GETTING TO KNOW….Dr Oscar van Heerden- Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Institutional Support

Read time: 8 mins

On 1st June 2021 the University of Fort Hare (UFH) welcomed a highly accomplished intellectual, Dr Oscar van Heerden who joined the institution as its new Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Support (DVC-IS).

He joined the UFH from Stellenbosch University where he held the role of Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the Faculty of Military Sciences.

Dr van Heerden holds an MPhil and PhD from the University of Cambridge, both in International Relations. His intellectual interests are in international political economy with an emphasis on Africa and SADC in particular. He is the author of two single-authored books, Consistent or Confused? The politics of Mbeki’s foreign policy 1995-2007, with Jacana Media (Staging Post) and Two Minutes to Midnight: Will Ramaphosa’s ANC survive? also from Jacana. He is a public intellectual and a regular contributor in the Daily Maverick publication.

He serves on the Councils of two other higher education institutions - the University of Venda and East Midlands TVET College.

Exactly one month into his new role, Dr van Heerden took a few minutes out of his busy schedule to share with ThisWeek@FortHare a bit about himself and his plans for his portfolio.

Please share a bit about your professional background?

My professional background is why I felt comfortable applying for this position at UFH. In large parts, but not exclusively, my new role involves stakeholder management – internally and externally.

 I have occupied a number of executive roles over the years. This includes the ANC Head Office (Luthuli House) in Johannesburg back when it was still Shell House in the late 1990s.  I then worked at the South African Qualifications Authority and moved to Management Consulting in one of my own companies. Thereafter, I joined Local Government where I worked in various professional capacities in the City of Johannesburg in one of its entities, Parks and Zoo.

From there onwards I joined the University of Johannesburg as an Executive Director for Internationalisation, looking particularly at the international portfolio of the university. I then worked for Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflections (Mistra) - an independent think tank that takes a long-term view on the strategic challenges facing South Africa, the continent and the globe.  Most recently I was with Stellenbosch University.

My portfolio centres on strategy and stakeholder management, both areas I am familiar with, having been active in student and youth organisations and various civil society structures. I have acquired a skill set that works very well with stakeholders such as organised labour and student structures such as the SRC (Student Representative Council) as well as inter-governmental relations.

 

Personal Life

I hail from the Cape Flats in the Western Cape. I was born in Retreat and spent my formative years in Mitchell’s Plain. I am married and a father to twins, Ayanda and Tessa Andile.

 

Hobbies and Interests                            

I enjoy walking. Everything associated with walking, leisurely, casually and also hiking. I like hunting, I know a lot of people have different opinions about hunting, but I really enjoy it.

I also read, mostly non-fiction but not exclusively. I have just finished a very good book titled: Begin Again by Eddie Glaude. Currently, because of my new position, I am reading the First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins.

2. What motivated you to come to the University of Fort Hare?

First and foremost, it is the legacy of the university. One cannot deny this institution is home to legends who are the heroes of anti-apartheid struggle. But also, I am attracted to the challenge of renewal. It is common knowledge that the university came out of a difficult period of being placed under administration.  This usually points to serious administrative and operational deficiencies.

I want to be part of the process of putting the university back on its rightful path -  to reclaim its legacy and standing in the country -  as an institution of higher learning where quality research and qualifications are the order of the day.

3. What are the key focus areas of your portfolio?

My role lends support to the entire institution. The core mandate of a university is teaching, learning, research and community engagement and there are other DVCs who are responsible for that mandate.  I am responsible for everything outside of that core mandate.

My portfolio consists of:

  • Corporate Services (Human Resources);
  • Properties and Services;
  • Information Communication Technology (ICT) and;
  • Service Delivery Bulk Infrastructure.

 4. What is your approach to executing key responsibilities?

My first approach is to get a sense of the landscape within all the departments under my watch. To understand the landscape and identify some of the deficiencies and also identify the kind of human resources that are required to actually execute the strategy.

For example, under corporate services we talk of a regeneration strategy in which we really want to bring in systems that are going to be beneficial to human resource development within the institution.

Under Properties and Services we are looking into what is required from a bulk infrastructure point of view. What is the need over the next few years to ensure our lecture rooms, science labs and WiFi are actually in keeping with advancing quality teaching, learning and research work.

From an ICT point of view, the strategy is to ensure we put in place the necessary infrastructure in terms of bandwidth, availability of data, keeping costs low and negotiating with service providers for the best outcome for our students and staff.

Whatever I do in my portfolio feeds into the strategic objectives of the university. I conceptualise and provide strategic direction within the portfolios.  I also oversee the management and development of physical infrastructure on all campuses, develop and maintain effective working relationships with key government and private organisations, partners and stakeholders. And of course, ensure financial stability in my portfolio.

In your first 30 days in office which areas have you identified as pockets of excellence and which ones require strengthening?

Pockets of Excellence

  • The first thing to mention is the fact that there is a new, full complement senior management team. The VC, Prof Sakhela Buhlungu really took time to put together a very good executive management team that will be able to execute the strategy and implement the necessary plans to take the university forward on its path to renewal.
  • The other notable achievement is that we have made very good gains within the academic space in the area of research.
  •  Also in the area of remote learning, being a rural university -  it is commendable that we are able to provide students with the necessary tools and resources to study remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. We have done very well and kept teaching and learning going under severe conditions imposed by the pandemic in the last 18 months.
  • We just came out of an audit process and it is looking good, much better than previous audit findings and reports. We are not 100% there yet, but it is a clear indication that says we are on the right track. We are beginning to get the systems right, where there are less fruitless and irregular expenditures.

These are some of the things we must celebrate.

Challenges

There are many challenges in my portfolio.

  • There is the challenge of insourcing instead of outsourcing, whether it is cleaning services, catering services or the security components of the university.
  • Short-term contracts is also a challenge.  Many people are on short-term contracts and that is something we want to address and slowly but surely root out of the system.
  • There is also a challenge of change of corporate culture. Once you have a particular practice or culture that is not very conducive or good it takes time to change it. But it is something we have to work on and chisel away until we have a good culture of transparency, accountability and taking pride in our work.

Lastly, what are your aspirations for the university as it sets off on its journey of a decade of renewal (2020 to 2030).  What is your advice on how to reach the envisaged destination?  

Come 2030, we want to be a vibrant, equitable and sustainable African University, an institution that is committed to quality teaching, learning and research. We want to become a university that provides good quality service to our students and scholars - a very important component for all of us.

We want to continue the legacy of producing word-class revolutionary leaders and political leaders as we have done for so many decades  - and produce more agents of change.

In order to make this vision a reality, we need to provide high-quality education that matches international standards. Our research work needs to be socially and ethically relevant to address and improve society.

So these are my thoughts. I am excited to be part of the Fort Hare family. I am looking forward to turning our new strategy for the next five years, into reality – that would be my small contribution.