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Leading change: African conceptions of leadership and transformation in higher education in South Africa

Dr. David I. Bell

University of Massachusetts, 525 East Pleasant Street, Amherst, Massachusetts, 01002 United States of America


Paper presented at Higher Education Close Up 2, an international conference, 16-18 July 2001, Lancaster University. This conference is supported by The Society for Research into Higher Education and The Higher Education Development Centre, Lancaster University.



I am extremely grateful to the Vice-Chancellors of the Historically Black Universities in South Africa who were willing to shared their precious time and thoughts with me. I am grateful too for their compassion and their interests and support of my research. I trust that this study brings about a deeper understanding of the challenging and courageous leadership roles that these men and women play in the critical process of leading higher education and in shaping our new democracy.


During the colonial and apartheid eras, higher education played an historically strategic and insidious role in shaping South African society. Today, higher education continues to play a significant role as an agency of the state in helping to shape the social transformation process toward democracy. The current cadre of Vice-Chancellors continue to play a critical role in this process and in the light of democratic transformation and social transparency, their decisions and actions have become a matter of public scrutiny.

While current higher education policy emphasizes the phenomena of institutional and social transformation highlighting the social accountability role of higher education in the national social change process, emergent policy advocates for a change of governance from the traditionally centralized power of the Vice-Chancellery to a more equitable and participatory approach termed cooperative governance. Vice-Chancellors, particularly at Historically Black (Disadvantaged) Universities are accountable both institutionally and socially to ameliorate the process institutional and social transformation while transforming their leadership roles in, and of this process. Vice-Chancellors are both agents of transformation and targets of transformation.

In political and social spheres, the term transformation has emerged as the encompassing mantra for all democratic processes and has become a vague and rhetorical term associated with a diverse range of change processes. Understanding the phenomena of transformation and the role of leadership in higher education is critical to understanding the nexus between understanding emergent policy in understanding higher educations and the role of leadership in the national, social change process.

This study applies phenomenological phenomenographic methodology and in-depth interviews to explore and graph the tacit conceptions of the Vice-Chancellors of Historically Black Universities in South Africa. The research focuses on the phenomena of transformation, leadership and social change assuming that synergistically, Vice-Chancellors' tacit conceptions of these phenomena will frame an African notion of Transformative Leadership in higher education.

The research findings reveal that although Vice-Chancellors share similar challenges and concerns, their conceptions are not sufficiently congruent to define a singular, homogeneous African mode of Transformative Leadership. Although higher education is conceptually located within a process of social transformation, the research preceded from the assumption that the common mode of leadership of transformation would be transformational and this was clearly not the case. Participants expressed that a single explicit mode of African leadership was not also desirable to define.

The role of VC in HBU's in South Africa is enormously complex and challenging and the new Ministry may need to re-conceptualize the role and function of the Vice chancellor in Higher Education in South Africa min relation to the conceptual positions of institutional governance and leadership expressed in emergent higher education policy.


Africa needs change to ensure its development. Reform in education must be the starting point towards meaningful social change, not just for the sake of change, but in order to improve the quality of human life.

Julius Nyerere, 1974

The social context of higher education in South Africa

Nyerere's (1974) words capture an important facet of the process of decolonization that swept through Africa in the later half of the 20th century. His words also succinctly assert a deeper conception of the role that education has, and should continue to play in the social change process in post-colonial Africa. Sadly, however, most African countries continue to struggle with the legacies of colonialism that pervade the structures and systems of society and that defile the social reconstruction process. These legacies are most evident in the educational systems and structures that remain as relics of the colonizing powers. Education reform is therefore imperative and strategic to the post-colonial social and economic revival of Africa but he process of renaissance in Africa is painful. For too long, others have spoken on behalf of Africa. The process of transformation must now be determined for Africans, by Africans.

Nelson Mandela's release from incarceration in 1990 captures a significant moment of this process. Although his legacy stands as an icon of the process of liberation and emancipation for all Africans, it also symbolizes a larger international trend, driven largely by the West and the North, toward globalization and democratization. In Africa, African democracy has emerged through bloodied struggles with oppressive political systems of governance, and in most cases, has resulted in processes of indigenous re-conceptualizing and restructuring of society and systems of governance that in some cases, do not resemble democracy as advocated by the West.

The democratic process in South Africa has brought about renewed interest in the role of education as a vehicle of the social change process and the function of leadership of the process of transformation is a critical element. The transparent nature of participatory democracy has induced a renewed and critical scrutiny of the actions of prominent political figures and leaders of the change process, not the least, prominent educational leaders and specifically, the leadership of Historically Black higher education institutions.

