Africa Leaders Magazine

PROFESSOR PULENG LENKABULA – First Woman to be appointed Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of South Africa (Unisa) in its 148-year-long existence.

On 1 January 2021, Professor Puleng LenkaBula assumed office as the new Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of South Africa (Unisa). The November 2020 decision by the Unisa Council to appoint Prof. LenkaBula at the helm of Unisa was a historical moment for both Unisa and the country as she became the first woman, the first black woman and only the third black person to be appointed as head of Unisa, Africa’s largest university, in its more than 147 years of existence.

LenkaBula is a South African (of South Africa and Lesotho descent). She holds a Doctorate (2006/7) in Ethics (Theology and Philosophy). Her specialization is in the multidisciplinary discipline of (Social Ethics) entailing Ethics of the Economy, Ecology and Politics from the University of South Africa. Her doctoral study was titled “Bioprospecting and Intellectual Property rights on African Plant Commons and Knowledge: A New form of Colonization viewed from an Ethical Perspective,” supervised by Prof. Mokgethi Motlhabi. She also obtained a Master’s Degree (MTS) from St Andrews College, of the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon Canada (1995) with First Class, specializing in Social Ethics.

Her thesis is titled, “I am because we are: An African Womanist Reflections on the Structural Adjustment Programs of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.” Her focus was on the ethical implications of Multilateral/ Multinational Finance and International Financing institutions on economies and economic policies in Africa. LenkaBula’s completed her undergraduate studies at the National University of Lesotho, with three Majors in English, Theology and Education; and were interspersed with an ecumenical leadership training and participation at the Global Mission of the Methodist Church in the United States of America, under the leadership of Rev. Ken Guest.

Not only is Professor LenkaBula a highly qualified and respected scholar locally and internationally, but she is also a published scholar of books and numerous articles in referred journal articles. She brings into the role extensive and diverse local and international executive management experiences in the education, ecumenical, private, and civic society sectors, which will be catalytic in her new role at Unisa.

LenkaBula has previously held Management and international Board positions at different institutions. In 1993, at a very young age, she served as a Board Member of the Canadian Global Fund Board of the United Church of Canada. From 1998 to 2001 she served as the Executive Director of Research and Projects at the Institute for Contextual Theology (ICT) under the leadership of the General Secretary Dr Wesley Mabuza, whilst simultaneously working for the University of South Africa as a part time lecturer from 1999 to 2001.

In 2007 when Professor Russel Botman became the Vice Chancellor of University of Stellenbosch, LenkaBula was appointed and took over from him the position of the Executive Consultant on Africa for the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now the World Communion of Reformed Church (WCRC) under the leadership of the General Secretary Rev. Prof. Setri Nyomi and Rev. Patricia Sheeraton Bisnauth.  Around the same time, she was appointed by the World Council of Churches (WCC) as part of the Global Expert group on WCC Poverty, Wealth and Ecology Program, which amongst others, facilitated global interfaces and engagements with the United Nations, the World Bank, and other Global institutions to accelerate actions on Economic, ecological justice and interventions of Climate Change. She worked with Dr Rogate Mshana and Ms. Athena Peralta, amongst others.

In 2009 when working as a visiting Professor at the Emmanuel College of the University of Toronto, LenkaBula was granted support and commissioned to undertake research at the World Intellectual Property Rights Organisation (OMPI) in Geneva and the WCRC on Covenanting for Justice and Ecology

From 2011 to 2014, LenkaBula assumed the position of advisor to the Unisa Principal and Vice Chancellor, and Director in the office of the Vice Chancellor, reporting to Prof. Mandlenkosi Makhanya. Her responsibilities, inter alia, entailed aligning the Vice Chancellor’s vision to the UNISA’s strategy and vision of being the African university shaping futures.

Key to this was the advancement of Africanisation/ internationalisation and endogenous knowledge systems as core constitutive fundamentals for teaching, research and community engaged scholarship in ideation/ practice and praxis, accelerating transformation through intentional focus on the focus/ and or development of African Intellectuals program, African Knowledge Systems and Africa’s Futures. It also entailed aligning UNISA’s institutional mandate to the national development trajectory, continental aspirations and global competitiveness of the university, cultivation of innovative partnerships, especially with the corporate sector for research partnerships aimed especially at yielding prospective intellectual property footprint and Centering Ethics at the Pulse of the University.

In addition, she developed innovative projects such as DIPLOspeak to advance open science/ and science diplomacy, and as well, to facilitate UNISA’s engagement in international relations with the diplomatic corps, with the aim of advancing UNISA as a contextually grounded but Globally Competitive University in the service of humanity.  During this time, she also initiated historical intellectual calendar events/ public lectures, including but not limited to, the 2012 Africa’s Resilient Institutions, commemorating the Centenary of the African National Congress, addressed by the Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe; 2013 the OAU at 50, a collaborative event between Unisa and TMALI which brought forth some of the leading African Intellectuals in Africa and the Diaspora to South Africa and UNISA,  instituting the Student Affairs Week in order to project the dire need for the professionalisation and highlighting of the work of Student Affairs, services and professional work in support of the academic project, which has become nationalized by many student affairs in South African Universities. Finally, with the support of the Vice Chancellor, Prof. Makhanya, she initiated the institutionalisation of Ethics as the core agenda of Unisa.

