(Published - 18 July 2018)
As the world pauses on Wednesday to remember the legacy and impact of former President Nelson Mandela, it offers us a moment of collective and individual stocktaking. Can we in South Africa begin to reflect on the distance between the aspirations and ideals of this man who will forever remain the symbol of our democratic nation, and our lived realities?
The University of the Western Cape (UWC) was fortunate enough to bestow the first honorary doctorate on the former president on his release after 27 years of imprisonment. We have always prided ourselves on our special relationship with him, forged by our former Vice Chancellor Jakes Gerwel who served as 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.
On that day in November 1990, when he visited UWC to accept the doctorate, Mr. Mandela – with the perfect blend of grace and honesty – threw a challenge to the university sector.
“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 practises that will undermine what we are trying to build.
“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... ‘’
Importantly, he asked, what contributions would universities make to the lives of the majority of South Africans dispossessed and dehumanised during apartheid?
“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?”
These questions, posed to a rapt audience on the university campus nearly 28 years ago, are far from resolved. The 2015/16 student protests were a stark reminder of this. Even UWC, with a historical commitment to affordable access to higher education, was not left unscathed by the sweeping anger that erupted from young people across South Africa’s campuses.
Their anger, directed at the slow pace of transformation and the vestiges of colonial symbols at historically white universities, quickly extended into national protests against the cost of studying at a university.
And, while we were disappointed by the violent expression of their protests, as university administrators we had to agree with their sentiments about the prohibitive costs of tuition. While there is much to celebrate about the advances that we have made as a university and a sector as a whole, a myriad challenges remain.
As for UWC, how well have we fared in deserving the praise Mandela heaped on us and in confronting the challenges he set for us? While we are a very different place to the one Mandela visited in 1990, there are some things that have not changed.
Attending a graduation at UWC brings this home starkly. It is a richly, emotionally rewarding ceremony, with parents ululating as their sons and daughters literally jive across the stage. Sometimes one or two might even forget to stop before Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, our Chancellor, to be capped, as their exuberance propels them forward. For our graduates there is much to celebrate. However, many of our graduates are the first in their families to attain a university education. Their success is potentially life changing, not only for themselves but also for their families. For many, the path to graduation is testament to their resilience and commitment to overcoming huge disadvantages. Some arrive on campus without the most rudimentary computer skills, necessitating the design of formal introductory computer courses. And, while skills such as these can be taught, how does one even begin to address the challenge of hungry young people who arrive in class unable to concentrate because they are deprived of the most basic needs. It is in this gut-wrenching reality that you accept that the responsibility of your charges stretch far beyond promoting academic rigour in a lecture hall, and you go, like Oliver Twist reimagined in the 21st century, to ask corporates to help feed your students.
We do this because it has always been UWC’s reality. The majority of our students come from socio-economically disadvantaged communities – as they did in 1990 when Mandela came to our campus. As a historically disadvantaged institution, we will always remain committed to giving access to those who are academically deserving of a place of study, irrespective of their financial circumstances. In many ways, this institution is the embodiment of “one’s origin does not define your destiny”.
Yet, even as we acknowledge the impact of history on our university, UWC took a conscious decision in the early 2000s not to be trapped in the frame of being a historically disadvantaged institution (HDI). It was felt that holding on to the notion of being an HDI would shackle UWC’s future anachronistically in its past. Chasing after proven successes and past glories would take us into the future whilst focusing on a metaphorical rear-view mirror.
While the world was in awe of South Africa’s political transition in 1994, it (the world) continues to change at an alarming rate, which presents immense opportunities and risks. We would be failing as universities if we did not adapt to, engage with and think deeply about these changes with a view to graduating citizens for the world. To get where we need to be as a nation, we have to deal appropriately with the question of access to higher education. And, for access to be real, there can be no compromise on the aspiration to excellence. No student or academic should be left feeling that second rate is good enough.
For UWC to move forward and not to be trapped in the past, required hard decisions around where we invested our resources. It is well known that the funding of the South African higher education sector is a challenge, and that state funding has not kept pace with the rising costs of offering quality tertiary education.
Our growth has not been based on overnight, easy successes. We have our Institutional Operating Plan that sets out our growth path for a number of years. In our current planning cycle, one of our ambitions is to expand our geographical footprint beyond our original campus. This takes serious financial investment and planning, and we have just completed the renovation of a building in the Bellville CBD for our Community and Health Sciences faculty that will create a new corridor for our students and the communities they serve.
Our Centre for Humanities Research - that houses the only Department of Science and Technology Flagship on Critical Thought in African Humanities in South Africa - is planning to take forward our arts education and outreach programmes by providing a hub in Woodstock, including an artist-in-residence programme, with studio spaces and a multi-purpose exhibition and performance facility, and a Laboratory of Kinetic Objects, in association with the Handspring Trust of the Handspring Puppet Company. The laboratory will house a fully equipped workshop capable of producing large-scale puppetry for use in public festivals and theatre productions.
I would also like to believe that our community engagement programmes – stretching across all our seven faculties – respond to Mr. Mandela’s question of what universities can do to improve the lives of the millions of South Africans who were dispossessed by apartheid.
Our sense of community has shifted over the years because boundaries are forever changing or disappearing. It is impossible to stand apart from the society in which you are located, and the idea of a university as the “ivory tower” is outdated. Our dentistry faculty sees to over 120 000 patients each year at its two primary sites at Tygerberg Hospital and in Mitchell’s Plain, and our Education Faculty actively intervenes in three provinces in the teaching of maths and science teachers. In fact, we have just opened the first five science learning centres in the Eastern Cape where state-of-the-art laboratories were built in partnership with the provincial government. This is one of our most inspiring projects, and with the support of sponsors we have already built more than 50 of these centres at schools in economically disadvantaged communities in the Western Cape.
Our successes are the result of our vision of and as a university as an intellectually engaged institution that is relevant to the society that we are part of – and that includes holding on to our proud history while embracing new ways of providing learning and teaching, as well as research and innovation. Seeing the name of one of our young ‘home-grown’ scientists as one of the co-authors of the first MeerKAT paper in the Astrophysical Journal is an achievement. What is infinitely more rewarding is the fact that the scientist in question, having grown up in the rural Eastern Cape, now has the Square Kilometer Array and indeed the universe as his laboratory!
At each graduation, you will hear stories of individual success that have resilience and determination at their very core. There’s the young man arriving from Mpumalanga with less than R20 in his pocket, but with the burning desire to achieve and to meet his domestic worker mother’s dream that her children would be educated, and who becomes one of the most beloved lecturers on campus. There’s the young man from the Cape Flats who used to cut grass with convicts, who becomes a marine biologist because a lecturer believed in his abilities and secured him a bursary.
These are not stories about UWC. They are the lives of students who are empowered through UWC. As Mr. Mandela asked, we have played an enabling role in the lives of our students through our lasting commitment to providing equitable and epistemological access to a quality education to generations of young people. We also strive to ensure that our research and scholarship contributes to improving the quality of life of citizens of our country as well as those abroad.
So, 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.