The diminutive academic is the first black and woman (she is of coloured descent) in 100 years to occupy the vice-chancellor‘s seat at one of South Africa’s top former Afrikaans universities.
The University of Pretoria was once the bastion of Afrikanerdom – an institution that found a new lease of life under General Jan Smuts in the 1930s and thrived after becoming an Afrikaans-only institution under the National Party in 1948.
As a woman to hold this august position, she is special after all a dozen of her predecessors were pale, male, and of-course, Afrikaner.
De la Rey was chief executive officer of the Council on Higher Education and former deputy vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.
Born and raised in Durban, De la Rey completed her Bachelor of Arts, Honours and Master’s degrees at the University of Natal (now Kwazulu-Natal) and her PhD at the University of Cape Town. For her doctorate, she conducted research on women professors in the country so she knows what it is like to be kept out of the ivory towers of learning still run by an “old boys clubs”
Her rise to the top job in Pretoria is an astonishing story reflecting the transformation in South Africa which began when apartheid formally ended on 27 April 1994.
Out of the country’s 23 vice-chancellors she is just one of four – and holding the reins at what many consider one of the big four institutions in terms of size and prestige.
The cherry on top of her appointment as vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria in July 2010 was the fact that she is an English-speaking South African and never studied at an Afrikaans institution. “I don’t come from a traditional Afrikaans background, apart from the race and gender imperatives, I was an outsider, “she said in an interview last Thursday.
“My appointment shows that the university council and community made a decisive step that signalled they were ready to embrace change,” she added.
Change it certainly was. De la Rey is unlike any of her burly predecessors most of whom had the build and stature of rugby players. She is more like a gymnast.
“Reaction to my appointment has been positive. One Afrikaans-speaking group told a newspaper that I was not their first choice but they were willing to work with me. I met with them and am happy to tell you that they left knowing that there concerns, about language, had been allayed.”
The country’s Commission on Gender Equality also welcomed her appointment, saying that women should be considered for senior positions within the doors of learning in South Africa.
Three months before she celebrates her first year in charge, De le Rey says her appointment has sent a positive message to women academics. “The next generation will not face the same barriers. I was fortunate, before me; there were a number of women who occupied vice-chancellor posts at universities.
“As an academic, I interviewed many and was inspired by them,” she said.
De la Rey, conceded, however, that the number of women occupying the top jobs in seats of learning in the country remains too low. “Five years ago, we had four woman vice-chancellors…some years later, that figure remains four, so we have stagnated it would seem,” she said.
Students and staff, though, will tell you that De la Rey is holding her own on campus. Unlike the approach of the past which was a top down attitude, she is regularly seen walking around campus talking to students and staff.
She is a listener. “I would rather communicate and find that it is more effective talking to students and staff, getting their point of view, for example, we are establishing what values underpin the University of Pretoria.
“After widespread discussions and consultation, we decided together that we want the four pillars of our future values to be embodied by Quality, Relevance, Diversity and Sustainability,” she said.
“We plan to use these four principles to guide us in everything that we do as a university,” she said.
“Apart from transformation and other issues facing me, many from the Afrikaans community were cautious about my appointment, concerned about whether the university was going to become an English-speaking institution.
“We support multi-lingualism, teaching in English and Afrikaans, and also recently invested heavily in Sepedi (one of South Africa’s 11 official languages used by a large number of students attending the university,” she said.
De la Rey said in addition to challenges of race and gender, language was a barrier she was determined to fight against.
She said the university was looking at how the curriculum could improve the lives of people “not just in South Africa but the African continent and the world”.
She said experts recently came together on campus to discuss and find solutions tackling food security. “We want to ensure that the university responds as a whole to major issues so we don’t work in isolation from each other,” she said.
De le Rey added that another key initiative aimed at the African continent was around vetenarary sciences and that the university was looking at expanding its animal production studies beyond the university.”
However, as she heads towards her first year in charge at Pretoria, De la Rey said the responsive to her appointment has been overwhelmingly positive. “Most parents and students at the university will tell you that the big issue we are all passionate about is improving quality and relevance,” she said.
“As I head towards my first year, I can tell you that I feel accepted by the university, we are all on the same page in terms of what we want to achieve. In our staff we have some wonderful assets, some who have been here for decades, and all they want to do is make this place better.
“What has united Black and white and English and Afrikaans students more than anything is the desire to meet the highest academic standards,” she said.
De la Rey does not see herself as a transformation icon but as someone passionate about education and making a real difference – even if it means using her calming powers of negotiation, driving change in a world that was once run only by burly Afrikaner men.