Makgoba, (himself a recent target of racially induced critical public and institutional scrutiny), argued that 'higher education institutions are the only major sectors within South African society that have not given evidence before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and that they have much to answer for' (Makgoba, 1997, p 17). Because the previous cadre of higher education leaders and administrators played a critical role in perpetuating colonial and apartheid political ideology through implementing discriminatory and repressive state policy, the current cadre of higher education leaders have a significant transformative and reparatory role to play in the transformation of South African society - through the strategic leadership of their institutions.

All higher education institutions in South Africa are, by their legislative mandate, public institutions and assets of the state, and therefore the leadership of these institutions are employees and agents of the state. Vice-Chancellors are therefore simultaneously agents of transformation, leaders of transformation and targets of transformation. This sets up tenuous relationship between the tacit and explicit goals of the state, and the personal and professional conceptions and actions of institutional leaders. It is imperative to the democratic transformation process to understand their conceptions of policy and of critical social phenomena inherent to policy, both as institutional leaders and as prominent public social figures.

As the legacies of the previous political era continue to frustrate even the noblest intent of transformers and leaders of transformation, their actions are often clouded in suspicion. In order to better understand transformation and the role of higher education in the process of facilitating change in South Africa, three critical questions arise:

  • How do the leaders of social and institutional transformation conceptualize the phenomenon of transformation?

  • How do the leaders of social and institutional transformation conceptualize the phenomenon of leadership of this critical social process?

  • What role should higher education institutions and their leadership play in the current social transformation process?

Providing answers to these questions and, relating these conceptions to current policy is the primary goal of this research. However, Seepe (1998), a prominent Black South African scholar, social critic and educational leader, cautions that the debate concerning the meaning of leadership in the new South Africa cannot be complete without the authentic participation of African leaders in this process. He argues that the rationale for this process is to 'falsify the myth that Africa cannot make a meaningful contribution to universal human progress and that this process should provide both a critique of the dominant Western epistemological paradigm from an authentic, African perspective and an assertion of that which is African' (Seepe, 1998, p v). It is therefore imperative to contextualize this study within the social context of current higher education policy and to adopted a methodology and research process that is respectful of that which is African.

Higher education policy

a. The current policy framework

The range of processes and policies directed at restructuring higher education, and specifically the most recent policy document entitled, Towards a New Higher Education Landscape: Meeting the Equity, Quality and Social Development Imperatives of South Africa in the 21st Century (July 2000), are an admirable testimony of the new Ministry of Educations' intent to transform and rationalize higher education institutions in harmony with national processes of social transformation. These policy documents pose renewed challenges and ambiguous tensions for the process of higher education transformation, and in particular, for the leadership of higher education.

The recently appointed think-tank on higher education transformation, the National Commission on Higher Education (NCHE), use the term transformation liberally in the various position papers and policy proposals. The NCHE Policy Framework for Higher Education Transformation (1996, p.1) proposes that:

Higher education can play a pivotal role in the political, economic and cultural development and reconstruction of South Africa. To preserve what is valuable and to address what is defective requires transformation. The system of higher education must be reshaped to serve a new social order, to meet pressing national needs and to respond to a context of new realities and opportunities.

(NCHE, 1996, p.1)

Ironically, The Policy Framework for Higher Education Transformation (NCHE, 1997) asserts the term transformation liberally but does not explicitly defined or conceptually formulate it. Similarly, the concept of cooperative governance is explicitly advocated in a range of policy documents, but is also tenuously defined. Vice-Chancellors find themselves in the politically and socially contested positions of interpreting and enacting these ill-defined but critical concepts of policy. The challenge of interpreting and enacting institutional transformation policy is further exacerbated by contradictions emerging from new higher education policy (Including the Higher Education Bill of 1997) that stands in contrast to traditional modes of strong, directive leadership of Vioce-Chancellors and;

NCHE, A Programme for the Transformation of Higher Education (1997, pp, 18-20.)

b. Cooperative governance

In South Africa, Vice-Chancellors are primarily scholars and secondarily institutional administrators. Although all Vice-Chancellors of HBU's have extensive scholarly records, few have formal administrative qualifications or institutional leadership experience. The challenge of enacting policy and maintaining scholarly autonomy and institutional integrity is further framed by current policy pertaining to transformation and cooperative governance of higher education where the Higher Education Bill of 1997 explicitly emphasizes the term cooperative governance in preference to the term leadership.

