What does it mean to be a university named after Nelson Mandela?

When Nelson Mandela University dropped “Metropolitan” from its name in 2017, it was no longer named after a city, but the person, Nelson Mandela, the global icon for social justice.

And there was a huge responsibility that went with that, a point emphasised by then Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the official ceremony marking the name change, who said: “The decision to become Nelson Mandela University is not simply an exercise in corporate rebranding. It is a statement of intent. It is a statement of values … It makes a statement about justice, rehabilitation and reconciliation.”

As the university grappled with how it would meet this responsibility, the idea of a programme of Critical Mandela Studies housed within a Transdisciplinary Institute of Mandela Studies (TIMS) was born. It would be much more than studying the person,but rather using the social figureof Mandela to make sense of the greatest challenges of our time — and then using this understanding to drive meaningful, practical solutions.

“These challenges 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,” said Nelson Mandela University Vice Chancellor Sibongile Muthwa at the opening address of the colloquium run in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Human Sciences Research Council.

Held from March 6 to 8, the colloquium brought together Mandela scholars from across the country and abroad to debate and discuss what Critical Mandela Studies should look like, and how TIMS could be framed.


“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,” said Muthwa.

The journey towards TIMS

“Though many academic entities and outfits are named after Nelson Mandela, no programme on Mandela Studies yet exists, as far as we can tell. Nor is there an outfit like TIMS anywhere in the world,” said André Keet, Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET) at Nelson Mandela University.

The idea of a Mandela Studies programme is the result of the university’s reflections on how best it can respond to its name-change and at the same time offer something distinct and productive. These reflections were led by Muthwa.

“Through TIMS, we want todevelop Mandela scholars. There are many people doing great work in isolation, but not in a programme that will bring them together. That’s the uniqueness of TIMS … We want to attract people who have a deep sense of the issues Nelson Mandela would have been interested in, and to study them at a postgraduate level,” said Keet.

Once the idea had taken shape within the university space , Keet contacted Crain Soudien, Chief Executive of the Human Sciences Research Council, and Verne Harris, Director of Archive and Dialogue at the Nelson Mandela Foundation, to establish whether it was “feasible and worthwhile, and to check if it had been tried in another space,” Keet explained.

“Both agreed it was a unique proposition.” Nelson Mandela Foundation Chief Executive Sello Hatang supported it too — and it was decided the three organisations would work together to support it, not as gatekeepers, but as friends and collaborators, according to Keet.

Together, they developed a proposal, and then hosted the March colloquium, to debate and test their initial proposal and grow the framework for TIMS, which will likely be developed and, after all the internal processes have been followed, will be launched over the next 18 months.

The initial TIMS proposal started with a question: what are the most profound questions of our age, our time, for Nelson Mandela University?

It went on to describe the general feeling that current practices and thinking had “reached their limits” to try and address these, and that these issues required a “deep rethinking and renewal, a kind of intellectual [and practical] sharpness … that can reanimate the promise of democracy, rights, civic service and public leadership.”

It is a way of gearing up Nelson Mandela University and other universities to be true agents of social change, both within the university space and outside of it.

Far from being an academic study about Mandela, the man, it is rather the intellectual exploration of Mandela as a “figure of justice to generate new [practices] for engaging social injustices” — and to move this idea beyond Mandela.

TIMS will address the issues presented in Muthwa’s inaugural address as vice chancellor in 2017, shortly after the university’s name changed, which included social justice; poverty, inequality and unemployment; public transformative leadership; university transformation; non-racism, equality, human rights and democracy; engagement between university, community and society; the memory and legacy of Mandela; the renewal of academy and curriculum; humanising pedagogy [where it is recognised that knowledge also comes from teachers and learners, and should not just be imposed on them]; transdisciplinarity [the commons between the sciences and humanities]; revitalising the humanities; and student-centrism.

The proposal continued: “In essence, its key focus is to contribute to the tasks set out in the inaugural address in the following ways: ‘[expanding] understanding, pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge in all sciences to cultivate humanity, and contributing to the wellbeing of our city, our province, our nation, our continent and our world.”

And it ended with the notion that a whole range of discussions needed to inform the proposal further, which was one of the purposes of the colloquium.

Where to next for TIMS?

At the end of the Dalibhunga: This time? That Mandela? colloquium, a team working through Nelson Mandela University’s Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET), headed by Keet,compiled a draft report with some of the initial findings that would frame the establishment of a Transdisciplinary Institute for Mandela Studies (TIMS) at the university.

The idea of TIMS was also presented to and discussed by the university council and will now go through the formal university structures.

In addition to providing short summaries of each of the sessions at the colloquium, CriSHET’s draft report provided a broad overview of the entire colloquium, stating that the idea of a Critical Mandela Studies programme tied to the TIMS proposal had received “substantive, yet critical, support as well as intellectual justification across the panels and contributions”. And, though setting up the programme and outfit would not be easy, participants felt it would indeed be worthwhile, as nothing like this has yet been tried.

“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 and redraws the frontiers between the sciences and humanities. The university will continue working with its partners and the public to make this happen,” said Keet.

The identified themes to be explored through TIMS include:

  • Mandela, feminism and intersectionality
  • Mandela, social justice and “the university”
  • Mandela, transformation and decoloniality
  • Mandela, knowledge production and “the sciences”
  • Mandela, modernity, auto/biography and history
  • Mandela, the revolutionary
  • Mandela, context, critique, contestations and “the archive”
  • Mandela and the arts
  • Mandela, political economy and neoliberalisms

  • Colloquium critique: Lack of a feminist lens

    One of the criticisms that emerged from the colloquium was the absence of a feminist viewpoint in the discussions of Mandela.

    The final summary of the colloquium notes that the panels were dominated by men and that a “discomfort” had been expressed, both in and outside of the sessions, that “the gendered aspects and problematics of Mandela as a patriarchal figure of authority” had not been adequately addressed at the colloquium.

    Keet said a future colloquium was already being planned on Mandela, feminism and intersectionality.

    Harris said existing Mandela scholarship was a space “dominated by white male voices — and most of those voices come from outside the country” with the dominant narrative repeated again and again.

    “A programme on Critical Mandela Studies needs to include feminist readings of Nelson Mandela,” added Keet.

    An invitation for others to join the conversation

    The general public and other academic institutions are invited to provide their insights and thoughts around the framing of a Critical Mandela Studies Programme and the Transdisciplinary Institute of Mandela Studies (TIMS) at Nelson Mandela University.

    Keet said: “We have left the idea of TIMS very open as part of a journey to co-travel and co-create with communities, students, academics and Mandela scholars.”

    “We hope to have the framework for TIMS in place by the end of June,” he said.

    TIMS will likely be up and running at the university by the end of 2020.

    Anybody who would like to offer further ideas or suggestions around TIMS can contact Keet at: [email protected]

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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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