What Leadership with Integrity Looks and Sounds Like


A few weeks ago a water pump broke in Grahamstown, South Africa, home of the prestigious Rhodes University. The South African equivalent of Yale, Rhodes is located in an old colonial town surrounded by historically black and Coloured (the term used for mixed people of black African and Afrikaner, i.e. settler Dutch, descent) townships and much poverty.

Several years earlier in 2006, the university had selected Dr. Saleem Badat, a sociologist and scholar who had fought against Apartheid, paid his dues through having suffered torture and incarceration, as its highest officer—its Vice-Chancellor.

Assuming leadership of the university, he has fought hard to create an environment of dignity, where everyone, from custodial worker to student to faculty to administrative staff is held with respect.

An administrator like few I have ever encountered, he insists on only demanding of his colleagues and staff what he himself would do. Thus, he declined a higher salary and had the funds diverted to students and projects in the local community and writes books while administrating because he expects the faculty to produce research and excellent scholarship.

His life-partner and he contribute their spare time (and funds) to addressing the conditions of poverty in the neighboring community. Rhodes University, as he sees it, is not a place that just happens to be in Grahamstown. It is a citizen of the municipality.

Water, since the horrible policies of privatizing it, is no small matter in South Africa. On the 9th day of no service, Vice Chancellor Badat put on his regalia and led a community march through the city to confront the authorities. Along with him is something rarely seen these days in South Africa: a mixed crowd of blacks, whites, and Asians as far as the eye could see, of poor, middle class, and the well off, of the disposed and the fortunate.

Vice-Chancellor Badat, with a bullhorn in his hand, addressed the issues at hand. An official of the state then responded, after which the Vice-Chancellor stated the following: “I would like to say that ultimately we are marching today not only for ourselves, this is not only about the students and the academics at Rhodes, we are [demanding services] for everyone in this town.”

Dr. Saleem Badat never forgot his roots. “The people,” for him, are well embodied by those who joined him in protest: the maids, the street cleaners, the homeless, the students, his colleagues—everyone.

There is an important lesson to be learned here. What is the point of words without deed? Taking to the streets, speaking out against wrong, isn’t that the important lesson to be taught, especially so from the top?

We know the response of critics, especially those in the northern hemisphere, of such action, and this makes sense where the top is, in spite of much denial, the source of the problem in an age of high-finance globalism and unbridled greed.

I salute Dr. Saleem Sabat for reminding us that such a cynical view of life doesn’t have to be so as he continues to keep his eyes on the prize of freedom and dignity. Aluta continua!

For more on this protest, see:


And for a videotape of the protest with his speech, see:


And for links on Vice-Chancellor Badat, see, e.g.:


© Lewis R. Gordon