25 June 2021 | Story Dr Nitha Ramnath | Photo Supplied
Prof Helena van Zyl

Prof Helena van Zyl, beloved, long-time academic and Head of the Business School at the University of the Free State (UFS), will retire at the end of June 2021 after arriving at the university more than 40 years ago and serving as Director of the Business School for 18 years. Prof Van Zyl has been a steady leader, not just in the Business School, but also for the vast array of students who made the UFS Business School their preferred choice. Starting out as a student assistant in the early ’80s in the then Department of Money and Banking, Prof Van Zyl progressed to become a junior lecturer in 1982, which placed her in a key position to eventually apply for Directorship of the Business School. 

The journey

“The university went through some very tough and equally delightful times; during the nineties, strict austerity measures were implemented. In 1987, the department received its first computer; one for the entire department. The internet was from a different planet. Some of the senior academics refused to use the internet and emails. All their letters and other communication were still typed by appointed typists. I saw many rectors, deans, colleagues come and go – each management era had its own challenges and opportunities.  In the end, it all worked out for the better,” says Prof Van Zyl.

“A highlight of my journey was the long road with my personal assistant, Alta Myburgh. I have known her since 1983 when she was a third-year student in my class, went on to become a student assistant, and with the exception of three years (if I remember correctly), she was next to me with loyalty that you will seldom find,” she explains. “When the Business School moved to its own address/building, it was certainly a highlight, but the ultimate was to contribute to students’ development and growth. For me, it has always been about the students and my staff,” says Prof Van Zyl. 

Invest in students and employees

Prof Van Zyl believes that success builds on integrity and that contributing to the development and growth of students and employees is integral to the success of any institution. “To add value to people’s lives is very rewarding.  One of the biggest lessons that I have learnt is that you need to empower the students and employees; invest in them, and they will invest in you. I am not convinced that we always got it right to manage our people correctly, but I guess this will remain an ongoing challenge,” she says. “I have learnt that if you create a platform of trust and belief in people, then they thrive,” explains Prof Van Zyl.

Looking forward

As Prof Van Zyl wraps up her journey at the UFS, she reflects on the past and what the future holds. “It was a privilege to work at the university, and I cannot extend enough gratefulness for all the opportunities I had. When I started working at the UFS, very few – if any – programmes were in place to assist new appointees with orientation, induction, etc., and you had to find your own way. I believe this has in a strange way contributed to one’s development and growth,” she says.

As for retirement, Prof Van Zyl is looking forward to travelling again, enjoy watching sport, gardening, and listening to classical music. “I will continue working part-time in the field of quality assurance, and also use this time to embrace new things. There is life after retirement,” she says.

Prof Van Zyl would like to be remembered for “sensitising people to seize the opportunities in life, and to make a difference – wherever you go, make a difference in your life and your work.”

Well wishes

Dr Liezel Massyn, Programme Director: BML Programme, UFS Business School

“Prof Helena embodies the Business School’s philosophy through the tagline, ‘Be worth more’. She challenges us to be worth more every day, in every aspect of our lives. She is a tough cookie. There are rules, and when you get to meet her, you learn very quickly that there is one way – the right way – to get things done. She asks tough questions and always strives to improve.  She taught us the unwritten rules of the academic world, the academic knowledge of her field (whether you want to hear it or not), and life skills to survive and thrive in challenging situations. She is always willing to walk a thousand miles with you and has a deep concern for her staff and students – always interested in everyone’s story and continuously investing in people. Prof, thank you for not only living – ‘Be worth more’ – but also inspiring the next generation to make it part of our values.”

Dr Johan Coetzee, Senior Lecturer, Department of Economics and Finance

“Prof Helena taught me from my second year of study in 1997 and was instrumental in my development as a scholar. She has set an example for so many people of a strong woman who gets things done, while at the same time showing such compassion that you are inspired. The UFS is losing one of the ‘legends’ of yesteryear. She will be impossible to replace.”

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