‘What will you do with your education from Nelson Mandela University to change the world — for your family, your community, your profession, your country? What contribution will you make towards Africa’s growth and development that leads to a better life for all?”
This question by chancellor Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi calls on graduates to go out into the world and change it by doing their bit to strengthen democracy, equality and justice in their respective careers.
The chancellor was addressing more than 650 graduands when she opened the morning and afternoon sessions on Friday.
“It is up to you to ask yourself this same question; to commit to strengthening democracy, equality and justice in whichever life path you pursue; to continue making difficult things happen; including, and, very importantly, to make sure that you play your part in making society a safe space for women and men in this era of intolerable gender violence that we are seeing on our campuses and in our society, and in so doing, to play your part in changing the world,” Fraser-Moleketi said.
“We are all aware of the rising cynicism about democracy and equality, but the achievement of a more equal society is not lost. You are the new leaders and shapers of our society and it is in your hands to respond to this challenge and rethink how each of you, with your fine qualifications, can play your part in reshaping society for the better, changing negative mindsets, confronting fear, boldly embracing life beyond university, dreaming audacious dreams.”
Friday’s graduation sessions saw four remarkable South Africans — Vuyo Mahlati, Sibongile Mkhabela, Frank Chikane and Morgan Chetty—whose work resonates with the university’s resolve to be in service to society, awarded honorary doctorates in recognition of their contributions to the pursuit of democracy and social justice.
Mahlati, an Eastern Cape-born social entrepreneur and change agent, was honoured for her work in intensifying the global call for inclusive economic growth, and her scholarship and praxis of entrepreneurship and economic development, particularly in marginal rural economies.
Having grown up in the rural areas, getting her primary education at a farm school her mother taught at and proceeding to a missionary boarding school, Mahlati’s passion for seeking alternatives to the oppressive education system of the time emerged at a young age.
Her life as an activist was enabled by education. She started her career as a researcher into disability and children’s and women’s issues, and later became a business linkage mentor at the Small Business Development Agency.
This led to her participating in South Africa’s process of drawing up a Constitution after the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. Mahlati was also involved in the first report by the United Nations Children’s Fund on the first Status of Women and Children in South Africa.
At the graduation ceremony she said: “Inclusive growth is not assimilation or forcing others into spaces they don’t identify with,” she said.“It involves the reconfiguration of the ecosystem into one that respects and recognises the reality of all and enables effective contribution by all. It requires the development of support systems and new instruments, learning from and about each other.
“It also pushes us to build new innovative, inclusive and sustainable institutions that are proudly owned by all and serve all equally.”
A social worker by profession, Mkhabela’s career has been driven by tireless social activism. She was among the 11 student leaders arrested in connection with the 1976 student uprisings and went on to live a life dedicated to the social justice cause.
At the helm of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, she focused her efforts on building it into an independent and self-sustaining organisation that puts the rights and the well being of children first.The fund now reaches beyond South Africa’s borders, supporting institutions that improve the lives of children on the continent.
Mkhabela was honoured for her role in championing the establishment of a children’s hospital in South Africa, with its educative aspect focusing on improving the quality of paediatric care and research and training in sub-Saharan Africa, as well as her work in development issues through the United Nations Education Programme in Southern Africa.
On accepting her honorary doctorate, Mkhabela spoke of the role of education role in liberating people.
“When the poor educate their children, their children have to understand their role in transforming society,” she said.“It is true that education helps the individual earn better and gain perspectives through exposure to the wider world, but the real meaning of ‘education’ lies in its capacity to liberate. It should be that for every one of us who finishes school, our communities are richer for it.”
Chikane was honoured for his contribution to the development and promotion of the African renaissance and his involvement in conflict resolution processes in Southern Africa.
His political activism emerged at the start of his tertiary education in the 1970s, when he became involved in the activities of the South African Student Organisation. This led to his repeated detention, which disrupted his education, forcing him to leave university in 1974.
The following year, he joined the evangelistic organisation, Christ for All Nations, convinced of God’s calling in his life. He went on to serve the country in various ways, including his role in the political transitional talks and serving in the first democratically elected government.
In his acceptance speech, Chikane expressed his gratitude for the recognition of his lifelong work and contribution to establish a nonracial, nonsexist and just society.
“My generation and those who came before us ‘discovered’ their ‘mission’ and did not betray it. However imperfect and however risky, we did our best to fulfil it. Today we have a rights-based Constitution that saved us from the capture of our state to serve the few at the expense of masses of our people,” he said.
“This graduation congregation of scholars and related achievements gives me hope that you have capacity [to] seize the moment and fulfil your mission.”
Chetty has been at the helm of family medicine for about 40 years, dedicating his life to promoting access to quality healthcare through a patient-centred approach with a focus on the poor and disenfranchised.
In 1998, he raised funds and gathered doctors together to start the first truly democratic doctors’ organisation, the South African Managed Care Coalition, to which he was elected chairperson. The ethos was to bring doctors together to be cost-efficient and to deliver holistic, quality healthcare.
He was also instrumental in the establishment of one of the first black-owned hospitals post-apartheid in Durban, the Life Mount Edgecombe Hospital.
“We have a world characterised by an unprecedented level of economic development, technological advancement, increasing financial resources, yet millions of people are living in extreme poverty. This is a moral outrage,” he said, before outlining the effects of poverty and inequality on the provision of quality healthcare for all.
“I hope I have stimulated the need for us to be sensitive and concerned about challenges we have and why we need to be part of the journey to re-engineer our health delivery.” — Zandile Mbabela is the media manager of Nelson Mandela University