Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Meet the new SU Council Chair: Dr Nicky Newton-King
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing | Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking
Published: 26/04/2023
​​Dr Nicky Newton-King* was elected the 14th Chair of Council on 17 April 2023, the first woman to hold this position in the 105 years of Stellenbosch University's existence. She spoke to Desmond Thompson, reporting for Corporate Communication.

DT: Congratulations! How do you feel about your new position?

NNK: Thanks. First, we suffered a huge loss when my predecessor , Ainsley Moos, died unexpectedly at the end of January. He was much loved and respected by everyone, and as his deputy up to that point, I knew I had big shoes to fill when I stepped in in an acting capacity.

I am honoured that Council has formally elected me. It is a responsibility I accept with humility and a sense of duty.

DT: At the Council meeting, you asked members to use each other's first names instead of titles. Why?

NNK: I find that titles sometimes get in the way of frank communication. Council has the most extraordinary members, all with incredible achievements. In any case, what you are called should be less important than the difference you make for others. But it's personal, and whatever people are comfortable with is fine. I'm happy to be called “Nicky".

DT: Who is Nicky Newton-King?

NNK: A daughter, sister, wife and mother. A proud Matie and South African.

I love hiking and am always on the lookout for a new trail. I love cooking but am hopelessly outclassed by our two sons. I love being in new places but hate flying. I love chatting one-on-one but am very shy in a crowd.

DT: What did you study at SU, and when was that?

NNK: I graduated with a BA LLB in 1989.

DT: Whence the interest in law, and why Maties?

NNK: I think I was born to be a lawyer. My father was a passionate lawyer, and I grew up listening to his stories about the Ou Hoofgebou and the legal giants lecturing there. Some of my fondest memories are of endless discussions around our dining room table about law and politics, social justice and privilege, and the responsibilities that come with it. So, when I had to choose where to learn my professional craft, I never looked beyond Stellenbosch.

DT: Tell us about your student days.

NNK: It was five of the most stimulating years of my life, overlapping as it did with the dying days of Apartheid. It was the time of the first elections fought seriously by independents, including in Stellenbosch and in the Helderberg. Friends and professors ventured beyond our borders to meet the then-still-banned ANC. Stellenbosch politics may have been relatively tame on the surface, but the seismic rumbles were working their way through to those with their hands on the levers of power.

In the classroom, we learnt black-letter law, but that the country was in flux. We ended up being taught that we would be called on to use long-established legal principles in new ways. I think we may not have credited some of our lecturers in the late '80s for being as brave and as enabling as they turned out to be.

We left Stellenbosch knowing that the country was changing, that nothing would be left unchallenged, and that we could make that change happen. And I'm deeply grateful for the strength of that message.

We'll leave the juicy bits for another time …

DT: What did you do after you graduated from Maties?

NNK: My father was killed in a farming accident the Saturday before I graduated with my LLB, but I know he was happy I had chosen to follow in his footsteps at his alma mater. After graduating, I took a year off and went overseas to work and travel with my now husband.

DT: What influence did your mother have on your life?

NNK: I learnt the importance of hard work from my mum. She is now retired but was a professional farmer. She got up at 4 or 5 every morning to pick fruit, drive the tractor, negotiate fruit prices and run everything on the farm.

From a very young age, I knew there was space for women at the table. I never felt I had to prove myself, but I grew up firmly believing you can do anything if you put in the hard yards.

DT: What do your sons do?

NNK: Our eldest is doing his honours in Ancient Cultures, and our youngest son is doing humanitarian work elsewhere in Africa.

DT: How did you end up at the JSE?

NNK: I started my articles at the law firm Webber Wentzel, and my first client on my first day was the JSE because the person I worked with was their outside lawyer. After articles, I ended up doing my master's in securities law at Cambridge University, became a partner of Webber Wentzel and then joined the JSE.

DT: Tell us about your time at the JSE.

It was all about reinventing its DNA. When I got there, the JSE was pale, male and superannuated. I joined the week we closed the JSE floor. With my boss at the time and some exec colleagues, we transformed the place. By the time I left, we had bought two South African exchanges, changed key trading technology thrice, and had a 60% black and 52% female staff. It was a tricky time economically, but we did well. I loved it.

DT: How did you end up on Council?

NNK: I never envisaged that I would be involved in the governance of the University, and when donors asked me to do so, I also never imagined it would be at a senior level because there were others in line before me. But life happens, and I have ended up in the hot seat.

It's a privilege to be involved and help provide guidance from Council's side. Yes, there is some noise at the moment, and that needs to be taken seriously. But I am excited by the potential of the University's vision to be “Africa's leading research-intensive university, globally recognised as excellent, inclusive and innovative, where we advance knowledge in service of society."

DT: How does the SU of 2023 compare to the one of 1989?

