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I Am UWC: Prof Kobus Visser retires from his ‘natural home’ after 35 years

Prof Kobus Visser wanted to be a mechanic when he grew up. But he became Dean of UWC’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences instead, guiding young minds for 35 years - while still finding time to revamp cars on the side.

Prof Visser believes in the power of a UWC education, and in the good an academic can accomplish - which is why, even though he’s stepping down as Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, he’s not leaving entirely...

Young Kobus Visser was in primary school in when the teacher asked the learners what they would like to become one day. The responses weren’t unusual: a doctor, an accountant, an advocate but these were things Kobus had never even heard of.  

“I grew up in a typical “blue-collar” community in Bellville and I was surrounded by tradesmen,” he explains. “They were technicians, first-line supervisors, with only a few professional qualified households. These were the only professions I was exposed to.”

“Naturally, when it was my turn to answer, I said I wanted to be a motor mechanic - and the whole class burst out laughing. It was a humiliating experience for me as a child and I thought to myself, ‘I will out-study each and everyone in this class’ - and in the end I did.”

He definitely did: As 2017 comes to a close, Prof Kobus Visser is retiring as a Professor and Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences at the University of the Western Cape (UWC).. He has been with the institution for an impressive 35 years (celebrated at the recent Long Services Awards ceremony) - but he’s not leaving entirely; he will be staying on as Emeritus Professor.

“This is where I found my home,” he says. “It is where I was shaped, and where many opportunities were made possible for me.”

With research interests in entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship and leadership, Kobus Visser has been the Professor in Entrepreneurship, Small and Medium Enterprise Management in the School of Business and Finance; has taught graduate courses in Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development, Ethics and Leadership; and has supervised several doctoral and master's candidates.

There have been exciting times, no doubt - he’s seen the University move from a so-called Bush college to the home of an intellectual and social movement, to the celebrated research and educational institution it is today.

“The Fees Must Fall Movement is nothing new to those of us who have been here this long,” he says. “We lived through the riots during difficult times under the leadership of the late Dick van der Ross, having to manage stressful situations with security police on campus.”

“We survived this period, because we stood together,” he notes. “I believe if you stand together, much can be accomplished. We inherited quite a different style of leadership from Prof Jakes Gerwel. He introduced UWC as the intellectual home of the left. It was the right thing to do.”

Looking back, he is proud to be associated with the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences.

“From the start it has been one of the few vehicles to help grant marginalized South Africans better access to the economy, which to me is a highlight of my career - the opportunity to help others through education.”  

He also has a few words of tough love for those in support of the Fees Must Fall Movement.

“Students have a valid argument, but I want those who destroy to ask themselves what they are leaving for their children and children’s children. Today’s students must understand that the facilities they have today are what they are borrowing from their own children. What will they answer if asked why they destroyed what was meant for the next generation?”

Kobus believes very much in the power of a UWC education - and on a personal level, he’s proud of obtaining a masters degree from the University himself.

“That opened doors for me,” he says, “and I want to encourage every student studying towards a masters to complete their studies. It will certainly open up new opportunities for them, too.”

He’s proud of the growth of the EMS Faculty over the past few years - and even prouder of the growth he’s sure is yet to come.

“We’ve grown and delivered quality graduates mostly in the public sector - it’s always a proud moment for me when I see how in the new South Africa, how many of our graduates are in senior and leadership positions,” he says.

“We also implemented new streams such as data analytics and several other streams at postgrad level. UWC has been at the forefront and created a platform to work on bigger things. I think of my contribution as being able to take a the group of people through their masters and PhD is my contribution to society.”

Rewiring rather than retiring

Prof Visser isn’t giving up the academic life completely, of course. He’s applied for Emeritus Professorship and is still involved as a supervisor for his postgrad students. And with a post-retirement contract for next year, he will still be involved with lecturing at UWC.

“I immensely dislike the word retirement,” he explains. “It’s so outdated; I think it is just a period of rewiring, and asking yourself who am I getting up for next in the morning.”

Life in the slightly slower lane will have benefits, of course. For one thing, there will be a bit more time for hobbies which include revamping cars, taking walks along the beach and enjoying nature. He also refers to himself as a closet motorcar mechanic.

“Those who have been with UWC long enough would know me as the guy who drove the 1956 Mercedes Benz. I revamped that car myself,” he laughs.

Visser has been married for nearly 40 years to his “one and only wife” (as he puts it), Deirdre - a former Springbok water skier, and still the current record holder for being the youngest to achieve this at the age of 12.

He is father to Karen Thomson a mother of two boys aged 11 and 9 and living in the states and a son Tiaan, who works for the Western Cape Government.

His message to students and to young academics is the same: keep on studying. Doors open for you once you obtain your PhD - it was certainly the case for me. And education is your ticket to freedom - remember that no matter what happens, no one is ever able to take away your education.”