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Nelson Mandela, UWC and the Challenge

Nelson Mandela, UWC and the Challenge

On 10 May 1994 Nelson Mandela was sworn in as the first president of the democratic Republic of South Africa and began his task of building a democratic state, shaping a place for South Africa in the world, and dealing with the horrible legacies of Apartheid, chief amongst which was the denial of quality education to the vast majority of South Africans.

He was released from Victor Verster prison on 11 February 1990 and on 28 November 1990, just nine months later, UWC became the first university from which Nelson Mandela accepted an Honorary Doctorate - an act that established his strong bond with UWC. The citation began with these words:

“We have in our midst tonight the most widely honoured South African of all time. No South African is more admired and respected than Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. He is a remarkable international figure. Now that he can move about the world, he mixes freely with presidents and prime ministers and heads of state, always open, never to be prescribed to, but with dignity and firmness introducing a new perspective on relationships”.

In his response Mandela praised UWC for its role in the “struggle” for freedom and for achieving its goal of moving UWC from its ethnic origins to a proud non-racial institution welcoming all South Africans. Indeed, UWC, a university originally dedicated for “coloured” students, was deeply involved in this struggle for freedom. As early as the 60s, the words Mandela spoke at the Rivonia trial that, “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die for”, inspired UWC students to oppose race and ethnic separation.

This opposition gathered momentum in the 70s with protests on the campus in 1973 and 1975, followed by the Soweto uprising in 1976 which ushered in almost two decades of fierce, often violent struggle for the freedom to create a vibrant national system of education appropriate to the 20th century.

In the mid-1980s, under the leadership of Professor Jakes Gerwel, UWC opened its doors to all students without any reference to race or ethnicity. It also declared itself the intellectual home for the democratic left, thereby giving notice to the state that it openly sided with the struggles of the oppressed and exploited masses. Within this framework, sectoral organisations amongst students, workers and academics at UWC were mobilised to deepen understandings of apartheid’s repression and enhance 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 UDF, 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 classrooms at UWC was also transformed into a terrain of debate and struggle with the emergence of approaches to people’s history and people’s education.

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 offer guidance in the unfolding negotiation process. 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, with 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. UWC also played a leading role in the shaping of the Constitution of South Africa.

The appointment of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as the Chancellor of the University further signalled that the University valued iconic leaders whose work was marked by a sense of humility as well as an attachment to the collective ethics of justice that had been forged in the liberation movement. UWC adopted a stance of connecting excellence in leadership with a commitment to service.

The records show that UWC was the centre of this struggle until the very end, playing a key role in developing a “struggle consciousness” in the Western Cape by also carrying Mandela’s message into communities. Its staff and students were prominent in the engagements of resistance with the Apartheid state, from local skirmishes on the campus to major acts of protest under the umbrella of the UDF and other anti-apartheid organisations.

It was this history that Nelson Mandela responded to in 1990 by accepting UWC’s Honorary Doctorate, and in calling so many of UWC’s staff to serve our nation in key positions from 1994. It was this history, this bond, that led to Jakes Gerwel being asked by Mandela to join his staff, and to Gerwel accepting Mandela’s call to be his Director-General.

Nelson Mandela served as President of South Africa for only 5 years - much, much too short a time to come to grips with the entire spectrum of challenges facing our nation and find answers for all of them. But one thing is certain: Mandela valued education throughout his life. He was always respectful of traditional education, as much of his wisdom has its roots in traditional respect for the humanity of others. He recognised early on that there was no substitute for gaining as rich an education as possible. He was a committed learner at school, at college and university. He understood that education was in a dynamic relationship with action in the world. He was expelled from Fort Hare for political activity, despite his good record, but he continued his studies through Unisa and the University of the Witwatersrand, opening the first black legal practice in South Africa with OR Tambo, thereby making his education a benefit to society. When he was imprisoned for his political activities, he continued his formal studies. He urged others to expand their minds and develop genuine critical capacity. This led to the nickname, Robben Island University.

On his release from prison and taking up the reins of national leadership, he was emphatic regarding the importance of education, arguing that “South Africa inherited a highly dysfunctional educational system from the Apartheid era. It is our one of our major tasks of reconstruction to build an educational system that provides quality opportunities for all our people. It is fundamentally important that our children are prepared to compete with confidence in the international arena. We need to ensure that every one of our children has access to a world class, quality education. And the teaching of maths, science and English is a major national priority, as more of our children need to excel in these subjects”. Clearly the education he is talking about is not merely a technical matter. It is concerned with becoming equipped to live successfully as free people and to hold our own in the wider world. 

Even after his “retirement”, Mandela continued to back major initiatives to improve education through the Nelson Mandela Institute with its concern for rural schools, and through the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and particularly the scholarships which are designed to build a sophisticated and well-educated leadership corps. In the short five years of his tenure, a major change to the national curriculum was affected in order to bury “gutter education” and provide the newly freed oppressed with access to quality education. Unfortunately, this new curriculum did not live up to expectations and we are now still struggling as a nation to develop a strong learning culture. In this respect we are letting Mandela down and we would do well to reflect on his life as a lifelong learner and his understanding of the power of knowledge. Our future depends on it.

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