A conversation to frame Critical Mandela Studies

The colloquium Dalibhunga: This time? That Mandela? — held from March 6 to 8 at Nelson Mandela University (NMU) — was essentially a conversation to explore, debate and discuss what the proposed Transdisciplinary Institute for Mandela Studies (TIMS) could look like, including the main themes that should be explored within it.

The name “Dalibhunga” was the name Mandela was given after undergoing initiation, meaning “creator of the council” or “convenor of the dialogue”. It was chosen for the colloquium as it was the bringing together of a community of scholars and practitioners to debate and discuss Mandela as a social figure, and how the formulation of a Critical Mandela Studies programme could play a meaningful and practical role concerning the challenges of time.

At the opening of the colloquium, NMU vice chancellor Professor Sibongile Muthwa said the colloquium made a distinction between Mandela the person, whose life has been well-documented with the “same basic narratives, and the same well-known images” reproduced again and again, and Mandela the social figure of justice, both celebrated and criticised, who requires greater “excavation”.

“Such a reading of Mandela is scant or non-existent.” And it is an area of exploration in which NMU can take the lead by promoting Mandela studies.

“Our university is, first and foremost, a university; and it has to execute its mandates as part of a public function, across the sciences, knowledge fields and in service of society. It does so against the backdrop of the grand challenges of our time, the challenges that Mandela engaged with almost his entire life.

“They are well known, with poverty, inequality and discrimination chief among them. We need new interpretive schemes and practices to challenge them. This is the task of the university.

“Our university should be known as a foremost academic expression of the Mandela legacy, with practical import and real-life programmes that make a difference to ordinary people.

“[We want] to move the very idea of justice further than Mandela, and I would dare to say, beyond Mandela.”

She said there was a “staleness” in the higher education sector about how it approached social justice.

“All universities, it seems, are now social-justice oriented and they 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.”

She said one of the ways in which the university intended to become a “revitalising academic expression of Mandela” was through the establishment of TIMS.

“This colloquium is a warm invitation to all of you to help us think, do and co-travel this journey with us. We have left open both the idea and form of TIMS, so that it can emerge in our discussions with each other. Critical openness should be the key principle of TIMS, to designate the idea of the ‘critical’ in Mandela Studies itself.

“Ultimately, TIMS may be one of the outfits that works in ways that puts the question of what the university is for firmly on the table. To rethink, in deep ways, the purposes of the university endeavour.”

Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Sello Hatang said: “The weight of the name Nelson Mandela is a heavy one for any institution to bear.

“Along with the honour and the privilege, that name brings responsibility and complexity and there’s no blue print for getting it right. But if we are to get it right, then a commitment to transformation is of fundamental importance.”

As part of its focus on social justice, he said the university should provide a transformative environment for students shaped by “a broken society”.

“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: “Our real challenge is how to support the fundamental transformation of our society … 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.

“Here in South Africa, we have to reimagine constitutionalism as an instrument of transformation and wrestle it back from those who wield it as a liberal weapon to protect privilege, power and property. Justice itself must be reimagined — it has to be about more than just protecting rights — I would argue that it is about a transformational hospitality to ‘the other’.

“We owe it to Madiba both to think differently and to do differently. Institutionally, we owe it to Madiba to be agents of change.”

HSRC chief executive 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 Tata Madiba”.

“It’s about engaged scholarship [which is described by Ernst Boyer, who coined the term] as teaching and research that connects the rich resources of the university to our most pressing social, civic and ethical problems.

“The idea of being engaged is about giving the university or the research community a sense of how it might imagine itself differently in the world to the traditional ivory tower image that most people have of the university, and it’s about giving it a sense of urgency.

“It’s about how you work those things out. You work with those things that make a university distinctive, those things that are the inescapable attributes of a university, things such as: the deliberate and the liberative cultivation of the mind, the preoccupation with critical thinking, the deep abiding interest of a university operating at its best in how life works and trying to understand it, the interest in explaining all kinds of phenomena.