HBU Vice-Chancellors are clearly scholarly leaders who possess significant political leadership acumen however, there is a lack of clarity of the role and function of Vice-Chancellor, specifically as this relates to the intersection of the concepts of cooperative governance and institutional leadership. The Higher Education Bill (1997, p 26) simply states, 'The principal of a public higher education institution is responsible for the management and administration of the public higher education institution'. The National Commission on Higher Education, by contrast, broadly defines the role of institutional leader as 'enacting the principles of cooperative governance' (NCHE, 1996, p 4). Cooperative governance is defined as 'an acknowledgement of the competing and complementary interests, interdependence and common goals of different role players ... balancing participation with effectiveness, while sharing power, responsibility and accountability ... requires negotiation of industrial relations within the framework of the labor Relations Act' (NCHE, 1996, p 12). The outcome of this policy is that it presents a significant tension for Vice-Chancellors as they enact their challenging roles as leaders of transforming institutions while internalizing and enacting governance policy that challenges their traditional leadership power- base and styles of leadership upon which much institutional transformation is currently dependent.

c. Transformation

In South Africa, the term transformation has become synonymous with processes of democratic change and has emerged as the popular mantra for almost all social change. Transformation is used to define and validate an immense range of social and political change processes and as a result, it is fast becoming rhetorical and its semantic essence is vague. In its positive sense, transformation is used as a sweeping descriptor of positive democratic change and as an affirming descriptor of those committed to the struggle for democracy. In its antithetical form (not-transformative), it is asserted as highly politicized juxtaposition to change and a typology of all who are perceived to be unwilling to change and is used to chastise those who legitimately oppose popular political positions and policy. Not transforming or being perceived as 'not transformative' is touted as an indicator of resistance to the democratic change process and is equated to capitulating to the principles of apartheid and oppression. The popular assumption is that there is either rhetoric or evidence of transformation, or there is capitulation to a previous era of social oppression.

Although the term has a sweeping social application, it has no congruent semantic definition and no neutral position, and this is clearly problematic for understanding the various processes and policies that advocate transformation. The concept transformation and the process of leading change clearly needs to regain a grounded and popular semantic form that will have clarity, legitimacy and relevance to the process of social change, particularly as this relates to educations' role in the social change process.

The voices of Black Africans have however traditionally been disaffirmed and thereby neglected from the hegemonic higher education debate. The conceptions of these significant African leaders should therefore be central to re-conceptualizing the tenets of transformation, and it is argued that the appropriate place to begin the process of conceptualizing and defining the concept of transformation is from within the system of higher education.

Research focus and tensions

a. Conflicting epistemological paradigms

While the concepts of transformation and leadership are explicitly at the heart of the movement toward a new social democracy, higher education, and in particular higher education's leaders are a fundamental component of the process of conceptualizing and actualizing both social and institutional transformation.

The specific focus of this study places the research process and the findings, in a tenuous social and political relationship, in the light of Seepe's argument above. Excluding the voices of Africans in favor of empirical research of transformative leadership would be a capitulation of the Western epistemological research paradigm of the other 'looking in'. Conversely, focusing exclusively on African voices and denying the existence of the Western epistemology would be similarly skewed. This study is an attempt to mediate the tension by acknowledging the Western theory-base traditionally associated with academic research while simultaneously attempting to remain sensitive to, and affirming of the African voice. The findings of the study are therefore not discussed comparatively and in relation to Western theory, but are offered as a legitimizing alternate African perspective in the field of leadership toward an understanding of the process of leadership of transformation in higher education.

The focus of the study

This paper explores the conceptions of transformation and leadership, not as an affirmation or as an alternative to Transformational Leadership (Burns, 1978, and Bass 1981), but as a collective African perspective of the concepts of transformation and leadership that synergistically merge to form the concept, Transformative Leadership (Tierney, 1989). It is also primarily an attempt to describe and thereby authenticate one source of an African perspective of leadership and transformation, as a means of understanding the process of institutional leadership and secondarily, as a contribution to the existing theory-base of leadership and specifically higher education leadership and administration. The narrow focus of the study does not claim to represent the voices of all Africans, all Black South Africans or the views of all leaders and administrators in higher education in South Africa. It is specifically contextualized within historically Black higher education in South Africa, and the findings are therefore limited to an understanding of one socially significant group's conceptions of transformation, leadership and the process of leading transformation.

The socio-political identity of the researcher

A central tension of this study arises out of the socio-political identity of the researcher, being a white, male South African researching the personal and professional notions of influential Black intellectuals. This, viewed from the perspective of the history socio-cultural context and social power patterns in South Africa, sets up a dynamic of the study which the researcher has contended with through the selection of phenomenography in preference to other qualitative or ethnographic methodologies. Phenomenography, both in its assumptions about the nature of reality and in the process of analyzing data and reporting findings (structural analysis and structural synthesis and graphing the range of perspectives of a particular phenomenon) provided a research methodology that mediated between the tensions created by the identity of the researcher and the necessary but sensitive nature of inquiry into the challenging and contested phenomena of this study.

