Prof leaves the Big Apple for Braamfontein

After an eight year stay in the United States, Professor Hlonipha Mokoena has finally decided to come back to South Africa and has chosen Wits University as her new academic home. 

BACK TO THE MOTHERLAND: After many years abroad educating and learning, Professor Hlonipha Mokoena will touch home in June. Photo: John Harris

BACK HOME: After many years abroad educating and learning, Professor Hlonipha Mokoena will make a permanent move to South Africa in June.                        Photo: John R. Harris

In June, the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) will welcome South African Professor Hlonipha Mokoena back home.

Mokoena, 38, originally from Soweto but left for KwaZulu-Natal at the age of 12 to go to boarding school, took on her first job as an associate professor in anthropology at the Columbia University in New York a few years after graduating with her PhD from UCT (University of Cape Town), in 2005.

Her move to Wiser comes after three years of planning and describing this new challenge, Mokoena said, “I mustn’t disappoint.”

Mokoena hopes to have the intellectual space and time in which to complete a new book. No stranger to publishing, she wrote her first book titled Magema Fuze: The Making of a Kholwa Intellectual in 2011.

“Mokoena now feels that she can quite soundly critique American notions of “knowledge”

After 8 years of teaching at Columbia University, Mokoena now feels that she can quite soundly critique American notions of “knowledge”, and she describes some of the innovative ways in which students are taught in the US as viable options in South Africa.

“I think in South Africa we tend to argue about eurocentrism as if [it’s] sort of widespread, whereas really the world currently is dominated by the American approach to creating knowledge, including African studies. It’s really American-centric,” Mokoena said.

Mokoena spoke to Wits Vuvuzela about the differences between universities in the States and those here at home, “American private universities [such as] Columbia University are very different from South African universities at the basic level of competition.”

According to Mokoena, there is a high degree of competition for staff and students to get into institutions like Columbia.

Blind NSFAS student spared homelessness

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WAY FORWARD: Wits student Sisanda Msekele is now able to register for her PhD after receiving financial assistance from the university. Photo: Provided.

Sisanda Msekele, an anthropology masters student, faced homelessness and debt of nearly R100 000 a week ago. But following an article in the Wits Vuvuzela about her plight, she has received financial assistance from Wits University and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), making it possible for her to remain in residence and register for her doctoral studies (PhD).

Professor Eric Worby, director of the Humanities Graduate Centre, with the help of Humanities Dean, Prof Ruksana Osman, have worked with the university to ensure Msekele’s outstanding fees of R96 299 are settled.  The fees accrued after the NSFAS ( National Student Financial Aid Scheme) failed to pay for one year.

“We were very sorry she found herself in this position,” Worby told Wits Vuvuzela. “This is hugely important to us, as she is one of our best students, and someone we want to support.”

Head of Anthropology, Dr Hylton White, who has been involved in assisting Msekele since November last year, said his department was not aware of how serious Msekele’s financial predicament was, but is “relieved that the problem could be resolved so quickly once it became apparent”.

Yesterday afternoon Msekele received the news that the DHET had provided additional funds to support her. This will be used to offset any outstanding debt. Msekele told Wits Vuvuzela that she is still waiting to hear what will happen with any money that is left over, but hoped that it could be used towards her PhD.

She said that she is overwhelmed and ecstatic. “You have no idea, I now sleep like a baby at night, I don’t expect someone to come and kick me out.”

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Blind NSFAS student faces uncertainty

With just three days before she is set to hand in her research paper, Anthropology masters student Sisanda Msekele is facing homelessness and almost R100,000 in outstanding fees.

In late November last year, she received an email from the university that said her fees had not been paid for, despite being able to register with funds from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s (NSFAS) disability unit.

Msekele has been blind since she was 18 and uses a guide dog to get around. Her mother died giving birth to her and she lost her father not long after, and has no family in Johannesburg. Msekele has relied on government funding since her first year of study.

But at the end of last year, Msekele received an email from Wits which said she owes the university R96 299. The emailed warned that if this amount was not settled by January 2015, legal action could be taken against her. She would also not be allowed to re-register, which would prevent her from pursuing her PhD in Anthropology.

She has lived in res throughout her studies and has been allowed to stay in university accommodation—for now. Claude Vergie, assistant registrar of Campus Housing, told Msekele via email that if she continues to stay at West Campus Village, she will be charged for the full year.

“In terms of university policy, we should have evicted you already,” he said in the email sent to her at the end of January this year. “This is a rather serious matter.”

Wits Vuvuzela attempted to contact Vergie, but he was unavailable at the time.

Msekele told Wits Vuvuzela that she thinks she will have to move out once she has submitted her research on Monday.

Anthropology masters student Sisanda Msekele has been threatened with possible legal action if she does not pay outstanding fees of nearly R100 000. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

Anthropology masters student Sisanda Msekele has been threatened with possible legal action if she does not pay outstanding fees of nearly R100 000. Photo: Roxanne Joseph

“A friend has offered me a place to stay in Soweto, but it’s really far and difficult to get around with Romy [her guide dog], but at least I know I have somewhere to go,” she said.

She has turned to both the Wits financial aid office and disability unit for assistance. Although numerous people at financial aid have been trying to assist her, she has not heard back from them for a number of weeks now.

Msekele also said that after she received a second notification threatening legal action if she did not pay the outstanding fees, she went to financial aid and was made to sign forms, but she could not read them and staff members did not tell her what they were for. It was also then that she found out the NSFAS disability unit does not fund Masters students.

Portia Simelane, who deals with all Wits-related NSFAS issues, emailed the department of higher education, but not yet received a response from them. “She told me there is no more NSFAS money left,” Msekele said.

She has received assistance from Dr Anlina Pretorius of the Wits disability unit.

“She has kept pushing the entire time,” said Msekele. “She emailed the CEO of NSFAS, but hasn’t got a response.”

“We have really tried to assist her in every way possible,” Duncan Yates, learning coordinator at the unit, told Wits Vuvuzela. “And we are still looking into the matter, but now there are various parties at the university involved.”

Msekele also contacted the vice chancellor’s office, which responded by saying that Prof Adam Habib does not make decisions regarding financial aid. Msekele was then referred back to the financial aid office.

Msekele does not know what lies ahead for her now.

“I’ve exhausted all the options and I just wish I knew what the next step was,” she said. She has been looking for a research job since November, because without one, she will not be able to rent a place to live.

She also cannot pay the outstanding amount.

“It is so stressful though, I just want my fees to be paid.”