I am deeply humbled by the confidence that the council and community of Nelson Mandela University have shown in me to lead this key institution at such a critical time for higher education and for our transformative, developmental nation.
Many years ago, as one of the younger members of Nelson Mandela’s Cabinet, I answered to him, and I must confess, today, I cannot help but still feel accountable as I am installed as the chancellor of Nelson Mandela University.
Where are we headed? We’ll draw some of our inspiration from Africa’s rich academic traditions that can be traced back to Egypt, Morocco and Mali during what Europe self-diagnosed as its medieval period. Fifty-five years ago, in defiance of the then government’s best efforts to stifle our African heritage, Mandela undertook an African reconnection odyssey, travelling through 16 countries including Tanzania, Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco, Mali, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kenya — and then on to Britain before returning through Botswana. It was on this trip that our former president led an ANC delegation to the Pan African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa (later to become the Organisation for African Unity) and he of course used it for much more. Distinct footsteps, again …
So, humbled, inspired, accountable and one more: resolute … I am resolute in my conviction that this university — our university — will soar from its rock-solid foundations to become a giant African-based edifice of intellectual inquiry and advancement … a transdisciplinary centre of excellence.
As the titular head, I look forward to working with the vice-chancellor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, a woman of the highest academic calibre and integrity, and the chairperson of council, ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill, another role model. This is the only university to have a trio of women — strong women, unapologetically so — at the helm.
So where should our focus lie, as a nation, as a higher education sector — and closer to home — as Nelson Mandela University?
Our namesake described racism as “a blight on the human conscience”. He said: “The idea that any people can be inferior to another, to the point where those who consider themselves superior define and treat the rest as subhuman, denies the humanity even of those who elevate themselves to the status of gods.”
Many years later, just last month, in fact, a white woman became the first South African to be sentenced to a prison term for the use of racist language of a nature reminiscent of the worst periods of our past. The sad reality, we all know, is that Vicki Momberg is by no means the last bigot in our midst.
But it’s not just the bigotry that should alarm us; it’s the affliction of entitlement to continue enjoying the best resources our country has to offer — to the continued exclusion of the overwhelming majority of citizens — that is of greater concern.
Nonracialism is a key principle of the Freedom Charter, our Constitution and university. This principle should not be confused with colour-blindness, the post-race society, or the expunction of differentiated racial experiences. Rather, it should be understood as a relentless, incessant principle that animates our work against racism, in a decidedly racist and racialised society and world.
If we fail to accelerate, comprehensively, addressing apartheid power relations in our land — socially, psychologically, educationally and economically — we render nonracialism vulnerable and run the risk of threatening the realisation of a transformative developmental state, besides failing the legends in whose footsteps we tread.
Our universities have a critical role to play in this regard. Now is not the time for anger or aggression; as an institution we must grasp the opportunities that real transformation presents.
One of the challenges we face is a public discourse that sometimes reflects transformation as only partially desirable. Let’s be very clear about this: transformation is not about charity; it does not equate to a lowering of standards, corruption, or the punishment or exclusion of any particular group. It does not infer inferiority or a lowering of standards, but superiority, progress and sustainability. It is a process we must engage, and we must emerge fairer, more compassionate, and with a greater sense of pride, equity and justice when we are done. It is not just desirable; it is a necessity.
Maintaining the status quo — be it economically, in the ownership of land, the demographics of our institutions, or opportunities for our children — is tantamount to booby-trapping our nation’s future, besides betraying the principles of our legendary elders and the anti-apartheid struggle.
The transformation required that our universities straddle every aspect of their existence, from admission policies, fields of study and curricula to pedagogical approaches, the demographics of staff and student bodies, and the quality of their output.
We must confront the issue of gender and feminism as well. As Nelson Mandela University, can we associate ourselves with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who said: “My own definition as a feminist is a man or a woman who says, yes, there’s a problem with gender as it is today and we must fix it, we must do better. All of us, women and men, must do better.”
In the words of our Dr Pumla Dineo Gqola: “While there are many feminist strands, which is to say different kinds of feminism, there are also many core principles. The commitment to actively oppose and end patriarchy is one. The recognition that patriarchy works like other systems of oppression, like racism and capitalism, to value some people and brutalise others, is another area of agreement. Like other systems of oppression, it also requires the support of many members of the groups it oppresses.”
Changes to our race and gender policies and attitudes are part of the rebalancing and reinvention act that we must address pragmatically and fearlessly because it’s about securing a collective future.
By way of examples, we would like to develop a higher proportion of black, and women, postgraduate students at Nelson Mandela University without reducing the number of white, or male, postgrads.
And we’d, for example, like more of them to be entering the auditing profession, and contributing to the development of a new global and national environment of ethical governance — to span both the public and private sectors.
Nelson Mandela University is very well positioned to lead the development of new knowledge and reduce dependencies on received doctrine. This reflects the work of my predecessors at the then Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Chief Justice Pius Langa and, most recently, Santie Botha, who were highly committed to this institution. They laid strong foundations on which I intend to build.
We have a bold and distinctive footprint, nationally and globally, in transdisciplinary endeavours including the ocean sciences, where our work is regarded as pioneering. By contributing as we are to radically deepening understanding of sustainability, across the broad spectrum of natural sciences, we advance demo-cracy and social justice.
As Professor Derrick Swartz, our former vice-chancellor, succinctly put it: “The research we do is an important tool to help governments, industries and communities to make decisions in an informed, socially and environmentally sustainable manner.”
Flying the flag for Nelson Mandela, in our values and principles, comes with massive natural advantages, too. By embracing diverse knowledge and traditions, and humanising pedagogical approaches, we stimulate a vibrant intellectual culture deeply embedded in our roots and culture. We are reconnecting with Africa, following a similar path to that of our namesake across the continent in 1962, and then on to Britain and across the globe.
I think we can pat ourselves on the back for both an exceptional body of students and an exceptional enrolment value chain enhancing student access and nurturing success.
Through curricula and co-curricular interventions we become the citizen-makers we aspire to be, developing graduates as responsible and democratic human beings who contribute to addressing global challenges in innovative and transdisciplinary ways … citizens who contribute to our country and our changing world.
“The power of education,” Mandela said, “extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success. It can contribute to nation- building and reconciliation. Our previous system emphasised the physical and other differences of South Africans with devastating effects. We are steadily but surely introducing education that enables our children to exploit their similarities and common goals, while appreciating the strength in their diversity.”
Dr Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi is the chancellor of Nelson Mandela University. This is an edited version of the speech she delivered during her inauguration at the university on April 17