The research paradigm

In an attempt to remain sensitive to the historical, social and political nature of education in South Africa and, while remaining congruent with Western norms and standards of research, the study utilized a phenomenological phenomenographic methodology. Phenomenography is a pragmatic methodology that has been used primarily to explore learner's conceptions of learning (Marton, 1988 and 1994). In its phenomenological form, it has also been used to explore social phenomena (Lane, 1962; and, Theman, 1980), with the intent of identifying and delimiting the range of individual perspectives of a social phenomenon in order to better understand how a particular sector of people conceptualize a singular social phenomena, similarly or differently. Data was analyzed on a descriptive level as opposed to a conceptual level as may be the case in pure phenomenological research.. Phenomenographically enabled the researcher to explore and describe the range of conceptions of critical social phenomena from a qualitative perspective while still maintiaining a critical social distance between the data and the findings. It also enabled the researcher to explore and discuss these findings phenomenologically (as social realities of phenomena - as these appear to the subjects in the study).

Theman (1980) used phenomenography to study the social phenomenon of power and his study draws on an earlier study of social phenomena by Lane (1962) which explored the political ideologies of citizens in order to understand the relationship between the conceptual and descriptive nature of reality. Like the phenomena of power and political ideology, transformation and leadership are social phenomena that are used broadly and extensively, but which have inadequate semantic and conceptual definition in south Africa.

Phenomenography enabled the researcher to objectively delimit the range of conceptions as a conceptual point of reference of the conceptual social constructs (or phenomena), thereby defining a frame of reference for the phenomena, as they related to the specific social context higher education in South Africa (phenomenographic), and threrby facilitating the analysis in relation to emergent policy.


Phenomenography is 'the empirical study of the limited number of qualitatively different ways in which various phenomena in, and aspects of the world around us, are experienced, conceptualized, understood, perceived and apprehended' (Marton 1994 p.4424). Phenomenography is a theoretically deductive research paradigm that aims to produce elements of grounded theory and this paradigm stands in contrast to research paradigms that are theoretically inductive, causal-comparative or experimental by nature.

For the purpose of framing the methodology of this study, the definition of phenomenography of Gall, Borg and Gall, (1996, p 602), is adopted as; 'a specialized methodological process of inquiry for the study of the different ways in which people conceptualize the world around them and the analysis of data based on the assumption of a limited number of qualitatively different ways of perceiving a phenomena and grouped into categories of conceptions'.

Phenomenography is therefore the study of variation and congruence, between and among the different ways a group of individuals experience and conceptualize the same phenomenon. Phenomenography differentiates itself from phenomenology, in its philosophical assumption about research, i.e. the qualitatively limited number of ways of conceptualizing a phenomenon, termed 'outcome space'; and at the level of data analysis i.e. the analysis of data in terms of similar or different themes or conceptions as the units of analysis and comparison. In phenomenology, the individual in the study is the unit of analysis, and research comparisons are made across individuals and not within groups, as is the case of phenomenography.

Phenomenography and social phenomena

Phenomenography has not been used extensively in studying social phenomena but has found wide application in the study of student learning. An early milestone phenomenographic study of social phenomena by Theman (1980) serves as the core conceptual frame for this study. Theman studied how people viewed political power within the Swedish system, in response to a critical social moment where random citizens of Gothenborg were interviewed regarding their perceptions of a public demonstration in Gottenborg. Theman's study provides the methodological link between phenomenographic studies that have traditionally focused on learning in educational settings and the study of social phenomena in actual social settings. His study is both phenomenographically empirical and socio-contextually sensitive. This research attempts to emulate phenomenographic methodology and remain sensitive to and affirming of the social setting and power dynamics of the study.

Phenomenography and higher education

Recent phenomenographic studies point to its increasing frequency of use in studying phenomena pertaining to higher education (Attinasi, 1991). Most studies have concentrated on phenomena implicit in teaching and learning with little application of the methodology to higher education administration and policy-making. One series of studies by Breen (1999) has explored phenomenography as a tool in the process of institutional policy-making in higher education.

Phenomenography and the social outcome

From an epistemological perspective, and in the words of Ference Marton, 'phenomenographers do not make statements about the world as such, but about people's conceptions of the world' (Marton, 1988, p 145) and these conceptions are assumed to contain qualitatively different ways that individuals think about and understand a phenomenon. Marton (1988) suggests that the structurally significant categorizations of descriptions are the research findings, and in turn, these categories are the research results. In the case of this study, phenomenography provided the range of categories of conceptions for the analysis of these in relation to policy.


This study highlighted a range of challenges including the socio-political historicity and context of the study; the focus on higher education and transformation in a transforming society; and, the racial identity and gender of the researcher juxtaposed against the racial, social and gender identity of the participants in the study and proposes phenomenography as the appropriate methodology for the study.

