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UWC and Nelson Mandela

UWC and Nelson Mandela

The University of the Western Cape (UWC) is deeply saddened by the news of the passing of Mr Nelson Mandela. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, his children and grandchildren as we mourn the loss of a remarkable South African with the rest of the world.  

For UWC, honouring Nelson Mandela brings back many memories as the University had a very specific relationship with him and the movements that made him. He is to be remembered for being a resistance fighter, a political prisoner, a political leader and president. He is also fondly remembered as an esteemed member of the convocation of UWC, as an honorary doctoral graduate. UWC was in fact the first South African university to award him with an honorary doctorate. Substantial traces of Mandela’s life as resistance leader, prisoner and president have defined and shaped UWC as an institution of higher learning committed to the ideals of democracy, social transformation and non-racialism.

During the 1970s and 1980s, UWC played a crucial role in the campaigns to secure the release of political prisoners in South Africa. Its faculty and students were critical to the political conscientisation of the people of Cape Town and its rural hinterland. There is a genealogy of political and cultural formations at UWC that can be directly traced to the liberation struggle in South Africa, and the subsequent period of governance of a democratic society.

In the mid-1980s, under the leadership of Professor Jakes Gerwel, UWC openly defied the apartheid university policies by declaring itself as an intellectual home for the democratic left that openly sided with the struggles of the oppressed and exploited masses. Within this framework, sectoral organisations amongst students, workers and academics were created to deepen understandings of apartheid’s repression and the struggles to overturn its tyranny. Through the work of service organisations at the university the resources of academic life were put at the disposal of a growing mass political movement. Amongst these were organisations such as UWCADE, ERIP, Workers College, and the Centre for Southern African Studies, along with student movements from across the political spectrum and associations of adult educators. The classroom at UWC was transformed into a terrain of debate and struggle with the emergence of approaches to people’s history and people’s education. The appointment of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the Chancellor of the University signalled that the University was a place that valued iconic leaders whose work was also marked by a sense of humility as well as an attachment to the collective ethics of justice that had been forged in a liberation movement. UWC adopted a stance of connecting excellence in leadership with a commitment to service.

As the anti-apartheid struggle was giving way to the transition to democracy, UWC’s resources of resistance were turned into a platform of preparing to govern. Professor Gerwel initiated the moves to bring the exiled resistance archives home, and UWC was identified as the most appropriate location for the resistance archive that would potentially serve as a basis for a museum of apartheid and resistance. The return of the International Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa (IDAF) collection to UWC and the creation of the Mayibuye Centre placed the international campaign for the release of Nelson Mandela at the heart of UWC’s transformation process and the University’s relationship with the South African nation. The return of IDAF was accompanied by the assembly of leading intellectuals and educators associated with the broad liberation movement at UWC. UWC was the primary location where Nelson Mandela’s government in waiting prepared to govern. It was at UWC where some of the major work took place that culminated in the fashioning of the South African Constitution and Bill of Rights, and national policies in arts and culture, the truth and reconciliation commission, international relations and education. It was at UWC where all these ideas and policies were deliberated and formed into a plan for the transition from apartheid to democracy.

The central position of UWC in the national debate on transformation resulted in several leading figures occupying the University’s classrooms, seminar spaces and policy think-tanks, and translating these debates into larger public discussions on the future of a democratic South Africa. Upon his release, Nelson Mandela drew on several intellectuals based at UWC to guide in the unfolding negotiation process. Key amongst these were Advocate Dullah Omar, Professor Kader Asmal, Justice Albie Sachs, Bridgitte Mabandla, Zola Skweyiya, Professor Robert Davis, Advocate Yvonne Mokgoro, Professor Harold Wolpe, and the Vice Chancellor, Professor Jakes Gerwel. After the first democratic elections, Nelson Mandela turned to UWC to draw on expertise to oversee the transformation of key sectors of the South African state at both national and provincial levels. This process was epitomised by Omar, Asmal and Davies being drawn into the executive of the South African government as cabinet ministers in the first democratic government under the leadership of Nelson Mandela.

When UWC awarded an honorary doctorate to Nelson Mandela on 28 November 1990, it wished to acknowledge the consequences of his political vision for educational transformation that had been at the very core of UWC’s effort to transcend the burden of apartheid education. It also wished to pay tribute to his ideals of service and ethical leadership that animated the struggles against apartheid. It is in this spirit that we wish to honour the life and contributions of Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela’s relationship with UWC has since been epitomised by the longstanding relationship that developed between our university and the Robben Island Museum, and the efforts of the University community to work towards undoing the legacies of apartheid. The commitments that have shaped our ongoing process of building a post-apartheid university that remain true to the struggle for democracy and non-racialism should be at the heart of the events planned over the ten days of mourning. Beyond providing a space for tribute and mourning, UWC invites students, staff and fellow South Africans to come and visit the Nelson Mandela exhibition in the foyer of the Main Hall and to also visit the RIM UWC Mayibuye Archives as we reflect on the legacy of Nelson Mandela and his commitment towards building a post-apartheid future.

University of the Western Cape Rector & Vice-Chancellor, Professor Brian O’Connell

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