Universities play an active role in Mandela Day

University vice-chancellors paid tribute to the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela last week on Mandela Day, while students and staff embarked on a wide range of activities aimed at helping people in need.

Mandela Day, on 18 July, was officially declared by the United Nations in November 2009. In South Africa, it has become traditional for individuals and institutions to mark the day with 67 minutes – or more – of volunteer work, in commemoration of the 67 years Mandela spent fighting for social justice.

This year's Mandela Day was special, however, marking 100 years since the iconic South African and global statesman’s birthday on 18 July 1918, and a time for universities to reflect on the contribution Mandela had asked them to make.

Tyrone Pretorius, vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape (UWC), said in a tribute to Mandela published in a local newspaper that his university was fortunate enough to bestow the first honorary doctorate on the former South African president on his release after 27 years of imprisonment.

The institution, he said, had always prided itself on a special relationship with Mandela, forged by UWC former vice-chancellor Jakes Gerwel, who served as a director-general in the Mandela administration, and by the many UWC academics, including Dullah Omar, Zola Skweyiya and Kader Asmal, who all served in the cabinet of the first democratic government.

Pretorius recalled the words Mandela used in November 1990, when he visited UWC to accept the honorary doctorate.

“‘Universities traditionally trained a select few for elitist posts within society. South Africa, for decades structured to serve the interests of a minority, in many respects surpassed other countries in this respect. As we lead our country away from minority domination to a people’s democracy, it is inappropriate that our universities continue to reproduce patterns and practices that will undermine what we are trying to build,” Mandela said at the time.

“UWC has taken the lead in the radical transformation of our thinking about the interests universities should serve. We must begin by recognising that ours is an African, developing country, the majority of whose inhabitants live in circumstances of poverty and who suffer a quality of life calculated to dehumanise them...”

Pretorius said Mandela asked what contributions universities would make to the lives of the majority of South Africans dispossessed and dehumanised during apartheid. Furthermore, he asked: “How does a university restructure itself to serve their interests? What does it need to address about itself in order to become an instrument of their empowerment?”

While we are a very different place to the one Mandela visited in 1990, there are some things that have not changed, said Pretorius.

Pretorius said as a historically disadvantaged institution, UWC will always remain committed to giving access to those who are academically deserving of a place of study, irrespective of their financial circumstances.

“When we think of Nelson Mandela’s exhortation for opportunities to be created for those who, only because of the colour of their skin, would be destined for lives of servitude, then we are proud of the five decades during which we have kept the doors of learning open. Even while we recognise there is much to achieve and so much more work to be done,” said Pretorius.

Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria (UP) Professor Cheryl de la Rey said in a message posted on the university’s website that society continues to be inspired by Mandela’s love for humanity and his spirit of self-sacrifice.

She said UP takes pride in producing graduates who are socially conscious and active citizens. The university encourages all its students to participate in volunteer work and community engagement projects, she said.

“UP is part of the University Social Responsibility Network and the Talloires Network, which are international associations of universities that are committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education.

“We are proud to represent South Africa on these platforms, where we address social issues and positively impact our society,” she said.

De la Rey said approximately 5,000 students were volunteering on Mandela Day for different causes.

Various university departments and units around the country embarked on different campaigns to mark the day.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal sought to honour Madiba's commitment to education in particular by aiming to collect ZAR1.5 million (US$112,000) for student scholarships. As part of the ‘67 Rands for Mandela Campaign’, South Africans were invited to donate at least ZAR67.

Staff and students from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) ran two campaigns and mobilised support for the Wits Food Bank, which supports students with limited resources, while the Wits All Residence Council spearheaded a campaign which raised ZAR110,000 from students living in Wits residences.

Meanwhile, the faculty of health sciences at the Durban University of Technology arranged a number of community outreach programmes including a health screening programme at the Phoenix Gandhi Settlement.