Modes of phenomenography

A number of modes of phenomenography have been documented (Hasselgren, 1997), each of which is similar in respect of the phenomenographic manner in which data is analyzed and interpreted, but different in the specific research intent, the source of data, the conditions under which data is collected and, the mode of data collection. Experimental phenomenography is arguably the original form of phenomenography evolving in the 1970' and aims at using rigorous manipulated conditions to assess qualitative differences in learning outcomes, often using conventional, quantitative measures to delimit the qualitative differences in the learning outcomes among learners. Hermeneutic phenomenography is defined as the critical exploration and interpretation of a phenomenon through the analysis and interpretation of texts and statements not originally compiled for research purposes. Naturalistic phenomenography, attempts to collect empirical material for phenomenographic analysis from uncontextualized, actual, lived experiences of people. Marton (1979) suggests that this form of phenomenography focuses on the world around us and aims to map the collective mind.

Phenomenological phenomenography

Phenomenological phenomenography is a relatively more recent form of phenomenography and is best reflected in the work of Theman (Conceptions of Political Power, 1983) and Uljen (Phenomenological features of phenomenography, 1992). These studies are not typical of the other phenomenographic modes in that the outcomes of the learning are not the specific focus of the phenomenographic analysis as are the phenomenological experiences of the subjects. This mode balances phenomenographic research intent and data capture methods with phenomenological analysis, interpretation and discussuion of the data. Van Kaam (1966, p 46) suggests that phenomenological phenomenographic research 'sets the stage for more accurate empirical investigations by lessening the risk of premature selection of methods and categories'.

Phenomenological phenomenography, in contrast to pure phenomenological research, does not attempt to describe or discover what 'effective' leadership is or how leadership 'should' link to transformation or social change. Rather, it attempts to delimit the qualitatively similar or different categories and trends out of the various ways that leaders view a phenomenon, in this case, leadership and transformation. The range of conceptions could be hypothesized as an emergent 'African' notion of leadership and transformation or transformative leadership. Essentially, phenomenological phenomenographic research explores the 'conceptual' rather than the 'experiential' realities of individuals and attempts to find congruence (or categories) among the various interviewees' conceptions of a phenomena, in this case the phenomena of leadership and transformation.

Research design

Data gathering and interviews

Each of the ten Vice-Chancellor Historically Black Universities in South Africa were interviewed for approximately two and a half hours. Interviews took place in the professional offices of each Vice-Chancellor and interviews were audiotaped with the consent of the interviewee. Each interview explored the broad and conceptual nature of the phenomena namely, transformation, leadership and the social juncture of institutional leadership in social transformation.

Interviewing took the form of in-depth (Seidman, 1998), elite or expert interviews (Marshall and Rossman, 1999). Elite or expert phenomenological interviewing is broadly defined as a specialized interview with individuals who are considered influential, prominent or well informed about a phenomena or area of interests, and on this basis, are selected for their assumed expertise in the area relevant to the research. It is assumed that in the case of this research, Vice-Chancellors are influential and prominent and that they have both a systemic 'macro' (etic) perspective of leadership and social and institutional transformation as well as personal 'micro' (emic) perspectives of the phenomena.

Phenomenographic data analysis

Phenomenography is grounded in the position that conceptions and ways of understanding phenomena are not viewed as individual qualities and therefore phenomenographic research does not attempt to determine the objective nature of reality of each of the subjects of the study. Rather, phenomenographic analysis produces 'categories of description' and a 'range of conceptions' (Theman, 1980) of a single phenomenon across the subjects of a study. These form a frame of cognitive constructs with which to re-examine and thereby understand the conceptions that individuals in the study have of the particular phenomenon (Marton, 1981, p 178).

The process of phenomenographic analysis initially seeks to identify and delimit the range of categories of description that individuals have of a central phenomenon, and then collectively the range of conceptions that the study group assigns to a particular phenomenon. Marton (1981) distinguishes the outcomes of the two levels of analysis as 'first order perspectives' and 'second order perspectives'. First order analysis aims to describe and categorize each individual's experiences that are then used in the second order analysis. Understanding the first order perspectives is therefore an essential first step of the analysis process in order to achieve the second order perspective.

In phenomenographic research and analysis, the categories of conceptions are not pre-assumed and the process of analysis, both individually and collectively, does not pre-empt the research in order to prove or disprove a hypothesis or to link the findings to a particular theoretical point of reference. Rather, the conceptual categories that emerge out of the actual conceptions of the individuals in the initial phases of analysis are used to analyze and synthesize the research data at the secondary level of analysis and these findings ultimately become the research findings. In simpler terms, the research does not analyze data with pre-formed conceptual categories or theoretical constructs in mind - but rather allows the categories and themes to emerge from the initial analysis, and then uses these to explore the frequency and qualitative distinctions of these conceptual categories across the range of participants in the study. As a consequence of following this phenomenographic process of systematically analyzing data, a four phases process of analysis emerged comprising eleven distinct steps.

