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27 July 2020
Educating Leaders Who Make A Difference: Prof Saths Cooper’s Reflections On Nelson Mandela And Global Citizenship

Global citizenship is needed now more than ever - and we can find a perfect model for that in former President Nelson Mandela, as activist, academic and former political prisoner Professor Saths Cooper explained in a University of the Western Cape (UWC) webinar on 22 July 2020.

“Nelson Mandela presents us with the kind of figure that most people all over the world have little difficulty in admiring, in respecting. Not only because of his singular time in prison and as an activist, or because he paved the way as the founding father of South Africa’s democracy, but because he represented that global citizenry which is, after all, our common humanity,” said Prof Cooper, a former UWC lecturer, who had known President Mandela as a fellow political prisoner on Robben Island.

Prof Cooper delivered the keynote address for the first lecture in UWC’s webinar series on The Role of Higher Education in Advancing Global Citizenship - a series that reflects on the role and contribution of universities in promoting global citizenship and a more inclusive society.

As the spirit of Nelson Mandela is being honoured through Mandela Month, and as South Africa enters its 27th year as a democracy, his legacy as a leader is under the spotlight. Last week the last of Mandela’s co-accused Rivonia Trialists, Andrew Mlangeni, passed on (fellow trialist Denis Goldberg having passed away as the coronavirus pandemic began in South Africa).

“And thus ends that generation,” Prof Cooper lamented. “Left behind are leaders who perhaps tend not to have the same nobility, the same commitment, and the same strength of vision and character that Mandela and others displayed so remarkably.”

That strength of character was displayed in Mandela’s ability to engage openly and with respect, Cooper noted. It was also the case when he championed education and our experience when he became President, even as he was under pressure to exclude people who were threatening to the often narrow-minded ANC leadership.

“In the last two decades we have seen the outcome of that kind of limitation,” Prof Cooper said. “The steady erosion of education for true knowledge of education for agency; the dependency that’s been created. There’s almost an anti-intellectual stance amongst some of the more insecure in leadership, and government is doing what governments all over the world have been doing, when they feel threatened: drawing back into their bubbles, and not engaging with critics.”

In the face of such a morass of mediocre leadership, he said, higher education institutions need to fiercely guard their independence - and to speak out on that independence.

“Education is not something that a government department should be solely responsible for; that an institution should be solely responsible for. We need to engage openly, and without defensiveness or rancour - to not feel attacked when we are challenged to change our minds. But the ‘PHD’ syndrome - the pull-him-down, pull-her-down syndrome - is rife in all too many places. We need freedom of the mind.”

That syndrome is all too clear as the coronavirus pandemic rages around the world.

“When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic on 11 March 2020, it resulted in consequences that have been mind-boggling,” Prof Cooper said. “One of those consequences has been a narrow nationalistic mentality that has prevailed globally, where very few countries have heeded the UN Secretary General’s call for working on this together. Country after country ignored this unity and imposed border controls, as if you could stop this virus at the border post, and the country would be safe.”

It’s also clear in the way that post-liberation countries have largely failed to meet the expectation of the promise of that liberation - because there was a failure to consider what liberation was for.

“Our children should be unfettered in their quest for knowledge: The time for narrow political partisanship is over,” he said. “My hope is that the new order will create a difference, where people are more caring, and will reduce the ‘them and us’ amongst us.”

The hope for such an anti-racist, anti-sexist and anti-sectarian world, Prof Cooper noted, lies in the youth who are finding themselves in a very different world - and who are finding their voices to speak up for what is right.

“We see that especially in the amazing protests that young people have led in recent days,” he said. “We see it in the way the Rhodes Must Fall movement of 2015, starting here in the Western Cape, has seen practical expression all around the world, with slave owners, slave traders and the like being reviewed, and those who had previously been invisible being acknowledged. And we see that now, even in our splendid isolation all over the world, in the amazing protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement around the tragic killing of George Floyd, and followed in most countries by some form of solidarity - even where you least expected it.”

Global Citizenship Through Higher Education, Engagement and Empowerment

Global citizens understand the wider world, and their place in it, Professor José Frantz, UWC Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Innovation, explained. “We may find ourselves sitting here in Bellville, in Cape Town, in the Western Cape - but we are part of a global community, and we need to understand how we contribute to the broader global community. So we need to engage in this topic of global citizenship - and it’s important that we encourage others to develop the knowledge, the skills and the values that we need to engage in the world.”

More importantly, it aims to promote engagement around global issues - issues like the COVID-19 pandemic that require a global response.

“We’re talking about us being responsible citizens, and active citizens, in the global space,” said Umesh Bawa, Director of the International Relations Office at UWC. “It’s about how we, not only as part of the higher education system, but also as citizens - as humans - have a responsibility to connect with the wider society along shared values of social justice, supporting the marginalised and the vulnerable.”

“We want to teach and engage others to become active citizens who address global challenges - the kind of challenges I like to call ‘wicked problems’,” Prof Frantz noted. “These challenges must be addressed as a collective, employing a more inclusive approach. We must help develop citizens and graduates who are peaceful, tolerant, inclusive and secure within society.”

This goal, Prof Cooper noted, was in keeping with his beliefs, both as an activist and as a psychologist.

“Shakespeare said: ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason?’” Prof Cooper remarked. “And actually the mind is a phenomenal tool. Science has only revealed a small part of its possibility, and now we can feed our minds with all the evidence instantly available everywhere. And if we reason together, we can posit a common world, a more joined and united world, where global citizenship becomes a common prospect.”

The Higher Education and Global Citizenship webinar series aims to highlight some of the ways in which the University of the Western Cape, and the international higher education community, responded to global citizenship education through various activities and research.

Subsequent webinars in the series will cover the following topics:

  • Session 2: Combatting gender oppression and promoting gender equality (August 2020)
  • Session 3: Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic (September 2020)
  • Session 4: Are universities effective in global citizenship education? (October 2020)
  • Session 5: Using global citizenship to achieve SDG and NDP goals (November 2020)

For more information on upcoming lectures, please contact Hilda Wilson on