SPL (School of Public Leadership)
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The Stellenbosch School of Public Leadership: An Emerging Concise History

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As communicated by Prof Erwin Schwella, Professor of Public Leadership at the School of Public Leadership


During 1965 a formal resolution was taken by the Senate and Council of Stellenbosch University to establish a Department of Public Administration and Political Studies (Department Openbare Administrasie en Staatsleer) in the Faculty of Commerce and Administration. The decision was also to introduce a B.Admin degree with effect from 1965 as an extra-mural degree and from 1966 as part of the academic supply on the Stellenbosch main campus in Stellenbosch.

The initial courses offered by the Department was a B.Admin, Honnours B.Admin and M.Admin degree and in 1965 and 1966 3 part time and 10 full time students enrolled for the B.Admin degree in Stellenbosch and 4 part time students in Bellville respectively. In 1978 the professional Honnours B in Public Administration and the MPA programmes were introduced to create opportunities for mid-career professionals to obtain a professional Masters' degree in public governance. These degrees still form the professional backbone qualification of the now School of Public Leadership as probably the most professional and prestigious South African MPA degree.

Dr WB (Ben) Vosloo, who completed his Masters' degree at Pretoria University before finishing his PhD degree at Cornell University in the United States of America, was appointed as a senior lecturer to lead the Department in 1966. He served as the head of department until 1981 when he became the first Managing Director of the Small Business Development Corporation (now Business Partners) in 1981. He established a number of further programmes and degrees within the Department, including the MPA programme during the late 1970's. He was a senior advisor to then government on governance development and served on prominent government commissions of the time such as the Erika Theron Commission and the De Lange Commission. Initially he was supported by young colleagues who taught political science and public administration such as Mr Jannie Gagiano, Dr Gerhard Totemeyer, Dr Fanie Cloete and also two public administration teachers, Dr Chris Steyn and Mr Andries van Rooyen. On 1 January 1981 Erwin Schwella joined this team as a junior lecturer.

Professor Vosloo was, like many of his successors, quite controversial and received (death) threats after propagating that the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act should be scrapped.

After Professor Vosloo left for the SBDC, the Department was headed for a short period of two years by an Austrian Professor of International Affairs, Professor Werner Pfeifenberger. During 1984 and for two years subsequently, the University appointed, professor WPE (Willie) Esterhuyse to head the Department. Professor Esterhuyse, a philosopher, introduced a strong ethics and moral component to the work of the Department and as the author of the now famous work "Afskeid aan Apartheid" also solidified the critical views on apartheid that were already present in the teaching and research of the Department.

From 1985 to 1990 the Department went through a first phase of historical developments linked to a re-structuring.

In 1986 The Department separated from the Department of Political Science and became an autonomous department in the Faculty of Commerce and Administration. Professor JSH (Hans) Gildenhuys was appointed to lead the department of Public Administration from January 1986.

Professor Gildenhuys, a Pretoria University graduate, had a very strong grounding in Public Finances as well as Local Government and published major works such as the seminal "Owerheidsfinansies" on public finances. During the term of Professor Gildenhuys, the Department grew in staff and student numbers.

The Department also started with the series of now renowned Winelands Conferences in 1987 under the leadership of Professor Gildenhuys. The first Winelands Conference in 1987 commemorated the famous article of Woodrow Wilson on the "Study of Administration", first published in the "Political Science Quarterly" in 1887. The conference was organised by Erwin Schwella, then a lecturer and an honours student, Martin van Zyl, who later became the first Director-General of the Northern Cape Province and was a lecturer at Peninsula Technikon at the time. Since then, for about 28 years, the Winelands Conferences have become internationally known as cutting edge opportunities to create and share knowledge on governance. The next conference is planned for 2016 on the topic: "Quality Governance." The third Winelands Conference held in 1991 historically focused on the topic: "Public Administration in Post-Apartheid South Africa"

Also during this time the Department appointed Dr Ivan Meyer as lecturer. Dr Meyer who later pursued a career in the profession and politics and currently serves as the Minister of Finance in the Western Cape Provincial Government after finishing his PhD under the financial expert, Professor Hans Gildenhuys. Dr Meyer was also one of the first black staff members to join Stellenbosch University.

A second phase of restructuring and innovation commenced when Professor Erwin Schwella was appointed as Chair of the Department after the retirement of Professor Gildenhuys in 1991. Professor Erwin Schwella, who was already acting as head of department became the head of department during from January 1992 and shortly after this the Director of the School of Public Management and Planning.

Professor Fanie Cloete returned to the School in June 1992 from a professorship at the then Rand Afrikaans University, now the University of Johannesburg, and added to the policy analysis capacity of the School as well as to the legal and public governance expertise of the School.