The data analysis process

The first phase of analysis (concretization of data) aimed to accurately and concisely capture and concretize the personal voices and dialogue of the interviews into workable text-as-data. The first step involve formalizing the interviews and personal reflections of the audio-taped interviews through detailed transcriptions capturing the exact words and verbal nuances in an attempt to capture the essence and implied contextual significance given to words by interviewees. The second step involved a first, thorough reading of the typed transcripts, checking for accuracy and omission between the transcriptions and the voice recordings. The original transcripts were then changed and corrected based on a simultaneous reading of transcripts and listening to the interviews. The corrected transcripts were then re-printed. The transcripts ranged from between 14 and 22 pages of single line-spaced, ten point text per interview. The third step of this phase involved a lay-off period of time of about a month from the time that the transcriptions were corrected and read in this form for the first time, and the point in time when the transcripts were to be analyzed in the second phase of analysis. This was designed as a time for the researcher to place some conceptual 'distance' between the personal and interpersonal processes of collecting the data (interviewing) and transcribing the personal interviews, and the beginning of the process of detailed analysis of the interviews as data as opposed to individual personal statements. This can be described as a process whereby the researcher systematically de-personalized the data, from the interviews, through the transcriptions and eventually into anonymous text.

The second phase of analysis (textural analysis) (Borg, Gall and Borg, 1997) included a further three steps. Step four involved a second thorough reading of the transcripts. Each transcript was read following Gilligan's (1990) suggestion of repeated readings of the transcripts, interspersed with a period of time in-between each reading in order to allow the data to 'settle' in the mind of the researcher and to allow for natural - as opposed to imposed or 'forced' - trends and themes to emerge conceptually, and prior to the process of deliberately searching for themes and categories. Notes and comments relating to emerging themes and categories were inserted into the transcripts along with relevant information and reflections taken from the researchers journal. Insert comments were italicized in order to distinguish between data and inserted comments. This was done in order to include into each data set, highlights and contextual nuances of each interview and as a means of keeping the emergent themes with the original data source. The fifth step involved formatting each interviewee's transcript in a different type-font and reprinting the transcripts. This allowed the researcher to separate and re-collate the relevant pieces of transcripts according to the three phenomena, without losing track of the source of the text, i.e. the text of each interviewee was identifiable through the specific type-font. This process of collation brought together the original individual conceptions (transcripts) into similar clusters of data relating to conceptions of a single phenomenon, allowing the researcher to view the collective range of conceptions as a single source of text and simultaneously able to determine the range of perspectives within the single cluster of text. This process of collation formed step six of the process.

The third phase (structural analysis) involved two further steps. Step seven captured the essence of the data for each interviewee by further refining each interviewee's transcript into précis of each phenomena. The words and phrases of the interviewees were used in constructing the précis. Non-essential and unrelated words, phrases and sentences were omitted in order to bracket and include only those essential thoughts and conceptions pertinent to the study questions and to the phenomena being explored. As is pertinent to phenomenographic analysis, iterations of words often reflect unclear attempts at conceptualizing unformed or emerging conceptions of phenomena and these are often expressed in unclear or repetitive word sequences and incomplete sentences. Clear, deliberate statements were interpreted as elaborations of pre-formed conceptions of phenomena. Each précis roughly follows the sequence of thoughts as they were expressed in the interviews. Précis are presented in the first person and the original tense of the interview is generically transferred into the present tense for ease of reading, analysis and comparison. Step eight involved using the précis to delimit and define the categories and themes. This process of defining themes and categories of description is referred to as creating the 'outcome space' (Marton, 1988) of the research that in turn determines the framework within which the fourth phase of analysis takes place. Themes were recorded and synthesized into categories, and then compared across participants and the thematic matrices are presented in section 2.

Phase four (structural synthesis) (Borg et al, 1997; and Cresswell, 1998) involved re-examining the original transcripts of all seven interviewees for frequency, congruence and divergence from the emergent conceptual categories thereby graphing the range of conceptions of a particular phenomenon - as they emerged from within the sample group. This was done in step nine where the emergent categories of description are defined and delimited, and step ten where the range of conceptual categories become the phenomenographic findings. Step eleven involved the categorization of congruent themes and the presentation of matrices of themes across the interviewees and the process of constructing meaning from the findings

The four phases of analysis provided a fluid yet distinct process that enabled the researcher to progressively lift out the essential structural elements of the particular phenomenon, as they emerged descriptively, conceptually and contextually out of each interviewee's verbal conceptions, a process described by Patton (1990, p 393) as the inductive analysis of indigenous typologies. This occurred in the first three phases of the process of analysis and resulted in the 'outcome space' (Marton, 1981) and research categories. The fourth phase produced the structural synthesis or 'graphing' (Marton, 1981) of the range of categories of conceptions and the thematic matrices, and ultimately the research findings.

