Last month, the Nelson Mandela University (NMU) celebrated Africa Month. There was a host of events and discussions about our African history and our identity as students at the university.
One was a Cuppa Conversation between writer Sisonke Msimang and NMU students Nobubele Phuza, Awethu Fatyela and me. It was driven by the deliberately gendered agenda to locate and assert black women in discourses that normatively seek to stigmatise and alienate them, particularly after having experienced the perpetuation of this with the death of Mam’ Winnie Madikizela-Mandela earlier this year.
It was important to have this conversation, given our context as students at this particular university and after a recent historic change that saw black women — chancellor Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, vice-chancellor Sibongile Muthwa and council chairperson Nozipho January-Bardill — take over strategic leadership positions at the university and embark on a process of fundamental and much-needed change.
The conversation with Msimang interrogated and unpacked various themes, namely gender, Africa, politics and writing. The purpose of the discussion was to highlight the contradictions of what it means to be an African woman in an intellectual and academic space that is not only Eurocentric in its methods of teaching and learning but is also still permeated by cisheteropatriarchy in its processes and systems and yet identifies itself as a dynamic African university, with Nelson Mandela as the proxy of that vision.
This led to questions from our students about what it means to be an NMU student, a custodian of the continuation of his legacy. Being a student at this particular university is a loaded and “burdened” identity, particularly because of how Mandela (as a lover, father, husband, cadre, prisoner and first black South African president) means different things to different people and invokes different feelings.
The recent discovery of how “burdened” it is to be associated with the Mandela brand and legacy was when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced, during the presidential budget vote, that he was going to donate half of his salary to a fund that will be managed by the Nelson Mandela Foundation. According to Ramaphosa, “this is a private, citizen-driven, initiative that will ask all those with the means to contribute a small portion of their salaries”.
This is in light of the president’s #ThumaMina (send me) campaign to ensure that South Africans get to experience a “better life for all”. The fund will be called the Nelson Mandela Thuma Mina Fund and will be launched on Mandela Day, July 18.
This campaign directly affects South Africans. In particular, it asks NMU students to get involved in social justice advocacy and activism. This is in line with the new value introduced at the university — social justice and equality — which addressthe Thuma Mina aspect of the president’s campaign.
This also ultimately includes the African philosophy of being isithunywa (the one who is being sent). As this university is considered to be an African university, or at least wants to be one once decolonisation becomes a reality, being isithunywa creates an obligation for the students and staff to be social justice and equality activists — and particularly at our university, which carries the name of a person who so many see as a model activist for social justice and equality in South Africa, Africa and the world.
But in an era of knowledge decolonisation and transformation — the processes that call for real epistemic change, healing and justice — the placement of all our hopes and dreams in one individual should be considered problematic, especially if that individual’s position is privileged by cisheteropatriarchy.
We have seen the dangerous manifestations of the singularity of Eurocentric thoughts and ideas. It is impossible that this one individual can be a proxy for all our hopes and dreams, especially at an intergenerational level.
Remembering and recognising are important but we must do this carefully, paying attention to representation and not forgetting the many while highlighting the few, whatever their contribution has been.
To end the perpetuation of this monoculture that deems a single type of figure to be the only one worthy of recognition to the detriment, silencing and alienating of others, a deepened cadre of men and women (cis and trans), young and old, abled or disabled, binary or nonbinary needs to be created.
Mandela did not single-handedly end apartheid, and he never pretended that he did. So, we too should only remember, recognise and idolise him while not forgetting or ignoring all the other people who played crucial roles in ending the evils of apartheid.
Nangamso Nxumalo is a law student at NMU whose interests are community organisations, gender, advocacy, research and writing. These are her own views