South African veteran activist to receive honorary degree

At its 68th graduation ceremonies next week, Uganda’s Makerere University will award Winnie Madikizela-Mandela an honorary Doctor of Laws for her role in the liberation struggle.

“We want to honour Winnie Madikizela-Mandela for her contribution in the liberation struggle, not only for the people of South Africa but for all black people,” said Makerere Vice-Chancellor Professor Barnabas Nawangwe.

Madikizela-Mandela is confirmed to attend the ceremony. A total of 15,172 students are expected to graduate.

Makerere University wanted to give Mandela (83) the award last year in August during the commemorative lecture honouring her late husband, Nelson, but she was reportedly ill and could not travel to Kampala. Her granddaughter Zoleka Mandela represented her at the lecture.

With this honorary doctorate, Madikizela-Mandela takes her place alongside other liberation struggle leaders honoured by Makerere University, such as Benjamin Mkapa and Julius Nyerere, both former Tanzanian presidents, and former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki.

Madikizela-Mandela’s honorary doctorate is not earned through academic achievement but through her lifetime accomplishment to bring freedom to black people.

Nawangwe said Madikizela-Mandela also played a major role in the empowerment of black people, contributed to fighting for marginalised communities and had remained consistent in her struggle since the apartheid era.

During her activist days, she had support from young people and marginalised communities, especially the poor and women.

“It is a good thing. Winnie deserves it [the degree] for the role she played. She deserves it more than other people that have received that honour from this university,” said Sylvia Tamale, professor of law at Makerere University.

Tamale said former Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada received an honorary degree from the university in 1977, but this was marred by controversies.

Tamale, who is a feminist and passionate human rights activist, said any recognition to a deserving woman serves as an inspiration to other young women.

Nawangwe said the honorary degree award reminded youth in Africa that many people have made sacrifices and built a foundation on which they can be productive and innovative.

Thanks to people like Madikizela-Mandela,“most hurdles have been removed”, he said.

He said young people should continue to uphold the values of the liberation freedom fighters.

Uganda was among many African countries that gave support to South Africa and its leaders during their struggle to abolish apartheid. Uganda was used as a training ground for the African National Congress’s military wing, uMkhonto we Sizwe.

"Winnie was a true anti-apartheid campaigner and the award represents a truly Pan-African spirit and I think this will send a positive message to students. Fighting for the human rights of others is a worthy cause," said Robert Irumba, an advocate of the Supreme Court of Uganda.

Referring to the often violent xenophobic outbreaks that have taken place in South Africa in the past, Irumba said he is unhappy with the way South Africans continue to treat other Africans, especially after they stood with them in the fight to defeat apartheid. The xenophobia they exhibit somehow erases the gains achieved, he said.

Asked if the university had left it too late to honour the 83-year-old Madikizela-Mandela with the honorary doctorate, Nawangwe said it was still valid as the struggle for freedom and empowerment of black people continues.

“It is better now than never,” he told University World News.