NNK: It's a very different place. The beautiful old buildings are still here, and impressive new ones have been added, but you walk around on campus now, and it's just pumping with diversity, filled with people wanting to make a positive difference. SU has become a national asset of importance to the whole country while also intensely focused on global linkages and world-relevant research.

DT: Whose university is Stellenbosch?

NNK: Stellenbosch has a deep and cherished history as an Afrikaans university, which will always be part of our story. But like all major universities, it is an institution for the ages that moves with the times. So, we have to be comfortable with that.

Stellenbosch is South Africa's University, and it belongs to all of us – the people who founded it, the alumni who studied here, the students of the moment, the staff and the communities around our campuses.

Stellenbosch is a thriving, vibrant, transforming and systemically sustainable University with an embedded culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and agile responsiveness to the needs of society and the communities we serve.

DT: What is your take on the tensions in the University community from time to time?

NNK: Universities are all about the contestation of ideas. So, there will be tensions, but what we should not do is shout at each other. We will never find common ground that way. Instead, we must talk and listen to each other with an open mind.

A university is never going to be able to be everything to everyone. I am comfortable with that. But you want to make sure everybody feels they were heard.

DT: How do you feel about transformation?

NNK: Transformation is a critical imperative for any institution in the country. It touches the very DNA of an institution and the stakeholders who make it unique. It comes with fear and with hope, with lived disappointments and future opportunities.

We should not be surprised that events on our campuses sometimes show an institution that still has some way to go before all stakeholders feel they belong, are respected and can be themselves. And let us remember that the University is an integral part of a vibrant and historic town with its own long history.

Our role as leaders is to guide our transformation journey with maturity and courage, recognising that in dealing with issues of legacy and equity, our stakeholders will be best served if we harness divergent voices to solve our most intractable problems. And those processes are happening with the robustness and intellectual focus one would expect from a place of higher learning.

That there are moments of pain in that journey is, unfortunately, so. But mature leaders will ask what we can learn from those moments. So, let us understand all the things we need to change to ensure that people's lived experience aligns with the good intentions expressed by the University in its policies and strategy documents.

DT: What's Council's role in relation to management?

NNK: Council is a non-executive body with no operational role at all. That's management's responsibility – to run the University.

Although a university is different from a corporate in significant aspects, at its core, the SU Council's key responsibilities feel familiar to me and need to be discharged in the institution's best interests. Ours is to ensure that the University is on the right strategic path, that it remains sustainable, that it has stable and excellent management and that we protect its reputation.

Council's role is oversight and guidance. And our North Star is what is in the best interests of the University.

A good example is the Khampepe Commission. Management rightly commissioned Justice Sisi Khampepe to investigate the state of race relations at the University following specific incidents last year. In the report that came out, it was indicated that the lived experience of some students and staff was that they felt unwelcome at what is supposed to be their university as well.

That's not something you want. So, the responsibility to do something about it firstly lies with management. And they have responded – by setting up a structure and process for the whole University to work through the implications of the Commission's findings.

Council's role is to ensure there is progress in developing and implementing remedial actions.

DT: What about tensions in Council?

NNK: Serving on Council is not a kumbaya moment. We are lucky at SU that we have a highly diverse Council – in terms of age, gender, race, language, background and the like. Despite the relatively large size of Council (24 members), we strive for robust yet always respectful conversations around the issues that matter.

As one might imagine, the high stakes in pushing for excellence mean our decisions are typically complex and difficult. But we must be prepared to make them. So, I am comfortable with having different perspectives around the table. We need to be able to have the difficult conversations and then agree on a way forward.

The fact that all Council members take their responsibilities so seriously that they attended our day-long meeting, that we could have robust conversations around pressure points like transformation and language and a motion against the Vice-Chancellor all in one session, and in the end, agree on a way forward on each issue is a sign that we have a highly functional governance environment. And that is something that the University can be proud of.

DT: You are the first woman to lead Council. How do you feel about that?

NNK: I was a bit surprised to discover that. I have often been the first woman in a particular role throughout my life, but that has never been my motivation for doing anything. In time, though, I came to understand the symbolic importance of breaking through the glass ceiling. It shows other women that they, too, can aspire to do anything and occupy any position.

DT: What is your message to staff and students?

NNK: Our institution is very well-positioned to excel – locally, continentally and globally – and we should not take that for granted. It is vital for the country that Stellenbosch University succeeds as a beacon of excellence and inclusivity. All of us have a role to play in achieving this. How we show up matters. So, we must model what we want to see in our country. What a privilege to be able to do so.

* Dr Newton-King has served on Council since 2 April 2022 as a member elected by donors of the University. Besides her BA LLB from SU, she received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater in 2021 and holds an LLM from Cambridge University. She is a former CEO of the JSE and serves on the Group boards of Investec and MTN.

​*Photograph by Stefan Els