Dr JJ (Kobus) Muller also joined the ranks of the School in 1992 as senior lecturer and added expertise in environmental management as well as his experience from professional practice. He was instrumental in building up and out the programmes of the School in the fields of environmental management.

At the beginning of 1993 the then Department of Development Administration merged with the Department of Public Administration and the School of Public Management and Planning emerged. The staff grew with the addition of staff members from Development Administration such as Professor WJO (Julius) Jeppe, and Messrs. Francois Theron and Johan van Baalen.

During this period the department built expertise in the form of increasing research outputs, Masters' and Doctoral graduates as well as service to the community and consultancy. In these endeavours the work of the department was excellently supported by colleagues such as Professor FMU (Frederik) Uys and W (William) Fox, who were appointed during this period

Professor Uys graduated summa cum laude from Stellenbosch with three majors, and after completing a stint at Pretoria University and a PhD, then returned to Stellenbosch initially as senior lecturer and currently still serves as a professor, theoretician and philosopher of note in the School.

Professor William Fox served stints in higher education, including as the founding registrar of the Academy of Namibia (now the University and Polytechnic of Namibia). As a very able linguist professor Fox contributed to the development of the scientific terminology in public administration both in Afrikaans and English.

Mr APJ (Johan) Burger, now professor Johan Burger, a trained and registered professional architect, joined the School as lecturer on 1 January 1995 and became a full professor in 2005. He also served as Director from 2004 to 2006 and again from 2013.His contributions are impactful and as a financial and project management expert and brilliant MPA and PhD student as well as a very competent innovator and academic leader he built the School in an exemplary way. Amongst others he made a major contribution to the leadership and innovation in the School during his career. He consolidated and grew the academic programmes and footprint of the School by introducing blended education, new curricular approaches and new programmes in a very creative and professional way during his periods of directorship and continues to do so. More about his achievements as academic and director will be recorded in the appropriate place later in this document.

The Department of Urban and Rural Planning joined with the School from the beginning of 1999. Professor C Todd Welch, Dr Piet Claassen, Dr Willem Pienaar and Ms Anneke Muller added their expertise to the School and the Masters' of Urban and Regional Planning was changed into an MPhil in Development Planning during 1992. This programme gained impetus and credibility also with the appointment of Professor Mark Swilling in 2003. This also connected the Sustainability Institute at Spier to the School. The intellectual space and institutional architecture of the School was now significantly and substantively different from the initial merely appendixed adjunct Department of Public Administration which it was to Political Studies from 1965 to 1983.

The period during which Professor Erwin Schwella served as Director from 1992 to 2004 can be captured in terms of a number of strategic initiatives linked to:

  • internationalisation,
  • professionalisation,
  • diversification and
  • trans-disciplinarity.

In respect of internationalisation, the South African context transformed with the momentous changes towards democratisation subsequent to the 2nd of February 1990 speech by then President FW de Klerk, the setting free of the later President Mandela and the ringing in of the democratisation in South Africa. This was linked to the constitutional negotiations and subsequent democratic elections and the acceptance of the democratic South African Constitution in 1996. The world now opened for South Africa and South African governance and academic institutions.

Within this changing global context a specific and deliberate strategy was pursued to imbed the School within global governance intellectual and knowledge networks as well as best academic and professional practice. This was done through the setting up of links with prominent academic institutions involved in governance work situated across the world, including Leiden University in the Netherlands, Leuven University in Belgium, Harvard University: Kennedy School of Government, Potsdam University, Germany, Rennes1 University in France, Umea University in Sweden and Manchester University in the United Kingdom.

Professor Schwella was also committed and contracted to teach governance and leadership to leaders of the liberation movements who were coming out of exile at the then Civil Service College in Sunningdale, England funded by the British government. A number of staff members were also internationally and nationally involved in the processes of constitutional negotiations, including Professors Schwella and the returning Professor Fanie Cloete who re-joined the School during this period as professor after stints in constitutional development and at Wits and the Rand Afrikaans Universities.

 Professors Schwella and Cloete were prominent in the Newick Park Initiative where exiles and progressive thinkers met in Battle, Hastings in the UK to deliberate on social, political, economic and governance futures for South Africa and from where inputs were made to the CODESA process. They also took leading roles in the internal processes related to the Mount Grace and JUPMET initiatives which were sponsored initiatives supported with international donors to align South African governance academia with world best practice. The ideas that informed the further institutionalisation of the School as national and global governance intellectual and professional capacity space were in many instances derived from these international experiences and linked national experiences.

