Thirty years ago today, Nelson Mandela had experienced just over two weeks as a free man after 27 years of imprisonment. From the moment he walked out of the gates of Victor Verster prison on February 11 1990 and made his first public appearance and speech that summer evening, it was clear that the political landscape had irrevocably changed. “We have waited too long for our freedom.”
Thirty years later, our two institutions that carry Mandela’s name — Nelson Mandela University and the Nelson Mandela Foundation — have formalised our partnership through a memorandum of understanding signed on February 3. The purpose of this memorandum is to proactively collaborate in the areas of social justice advocacy, human rights, scholarship and research.
As part of our memorandum we will be marking the 30th anniversary year with a number of much-needed, critical dialogue events on topics relating to the failures of restorative justice in our country and the self-made prisons of our homes and minds. We’ll be addressing many of the questions that are frequently asked, including: How successful was the work that Mandela led through the 1990s? Has the apartheid system been fully dismantled? How free are South Africans today?
It is clear to all that we have not achieved the transformation of which Madiba dreamed. We have experienced terrible years of neglect, of state capture, poor leadership at many levels of society, and the ravages of corruption. We have added multiple intractable problems to those our country’s leadership faced immediately after 1994.
We have to be robust in our research and analysis of all of this to understand what we are dealing with today, to learn the lessons from the mistakes of the 1990s and to know the longer histories which shaped our people before the advent of colonialism and apartheid. We need to understand our ways of knowing and doing before European imperialism dispossessed us in order to open those mental and physical prison doors in the pursuit of transforming and decolonising our society and institutions. We are doing this within the context of an understanding of Mandela, not as the man, but as the social figure of justice to move the very idea of justice further than Mandela and to generate new research and intellectual collaborations that vigorously engage with issues of social injustice and transformation, including leadership development and the transformation of South Africa’s education sector.
To engage with Mandela the social figure demands of us to consider the pressing issues of our time, an age in which social, political, economic and environmental challenges are accompanied by a local and global mistrust of democratic institutions, the attrition of human rights, the escalation and deepening of poverty, unemployment, human vulnerability, war and organised political violence and the amplification of global racism, sexism, fundamentalism, fascism, environmental degradation and climate change.
The collaboration between the university and foundation has so far given rise to several programmes, all geared at having a meaningful effect on society. One of the programmes is the Transdisciplinary Institute for Mandela Studies, a joint project between the university, the foundation and the Human Sciences Research Council, launched in 2019.
The institute will serve as one of the principal articulations of the university’s ethical-intellectual projects and pragmatic manifestations regarding social justice, inequality, and transformative leadership; university transformation; non-racialism, equality, human rights and democracy.
At the launch of the institute, the foundation’s director of archive and dialogue and an adjunct professor at Mandela University, Verne Harris, explained that the Mandela scholarship is in its infancy and is “a space dominated by white male voices, most of them overseas”. The institute offers us a fertile place to develop this here at home.
Another programme is the Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, also launched in 2019. It’s a partnership between the foundation and Columbia University, New York City. Mandela University will assist with developing curriculum content for the fellowship programme.
The foundation, in collaboration with the nonprofit organisation Habitat for Humanity, is also exploring the opportunity to work with the university’s department of human settlements on affordable housing.
For both of our institutions, research and critical inquiry are of fundamental importance. We’ve alluded to the questions about the period of negotiation in the early 1990s and Madiba’s role in arriving at compromises which are being severely critiqued by younger generations of South Africans. To better understand this, the foundation has supported a project that has digitised the official archive of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa, and will ensure that this is made available for the kind of deep scholarly interrogation that our country needs.
A further example of this is the work we are doing with Xolela Mangcu, professor of sociology and history, and interim director of Africana Studies, George Washington University, and adjunct professor at Nelson Mandela University, who is authoring the forthcoming Nelson Mandela biography. This is going to be an important book. Mangcu is positioning Madiba within a lineage reaching back before colonisation and through generations of encounters with British imperial forces and with white settlers. By exploring the longer histories of the Thembu polity into which Madiba was born, by engaging with the archive of that era and by reading the colonial archive, Mangcu offers a new perspective on Madiba’s formative years and an original interpretation of the longer roots to his strategies of negotiation in later life.
Given the urgency of the times, both in South Africa and globally, what our institutions do together must be geared to finding a way to bring people together, develop good, transformative leadership at all levels and identify strategies, models and tools that work in practice and empower people to participate meaningfully in transformative work.
We need to learn from one another, as well as from Madiba, who believed in the “human-in-interaction” vision for a better world, a better future, a better reality. We must put effort into engaging ourselves and our communities in new forms and modes of thought. New practices of producing, framing and distributing knowledge and its relationship to society need to emerge in solidarity with our continent and the Global South.
We owe it to Madiba to think differently,
do differently and be agents of change. Our hope for the partnership between our two institutions is that it will make a difference. And that it will always be inspired by the vision of transformation which Madiba gave us in 1993 when he said: “This challenge of transformation demands that we reassess the whole framework of our political, social and economic life and root out every vestige of inequality and racism that was imposed by apartheid. It is the only way we can build a new society.”
Professor Sibongile Muthwa is vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela University and Sello Hatang is chief executive officer of the Nelson Mandela Foundation
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