Marton refers to researchers' notions and preconceived assumptions as needing to be 'held in check' in the process of analyzing and synthesizing data. Marton (1988, p 153) describes the process of phenomenographic research as 'bracketing the researchers' preconceived notions and depicting their immediate experience of the studied phenomenon through a reflexive turn, a bending consciousness back upon itself'. He further states that the aim of phenomenographic research is the 'studying of other people's experiences rather than one's own - a transcendence of one's own experience and phenomenological notions'.



Modern South African society, and in particular, the education sector, uses the term transformation liberally but diffusely. The assumption of this research was that because the term transformation is extensively used, it would have a tacit common, generic or socially conceived essence. The assumption of this study was also that the process of exploring the tacit conceptions of Vice-Chancellors would produce a collective and explicit conception. This study indicates the opposite and the implications are important.

The Vice-Chancellors from HBU's who participated in this study conceptualized the phenomenon of transformation in three distinctly different ways. One conceptual perspective is that transformation is a process of social change that is complex, amorphous and politically contextual, and that transformation takes place on both a social and political level. A second conceptual perspective is that transformation is neither a process nor a single phenomenon, but rather that it is a descriptor of a wide range of social change phenomena. A third perspective is that transformation is a personal and internal process of change that is observable on the individual level of change, but is assumed at the collective level. What is central to all of the various conceptions of transformation is that it is a process, and that it implies change. Although not a remarkable finding, the significance of the lack of conceptual unity is important.

Vice-Chancellors that conceptualized transformation as a process of fundamental social change tended to also advocate a social and political perspective of the broader change process. This group of Vice-Chancellors also suggested that a close, positive relationship exists between higher education and government in facilitating the social change process. The group advocated for strong, charismatic and visionary leadership of the process of transformation. The implication of this frame of conceptualization of transformation is that Vice-Chancellors who perceive their roles as crucial agents of a larger political and social change process by implication also view their institutions as socially responsive catalysts of change initiated and shaped by the larger political process. Vice-Chancellors functioning from within this conceptual paradigm were generally less critical of the Ministry of higher education and more accepting of recent policy relating to higher education transformation and cooperative governance.

The group of Vice-Chancellors that conceptualized transformation as a rhetorical and descriptive term as opposed to a positive process, although diametrically opposite in terms of their rationales, tended to view the change processes with which transformation was associated as political or social. This is an important distinction because it stands in contrast to the final conceptual perspective of two Vice-Chancellors who viewed transformation as a personal or intra-personal process. These two conceptual perspectives (rhetorical and semantic) suggested that higher education and in particular, higher education leadership had a minor role to play in the broader social change process and that their primary responsibility was as scholars and academics. The implication is that these Vice-Chancellors subscribing to this perspective may view the internal functioning of their respective institutions as more important than the social responsiveness of their institutions to the broader social and political process. In the two cases, policy relating to higher education transformation was not overtly endorsed and the process of policy formulation was viewed with mild cynicism. They viewed the catalyst of institutional transformation as coming from within the institution and not from external policy that mandated reform.

The third group that conceptualized transformation as a personal and intra-personal change process also conceptualized the leadership role of Vice-Chancellor as a strong, top-down, executive type leader. The implications of this conceptual position is that strong leadership is necessary to lead institutions and that individuals need to take responsibility for their own personal change. Institutional leadership was suggested as the process of raising individuals' awareness of the need to change. Vice-Chancellors subscribing to this conceptual perspective suggested and there was little or no social or political agenda to this mode of leadership. People-change was implied to be the catalyst for larger social change and higher education institutions therefore carried no broad social responsibility, but only responsibility to effect change in individuals. This is interpreted as a somewhat limited and socially acute perspective of the role of higher education and the function of leadership.


In relation to conceptions of leadership, there was a central synergy as regards leadership as a style. However, the specific styles of leadership as advocated did not have a strong transformative or empowering dimension. Most Vice-Chancellors conceptualized institutional leadership as assertive, visionary and charismatic ways of enacting their positions. In almost all cases, this was ironically juxtaposed with the expressed tension of not being able to lead institutions in a strong, visionary and charismatic ways due to imposed policy that mandated a cooperative and shared form of institutional functioning. The most common tenets that emerged out of these conceptions of institutional leadership were that Vice-Chancellors felt compelled to operate in a political, lobbying and advocacy mode in order to persuade individuals to move toward goals that they as leaders saw as important and strategic for the institution. They felt that they were not empowered to act as visionary leaders and therefore had to rely on a form of negotiated bargaining to move decision-making processes forward. This conception portrays clear indicators of a transactional mode of leadership as opposed to a transformational mode (Burns, 1986) and for this reason, the conception of transformative leadership in HBU's in South Africa has more in common with transactional leadership than transformational leadership.

