Taking on the name Nelson Mandela means “shouldering a great responsibility”, Cyril Ramaphosa said two years ago when Nelson Mandela University dropped “Metropolitan” from its name, no longer representing the Eastern Cape city where it is located, but rather the statesman.
Earlier this month, demonstrating its commitment to Mandela’s legacy, the university launched a colloquium, in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and
the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), to explore and debate how the institution could become an academic expression of Mandela and live out the social values he stood for.
The colloquium was themed Dalibhunga: This Time? That Mandela? The meaning of dali-bhunga is “convenor of the dialogue” and is a reference to the name given to Mandela after his initiation ceremony.
The findings will provide the framework for how the idea of a Transdisciplinary Institute for Mandela Studies could take shape at the university, in collaboration with various partners.
In her opening speech, the university’s vice-chancellor, Sibongile Muthwa, said there was a “staleness” in the higher education sector about how it approaches social justice.
“All universities, it seems, are now social justice-oriented and throw around the concepts of transformation, diversity, inclusivity, decolonisation, curriculum renewal, and so on, in their ‘branding’ and ‘public relations’ exercises.
“Nelson Mandela University, at this time, under our leadership, must reject this approach. Our work must be the university’s branding. It must be able to speak for itself.”
Muthwa said the colloquium made a distinction between Mandela the person, whose life has been well documented, and Mandela the social figure of justice, both celebrated and criticised, who requires greater “excavation”.
The grand challenges of our time remain “the challenges that Mandela engaged with almost his entire life”, she said. “They are well known, and poverty, inequality and discrimination are key among them. We need new interpretive schemes and practices to challenge them. This is the task of the university.
“[We want] to move the very idea of justice further than Mandela — and, I would dare to say, beyond Mandela.”
As part of its focus on social justice, Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang said the university should also provide a transformative environment for students.
“If we are to talk about transformation, it starts there: universities must begin to build a person who can come out [of the university] better than how they came in. They need to look at how we can build children coming out of violent societies, who are now practitioners of violence, having normalised abnormal behaviour.”
He continued: “It has become clear that the very future of the human project depends on our capacity to do differently. And to do differently, we have to think transformationally. It’s a test of our imagination.
“In South Africa, we have to re-imagine constitutionalism as an instrument of transformation. Justice itself must be reimagined. It has to be more than just protecting rights. It’s about a transformational hospitality to the other … We owe it to Madiba both to think and to do differently.”
HSRC chief executive officer Crain Soudien said an academic focus on Mandela’s legacy was not new, but that this colloquium was different in that it was “building a scholarly project around the significance of” Mandela.
“It’s about engaged scholarship,[which is described as] teaching and research that connects the rich resources of the university to our most pressing social, civic and ethical problems.”
He said using “the idea of Mandela as a prism to understand the problems in front of us” was similar to the traditional scholarship of Mahatma Gandhi.
“The Gandhi tradition is a deeply productive tradition. It’s full of debate, it’s characterised by contestation with multiple positions, but it’s very productive because it brings many vantage points, through the figure of Gandhi, to understand how to make sense of an issue, such as climate change, literacy or gene modification.
“We need to be asking how Mr Mandela helps us, as a prism, to get to those kinds of complexities.
“This is not an ordinary conference. This is a colloquium in which we are working with provocation and the whole thing is going to be modelled on provoking each other, in the best way a university can.”
André Keet, the colloquium organiser and chair of critical studies in higher education transformation at Nelson Mandela University, said: “To grapple with the idea of Mandelais to open up the infinite possibilities of justice.”
Themes debated at the colloquium by Mandela scholars, university staff and postgraduate students included rights, democracy and justice; cultural memory and the politics of the present; inheritance, legacy and commemoration; and representation and signification. These came through in three carefully crafted sessions: [email protected], the “making” of Mandela and “The Archive”.
Participants agreed on the need to develop a critical Mandela studies programme as a strategic humanities project that converses with the richness of African intellectual traditions. The university will continue to work with its partners and people to make this happen.
Nicky Willemse is a freelance journalist who regularly covers Nelson Mandela University news