Universities must be a catalyst for innovation and for good

As we reflect on Nelson Mandela Day this year, in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic, we are reminded of the true spirit of ubuntu and caring for humanity. Mandela Day is a global call to action that celebrates the idea that everyone has the power to transform the world, and the ability to make a difference. I am sure we can all agree that we have seen this being demonstrated more and more. 

Recently, people across South Africa have rallied together to donate to funds and organisations with the primary aim of helping those less fortunate. Our ability as a society to care for the well-being of homeless people, people who are dependent on grants, and others who might only be able to live with the help of others, is testimony to our growth as a society; from thinking of ourselves first, to thinking of and caring about the most vulnerable among us.

Many people, businesses and organisations have contributed not only their time but their resources to ensuring that our students transition to online teaching and learning in the best way possible. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been frightening in the pace at which it has changed our lives and how we work, altered families and social circles, shut down businesses and economies, and even displaced people across the world as countries closed their borders. 

The adage of making every day a Mandela Day has never rung more acutely true than during the unprecedented times we are living through. Covid-19 has reminded us all that we are because of the care of others, and that all our lives and actions are interlinked. Many of us should reflect on our privilege and continue to use our resources and empathy to inspire change.

Covid-19 should enable us all to imagine a better world, and to take steps to change situations that undermine anyone’s humanity. Covid-19 gives us an opportunity to disrupt the world as we knew it, by finding innovative ways to address poverty, unemployment and inequality, and strive for social justice. 

As a university, we are committed to educating students beyond academics to be socially responsive, active citizens and leaders working for positive change. Along with several other institutions, we believe that a university education needs to be focused on knowledge as a catalyst for social, environmental and economic innovation, and change for the benefit of the broader society.

This is why almost 30 000 UP students are directly involved in community projects and work as part of their curriculum annually. More than 126 of our student organisations are involved in voluntary social responsibility projects. We want to instil the desire to use our knowledge to better society in all our generations of students and alumni. 

On this day, we must remember the values that former president Mandela stood for. We must collaboratively fight poverty and promote peace and education. Thank you to everyone who is playing a role and has contributed to taking care of others during this uncertain time (particularly the future of our students), and to those who are doing something to make a difference today that will have benefits for others in the future. 

Professor Tawana Kupe is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria and professor of literature and media studies

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