Change the world


This article appeared in the Weekend Post (South Africa) on 15 July, written by Dr SIBONGILE MUTHWA AND Dr DENVER WEBB.

THE Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University will formally become the Nelson Mandela University and launch its new, modern brand on Thursday.

It is a privilege that requires our university community and its publics to pause and internalise the magnitude and symbolism of this honour.

The re-branding of the university as the Nelson Mandela University is the next logical step in its evolution into a great African university, in line with our vision and mission.

The name change brings with it many opportunities, but also enjoins us with particular responsibilities and transformational obligations.

By dropping the “metropolitan”, the university will now be aligned to the name of our iconic statesman, a significant shift from a narrow geographical focus and alignment from which it has historically drawn its identity.

As the SRC head of policy, Pedro Mzileni pointed out in his thought-provoking opinion piece carried by The Herald on July 11 (“Student engagement contributes to varsity name change”), the new name, at the least, re-frames and streamlines our identity away from the cumbersome acronym, NMMU.

The name change catapults the Nelson Mandela University – Mandela for short – into the select few universities like Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard that neither use acronyms nor abbreviate their names. Hopefully, in a short few years to come when our alumni are asked, “Where did you study?”, they can respond proudly, “I studied at Mandela”.

Our staff will be able to assess the quality of their own contribution to this great university in line with the ethos of Mandela the icon. What a privilege.

The name change provides an opportunity to both deepen transformation and reposition the university nationally, continentally and globally.

The university as a whole has to live up to the values and ethos inherent in the Mandela name.

The communications division conducted conversations with staff and students on the implications of the name change. The SRC contributed significantly to the process through its own consultative discussions.

What has emerged is that the name change and re-branding are in themselves insufficient if change does not have a positive impact on the lived experience of students, staff and the broader university communities.

Taking the university to the next level should also mean embracing innovation and transformation in all its manifestations.

Extremely critical to this realisation is the capacity and will of the university to embed a distinctive knowledge paradigm that is truly Africanist and globally unapologetic, rooted both in its parlance and lexicon on social justice principles, on principles of the indivisibility of human rights, and of an inclusive world that foregrounds the sanctity of humanity.

Notwithstanding what mainstream branding can achieve, as is the norm in corporate cultures, the lasting identity of this institution will be eternalised in the nature and identity of staff members who elect to serve at Nelson Mandela University.

It will become immortalised in the outstanding and unique attributes of graduates, who will champion social justice and human rights, among others, in posture and leadership tone, irrespective of their field of study at Nelson Mandela University.

In recent years many have laid claim to the legacy of Nelson Mandela – often attempting to isolate one facet of his long and active life, to preserve it in political aspic, and trot it out like some holy relic on the appropriate saint’s day.

This is to misunderstand and misrepresent the legacy of arguably one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century. His legacy needs to be commemorated in all its complexity.

At different times he represented different things to different people: a child growing up in rural Eastern Cape; attending school away from family; a young man inculcated in traditional values at the great place; the first in his family to attend university; a rebel defying his family and regent to run away to Johannesburg seeking his fortune; activist struggling for political, social and economic rights; young radical firebrand challenging the established ANC elite; the first African law student at Wits University; founder, along with OR Tambo, of an independent African legal firm; a sportsman who enjoyed tennis and boxing; a founding member and commander of a guerrilla army; part of a broad leadership collective imprisoned for their ideals; international icon and symbol of the liberation struggle; first president of a democratic South Africa; dignified elder statesman; a father and a grandfather with unrivalled love for children.

Clearly, the challenge of living up to the values and ethos of our namesake will rest in our ability to embrace and celebrate his legacy in all its manifestations, and in ways lasting rather than fleeting.

Next year marks the centenary of the anniversary of his birth. This provides Nelson Mandela University with an opportunity to showcase the substance of the man, with a programme of active engagement and generous stewardship to ensure the impact of the name is experienced by workers, students and the broader university family.

Ultimately it is up to every one of us associated with Nelson Mandela University to embrace the opportunities and responsibilities the name change brings and to collectively ensure we live up to what this means.

This rests on the framing of our scholarship – the classroom experience that transforms as it teaches – and on the way we relate to each other as students, staff and the broader university community. Dr Sibongile Muthwa is deputy vice-chancellor for institutional support at Nelson Mandela University. Dr Denver Webb is acting CEO of the Nelson Mandela University Trust.