The implications of these conceptions are that leaders felt disempowered by the process of transforming higher education toward more democratic and cooperative modes of decision-making and tacitly implied that although mandated to function in a cooperative manner, they would continue to seek strategies to lead institutions in bold, visionary ways as they perceived to be congruent with their appointment as Vice-Chancellors. They did however express firm commitment to cooperative and consultative processes to achieve their leadership and institutional goals. This notion of explicitly advocating participatory modes of institutional administration while tacitly enacting strong leader-centered modes, can be interpreted in relation to transformational leadership theory as a form of pseudo-transformational leadership (Bass 1996).

The juncture between higher education and social

It was assumed that collectively, conceptions of transformation and conceptions of leadership would merge into an indigenous notion of transformative leadership and that this notion would have a contextual application in the juncture created between higher education's process of transformation and the process of social transformation. Again, this research assumption was skewed and presumptuous as is evident from the lack of clear conceptions of Vice-Chancellors relating to the socially transformative role of higher education. Conceptions expressed relating to this phenomenon were confined to two conceptual perspectives. The first related to higher education as an organ of the state. The other implied that higher education should play a role as social ombudsperson on behalf of society. Again, viewed in relation to transformational leadership (Burns, 1978 and Bass, 1981), the broad socially empowering role that is traditionally associated with the agenda of transformational leaders is clearly absent from the conceptions of the Vice-Chancellors in this study.

An African notion of transormative leadership

Although no single perspective emerged of an African style or mode of leadership, and a strong resistance to conceptualizing this phenomenon was expressed, one central tenet did emerge. It was asserted that leadership, in an Afro-centric context, was highly contextual and firmly grounded in the need for relationships, both formal and informal. Vice-Chancellors however also acknowledged that, particularly in formal structures such as senate and council processes where formal authority and formal structure prevailed, the essence of effective leadership lay in the ability of leaders to nurture personal relationships outside of the formal structures and that the outcomes of informal relationships had an impact on their ability to lead and govern in formal contexts.


Vice-Chancellors are not specifically qualified and skilled to deal with the broad range of tasks and functions that Vice-Chancellors endure in the current South African higher education context. The administrative relics from the previous conservative and oppressive political eras litter the path of current Vice-Chancellors toward democratic and socially transforming modes of leadership.

This, compounded by the recent trend toward the centralized coordination of higher education (NCHE, 1996, p 24) and the advocacy of cooperative governance (NCHE, 1996, p 12) of institutions appears to support the suggestion by Scott (1996) that South African higher education is moving toward a democratic, managerial mode of administration and governance and traditional forms of leadership as envisioned by the Vice-Chancellors in this study are becoming redundant. Appropriately therefore, the indigenous African mode of institutional and transformative leadership which is emerging is being conceptualized and defined by Africans who themselves are located in the process of transformation. In the final analysis however, no central singular mode of transformative leadership has emerged and the implications are varied.

The current trend toward cooperative governance of institutions will prevail and the current cadre of Vice-Chancellors will play a significant role in shaping this process. Higher education will continue to serve as a significant social shaping agency and here Vice-Chancellors too will play a strategic role.

Since the South African higher education system closely followed the British model of higher education, it is useful to look at the changes and reforms in institutional governance in Britain, as a precursor to the changes that could emerge in the process of transformation in higher education in South Africa. Scott (1996) depicts higher education as reflecting four sociopolitical phases. The 'civic phase' of the late nineteenth century is defined as the period where lay people wielded considerable decision-making power over higher education. The 1920's through the 1950's is described as the 'donnish phase' of governance where Vice-Chancellors acted in concert with senior professors to form a model of elite collegiality in running institutions. The student revolts of the late 1960's culminated in the 'democratic' phase where the hierarchical powers of faculty and management were reduced and the power of students and staff elevated. The current 'managerial phase' is dominated by executive leadership and professional administration started in the early 1980's and is today characterized by a managerial style concerned with strategic planning, computerized systems and public relations. Currently, South Africa institutions, according to the NCHE report on higher education (1996) comprise a mix of the donnish, democratic and managerial models and can generally be described as an overall donnish collegial model. The experience of the research is that this model is less prevalent at HBU's and that a model of managerial fiat is more common. The donnish model however, according to the NCHE, will not survive the transition to the new, cooperative mode of governance and this position provides additional support of the need for this study to explore the current conceptions of leadership at HBU's.

This study has provoked more questions than it has provided clear and simple answers. If the reasoning is followed that leadership and transformation collectively result in a form of transformative leadership, then this field of leadership study still has much to offer the process of leadership in higher education in South Africa. The hope that existing leadership theory would be directly relevant to the study and that the findings of the study would contribute an African perspective to the largely Western theory base of transformational leadership was idealistic. However, two interesting possibilities for inquiry emerge from this study which could provide some movement in this direction.


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