“It’s about asking how you take all of these very distinctive and unquestionably specialist things, which make the university an unquestionably [specialist space] … How do you take this space of the elites, and … turn towards and focus on the problems of the world?”

He said there was a lot of interest in the world in how a “South African version of a university can provide an example to the rest of the world, of how a university ought to be and could be”.

He said TIMS presented a “real opportunity here … but we need to acknowledge that working with … the figure of Mr Mandela, is going to be difficult, simply because Mr Mandela lends himself to these extreme forms of expression which land up in either disrespect, or this romantic explanation of what Mr Mandela is all about”.

“We’ve got to ask how you take the idea of Mandela and use it to understand a whole lot of problems in front of us. How do we use that as a filter?”

He said it was similar to the traditional scholarship of 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 this figure of Gandhi, to understand how you come to make sense of an issue, like climate change, for example, like literacy, like the work we need to be doing with gene modification, all of these questions. So we need to be asking how Mr Mandela helps us, as a prism, to get to those kinds of complexities.

“I’m very excited about what we’ve embarked upon here, and I’m excited because we’re doing it together [with NMU and Nelson Mandela Foundation], because we’re not going to solve these problems by ourselves.”

“To grapple with the idea of Mandela is to open up the infinite possibilities of justice,” said Professor André Keet, colloquium organiser and chair of Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation at Nelson Mandela University.

Themes that were explored and debated at the colloquium by well-known 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”. [Deeper explorations of each of these sessions are included within this supplement.]

There were also two art exhibitions that explored, through art and music, the idea of Mandela as a figure of justice.

Mandela’s ‘ghost’ helps to create a better future for university and society

In her opening speech at the Dalibhunga: This time? That Mandela? colloquium, which ran from March 6 to 8, Nelson Mandela University vice chancellor Sibongile Muthwa said the university and society needed to be “haunted” by Mandela the social figure, as a means of pulling together past and present, to create a new and better future.

“[Mandela] haunts us in our endeavours to re-imagine and reclaim the university,” she said, steps that were necessary to transform the university and its relationship to society, and approach differently the problems society faces.

Citing the work of Elleke Boehmer, a professor of world literature in English at the University of Oxford and author of the book Nelson Mandela: A brief insight, Muthwa said Mandela had become a “living ghost” during his years on Robben Island, separated from real, ordinary life — but this had allowed him to stand back and look at the entire struggle movement from a distance, sharpening his understanding of justice and human dignity.

“In a sense, the living ghost of Mandela during the prison years paved the way for Mandela, the ghost [the figure of social justice] after his death.”

She said thinking of Mandela through the lens of “haunting” was a productive exercise that may lead to a better future.

“Thinking of Mandela in this way, through the lens of haunting, is also a means of coming to know differently. It is part of the necessary transformative labour surrounding how we get to know. It is this labour that will allow us to transform our relationship to society.

“Here then is a suggestion of the potential power that resides in calling on the social figure of Mandela to create anew the university’s social justice intentions, and to make transformational and transformative leadership [the] standard orientation within the university.”

She said the “haunting” of the institution required that the university was drawn into a constant process of engagement with traces of the past “but also with the future imagined at the moment of transition. Mandela is inextricably entwined with both this past and this future”.

She went on to say: “The belief in the realisation of this [better] future has largely been lost, along with a global loss of faith in democratic institutions and their promises of a more equal society. It is the social figure of Mandela, his ghost, who tells us that this future is not lost … this future is haunting us, and we have to respond.

“It is fitting that we consider Mandela as a figure who draws together past, present and future in a productive way, to hear these murmurs [of that which has been lost in the past, but the suggestion of which we still carry with us], to import them into the present and project them into the future.”

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Nicky Willemse
Nicky Willemse works from Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Freelance journalist, copywriter, proofreader, editor, booklover, parent Nicky Willemse has over 43 followers on Twitter.

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