zimbabwe the educational system is based on A levels and O levels. In South Africa students in the state system take their matriculation one year earlier, at the age of 17 and so have one year less of secondary education. This means that HE lecturers from Zimbabwe need to adjust their expectations and teaching, as students in effect have a year to make up.

Does the discipline differ?

Within the whole of Africa Media Studies is a relatively new discipline, and so Zimbabwe and South Africa do not differ greatly in the way the subject is approached within HE. We all look at the role of media in society, and the analysis, theory and practice of media. Before 1994 and the end of apartheid South Africa was behind other countries with respect to research – with countries like the UK, the US and Scandinavia leading the way. Although it remains difficult to recruit local PhD applicants, we are now a leading nation in the research community.

What are the South African students like?

The students here at Wits are very enthusiastic and generally very keen to learn. They ask lots of questions and are highly participative. Most are very hard-working, although being that bit younger are slightly less independent that their Zimbabwean counterparts. In South Africa parents are more involved about decisions relating to their children’s universities and course choices. Matriculation provides a good basis for higher-level study, although in my opinion does not give quite same preparation that A levels do. Students educated here in the private sector usually take A levels.

At Undergraduate level the percentage of international students is quite low at around 10%. This increases greatly at the postgraduate level where many students come from other countries.

The last sixteen years have seen momentous change in South Africa. The percentage of black students at Wits has increased dramatically, who now represent about 70% of our undergraduate population. However, only about 25% of the current academic staff are black, although this is set to change in future years with more highly-qualified people progressing through the system.

What sort of work are you engaged in?

As Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Wits University my role is very busy, as I not only manage a team of 600 staff, but have overall responsibility for our 9000 students. This also includes financial and HR management and planning. I still find the time to teach at the university most weeks, and also participate in various research projects. I am actively involved in the media, and belong to the Editorial Advisory Board for the media, arts and cultural magazine ‘Itch’. Many other media groups and organisations also compete for my time. I am also a judge/convenor of several journalism and media awards.

What are your working hours?

I tend to work twelve hour days starting at 7 am. I also work in the evenings on a regular basis, and occasionally at weekends. However, I try to keep weekends free for my family where possible.

What is the social life like?

I am quite well-known here in South Africa as I am often invited to speak on media matters for radio or television. This has involved meeting lots of people and meant I have made many new friends. We know lots of people in the community. This is an exciting place to live as you can watch movies from all over the world, hear fantastic music and visit great bookshops.

Game parks are another exciting aspect of life in South Africa, and my children have been fortunate to see varied wildlife in their natural habitat.

What do you enjoy about your work in South Africa?

I enjoy almost everything that I do here in my varied role at Wits University. Meeting with my Heads of Schools, Assistant Deans and heads of HR, Finance and Faculty Registry and planning strategic development for our faculty is very rewarding. I love the contact I have with students, and greatly enjoy teaching. I also teach on our master’s course, which is not part of my job description, but is something I choose to do as I enjoy it so much.

Is there anything that you don’t enjoy?

Some management meetings can sometimes be long and boring!

How has working overseas helped your career?

 During my time at Wits I have really helped to develop the work of the Faculty of Humanities and greatly expand our courses. The job has also provided so much opportunity to be involved in the media in diverse ways. I have no plans to move anywhere else at present but would welcome an interesting challenge anywhere else in the world!

Any advice for other academics planning to work in South Africa?

South Africa is a wonderful country to work in. There is so much to do, and things are happening here in a very different way now, post-apartheid. New disciplines are continually emerging, and the university community is very diverse. South Africa is attracting leading academics and it is a very exciting place to be.


Professor Tawana Kupe has a BA Honours in English and a Master of Arts in English from the University of Zimbabwe. He then moved to the University of Oslo in Norway for his PhD. Professor Kupe’s first lectureship was at the University of Zimbabwe, where he first taught Literature in English and then Media Studies. His next position was in South Africa, at Rhodes University in Grahamstown where he lectured in Media Studies. Professor Kupe then moved to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, initially working as Senior Lecturer in Media Studies before being promoted to Associate Professor in the same discipline.

Professor Kupe has been Dean of the Faculty of Humanities since 2007, and is also Chairman of the Media Monitoring Africa in Johannesburg. He is often asked to appear on TV or radio as a media commentator and is a member of various other influential committees and groups. Professor Kupe sits on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Journal of African Media Studies.

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