Related to professionalisation the curriculum and research activities of the School significantly emphasised and supported the professional MPA flagship programme of the School. The academic work in this programme was built on the world best practices gained from experiencing similar programmes at the international cutting edge and specifically in the USA where the MPA at Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University was used as model for the Stellenbosch MPA. In this way the foundation was laid and built for an excellent South African MPA of world class standard in a somewhat dismal other MPA South African landscape and market. The MPA was built on excellence in governance using excellence in governance and is continuously strengthening itself also through the innovative blended teaching approaches so well constructed, designed and delivered by Professor Johan Burger and an exemplary team of professional support and administrative support staff. Currently the Stellenbosch MPA has a major African and South African footprint and impact with more than 300 students enrolled and thousands of alumni across the globe adding excellence to governance.

Diversification was strategically pursued during this time. The School currently has an international and diverse student and staff profile as well as a diversified professional and programme supply. The build-up for this started in the period of 1990 to 2004 and the trend was consolidated and professionally institutionalised since then. New programmes were introduced in the form of post graduate courses in Development Management, Sustainable Development and Trans-disciplinary studies. The PhD output of the School increased and combined with substantial growth in accredited and other book publications the School is now a diversified social and academic institution of note.

The diversification of the School was also given impetus and impact through the activities of creating the executive programmes as well as advisory and consultancy activities of the School. The academic knowledge supply of the School was made available in the form of professional and practice serving value adding executive programmes and institutional capacity and individual competency building activities.

Diversification is also served through the creation of an associated pool of expertise in the form of extraordinary academic, professional associates and national and international fellows as well as internships. This diverse and expert group of associates add more than one hundred experts of international and national renown to the permanent academic and professional capacity of the School in the form of an associated community of expertise.

Trans-disciplinarity is served by the internationalisation, professionalisation and diversification of the School. In this context it also represents a move from a uni-discilpinary public administration focussed department to trans-disciplinary governance, leadership and development focussed School of Public Leadership.

The needs of effective and ethical governance for development and excellence requires comparison to international best practice tends, professional inputs and impacts requiring leadership to deal with complex adaptive challenges through action learning and research. This also requires diverse inputs from different academic, social, political and professional insights and inputs. These initiatives also pre supposes an academic system with inputs and outputs that are innovative, creative and value creating from international and national professions, professionalism and knowledge bases grounded in practice as well as linked to academic knowledge. These conditions are generally not forthcoming from a single disciplinary focus whether that is the broader governance or narrower public administration focus. It is therefore a necessary to draw on the widest trans-disciplinary inputs from diverse academic knowledge and professional expertise perspectives. The School started to do this during the term of directorship of Professor Erwin Schwella and continued to do so in the ensuing period of 2004 until today.

The third and current phase of the continuously emerging dynamic of the School occurred during the period of 2004 and is continuing. During this period the momentum around internationalisation, professionalisation, diversification and trans-disciplinarity and the initiatives in these regards, were further consolidated, strengthened, institutionalised and implemented with excellence.

During this period the Directorship of the School was filled on a rotational base by Professors Fanie Cloete, Kobus Muller and Johan Burger, who all contributed in their unique ways to build and increase the public value addition of the School. Education and teaching expanded and improved, research grew and service advice and consultancy increased. Of particular note here is the growth in permanent academic staff with a number of talented staff members, including two full professors, Professors Alan Brent and Pregala (Solosh) Pillay.

Professor Johan Burger made a major contribution on the programme and delivery side during this period with the introduction of many innovative new programmes, the fine tuning of existing programmes and the packaging of all programmes into new blended delivery modes. These initiatives added significantly to the impetus and impact of the School.

The name of the School was also changed to reflect this dynamic from the School of Public Management and Planning to the School of Public Leadership.

Under the leadership of Professor Mark Swilling a number of excellent academic institutions were created founded and linked to the School, starting with the Sustainability Institute and followed by linkages to national centres of excellence and also including the trans-disciplinary doctoral Tsama Hub programme.

Professor Erwin Schwella is also building an innovation ecosystem including expert innovation helixes in area such as health, justice, peace, safety and security, property innovative governance and institutionalised through the Stellenbosch Good Governance Forum the LeadershipINDABA and social laboratories in jurisdictions such as the Hessequa Municipality, Saldanha Municipality and the Greater Tygerberg Partnership which provides spaces for innovative governance action learning and research. Further laboratories may be added to these. Partnerships are also pursued with National and Provincial government institutions as well as with the private sector in this innovation ecosystem.

In conclusion it is relevant to be reminded of the following wise words of Hotomannus, (1524 – 1590):

"Sine historia caecam esse iurisprudentiam", which, freely translated means, jurisprudence is blind without history.

These words also apply to academia!