From 2014 to 2016 LenkaBula worked as the Dean of Student Affairs, reporting to Prof. Gordon Zide. In this role, she was responsible for Managing Student Governance, Student Social Development, the Advocacy Resources Center for Student with Disabilities, and all core co-curricular students’ activities. Amongst her highlights in this tenure, was instituting 23 Multipurpose Technology laboratories for students/staff with disabilities at University of South Africa, and as a shared resource with other universities, spread across all the provinces of South Africa. She also developed an academic-centered student governance support, internationalizing students’ governance participation and impact.

Upon leaving Unisa, LenkaBula took up the position of Executive Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Witwatersrand Johannesburg (Wits University) where she reported to the Vice Chancellor Prof. Adam Habib. She was a member of the Vice Chancellor’s office (VCO) and the Senior Executive Team. She was the Executive in charge of Student Governance, Campus Health, Campus Housing and Residence Life, Careers Counseling and Development Unit (CCDU), Wits Sport and Development and Leadership Unit (DLU). Her highlights in this role were expanding access to residences from 18 to 23 in a context where residences were of dire need, instituting Mental Health and wellness strategy, professionalistion of student affairs staff and relations/ interface with core curricular environments, digitalization of student affairs environments and online elections amongst others.

With the Support of the then Wits University Vice Chancellor Professors. Habib and Prof. Tawana Kupe, Prof. Ruksana Osman, Mr Sibanyoni and Mr Adler, LenkaBula, and the Student Affairs and Student Representative Council initiated the request to the Gauteng Provincial Government for Unused buildings/ or properties to support the efforts to resolve the nominal number of students living and learning environments (residences). This culminated with the signing ceremony on July 22nd, 2016 at Unisa wherein the Provincial Government bequeathed all Gauteng based Universities with land/ buildings to support their academic needs.

Prior to her appointment as Principal and Vice Chancellor of Unisa, Professor LenkaBula was the Vice-Rector (Deputy Vice Chancellor): Institutional Change, Student Affairs and Community Engagement at the University of the Free State.  She was responsible for Strategic Management of Institutional Change and Social Justice, Student Affairs and core co-curricular and psychosocial support for post- and undergraduate students /and Community Engagement and Engaged Scholarship.

LenkaBula’s strength is in her ability to traverse disciplinary parameters, in research and stakeholder cultivation and development.  She also has a wide local and global footprint, which resulted in her being voted to the Board memberships of Premier Academic and Global institutions, especially the Council for the Development of Social Sciences Research in Africa (CODESRIA), which ranked as No 1 Think Tank and Social Sciences Research Institution in Africa.

Her research interests are on intersections of ethics, political-economy and ecology and feminist theory, particularly on the themes: a) Justice, b) intellectual property rights on life forms and implications on ecology and society; c) ethical questions on the economy, particularly on bioprospecting and IP issues on life-forms d) feminist political/ethical thought.

She has published widely in refereed local and international academic journals, including a commissioned book by the World Communion of Reformed Churches, ‘Choose Life, Act in Hope’, a collaborative book with Dr P. Dibeela and Professor V. Vellem on the ‘Prophet of the South’. This book entailed articles from globally renowned intellectuals in Ethics, including former US President Barack Obama’s Mentor, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Right, the Founder and Father of Black Theology, Professor James Cones, Prof. Katie Canon the first African-American woman to earn a PhD in Ethics and many more.

LenkaBula is a board member of local, international Ecumenical and Academic formations.  She is a member of the Executive committee of the Council for the Development of Social Sciences Research in Africa (CODESRIA); a former Deputy President of the South African Council of Churches; Ecumenical Service for Socio-Economic Transformation, Transparency International-South Africa Branch and Focus on Youth.

She has also consulted for local and international institutions, including a position as an expert advisor for the former World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now World Communion of Reformed Churches) on the Economy and Earth process (early discussions on climate change, financial architecture for the world economy and Covenanting for Justice). She is a member of the World Council of Churches Expert group on ‘Poverty, Wealth and Ecology’.

Prof. LenkaBula has read and presented Academic papers in numerous places and some of her highlights are:

The World Summit on Sustainable Development – the Civil Society Section in Johannesburg South Africa in August/ September 2002;

The United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women – Civil Society Program on ‘Financing for Development Agenda – Review of the Monterrey Consensus in 2008 in New York, USA (refer to some comments by participants on (;

The joint Africa-European Union Strategic Partnership Policy Conference at the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium in October 2009 (refer to

She also appeared as a keynote speaker at the Geneva Conference on the intersections of Technology, Economy and Ethics/ Theology (biotechnologies in particular) in the 21st century for the Central Committee meeting of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in 2006. The Central Committee is the highest gathering and decision-making body of the WCC.

LenkaBula has in the past provided Advisory Services on Ethics and Governance to globally renowned international organizations such as Globethics, Council for World Mission, World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the World Council of Churches, South African Council of Churches and Ecumenical Services for Economic Transformation. She has also engaged with high-net-worth families and individuals on corporate Citizenship, governance and social Justice. In order to ensure that her academic and intellectual work are in concert with her academic work, LenkaBula has continued to engage with other universities including visiting scholarships at Vasteras, Sweden and the University of Toronto, among others.

Prof. LenkaBula is committed to knowledge production, innovation and the advancement of socio-economic development in South Africa, Africa and the world, for the benefit of Africa in particular.





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