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Change the world

15/12/2021

Coming from a family that is deeply rooted in education and the belief that one’s background should not determine their future, it is no surprise that Pedro Mzileni spent his time at university fighting for the education of the poor, black child.

Mzileni, who will be graduating with doctorate in sociology on Wednesday (15 December 2021), was one of the student activists at the forefront of the #FeesMustFall student protests that led to fee-free higher education for children from poor and working class backgrounds.

Born in Zwelitsha, King William’s Town (Qonce), in 1992, Mzileni grew up in a family of educators – all professionals, born of a woman who had never received a formal education.

“I come from a family of teachers. My mom, aunts, uncles, grandmother and extended family members raised me. In the main, they were educators, in the townships and rural villages,” he said.

“My grandmother didn’t even go to school but was a fierce advocate for black education and black excellence. Even though she didn’t get a formal education, she was highly involved in schools in the area where we grew up.

“In my early days of education, she was the one who taught me how to write.  I used to do some admin work for her.

“Even my signature is the same as hers,” he quipped, fondly remembering their matriarch.

Mzileni says he had always known that he would end up in the education space, although he could not have anticipated his level of involvement.

He began his academic journey at the same primary school as his family members, Nobantu Primary School, and moved on to Bhisho High School, where he matriculated. He joined the then Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) to do a BA in Psychology and Sociology.

He went on to obtain an honours degree majoring in Sociological Theory with a mini dissertation looking into international students’ integration into university residences. His masters dissertation looked into the living and learning experiences of Nelson Mandela University students residing in off-campus residence accommodation.

This week, he graduates with a doctorate, with his thesis looking into post-apartheid geographies of studentification at Nelson Mandela University, under the supervision of Professors Shirley-Anne Tait and Nomalanga Mkhize.

“I always knew I would end up in a space of education. Even my involvement in student politics stems from that – a firm belief that where you come from should not determine where you are headed. There is power in education and developing oneself through it in order to make an impact on society,” says Mzileni.

“I found myself following in my family’s footsteps as they, too, were actively involved in education matters and politics during the struggle years, and active in community development in the townships and rural areas.”

Mzileni says when he came to university, it did not feel as though he was embarking into the next step in his academic journey, but rather that he joined a community of people – staff, students and other stakeholders from different parts of the world and social groupings – who were invested in ensuring his ultimate academic success.

“I could experiment with my curiosity, disrupt some social and systemic standings and it was a space to just find myself and my voice,” he says.

“I was part of an ecosystem of people – lecturers, cleaners, managers, security guards, shuttle and taxi drivers etc – all with a resolve for social justice and  the overall development of the black child in this historically white space.

“For me, Mandela University was a home-ground. It was like the institution was made for me, to nurture my development. It was as if when I arrived, everything was in place to speak to my being. The lecturers and members of executive management have been very patient and understanding of me and my ideas – no matter how outlandish they may have been.”

One of his most defining moments in student leadership was his tenure as Student Representative Council (SRC) president in 2017, which he described as one of the most difficult years.

“I remember that year like it was yesterday. It was a very difficult year as we were coming out of the 2015/2016 #FeesMust Fall protests and it looked like we didn’t have practicable solutions to the funding challenges.”

He recalled how student leaders nationally began meeting with the powers-that-be to practically implement the resolutions of the massive protests. His presidency was also involved in the election of a new vice-chancellor, in whose continued vision for the institution they believed in, as well as the renaming from NMMU to Nelson Mandela University.

“As student leadership, we were resolute in who we wanted because we knew it was time that the University was led by a black woman. We were also sold on her vision, which was to build a university that is socially and community centred, in addition to focusing on academics and research. We were sold on the vision to make academia work in the service of society,” he says.

“Launching the new name was another highlight. It was a turning point for the University, seeing it move from one reality to the next. The transition was an exciting one, I can’t forget the euphoria of that time. It’s been worth it.”

Reflecting on the transformation of Mandela University in the last few years, Mzileni says the institution has laid a solid foundation in carrying out its bold vision, as articulated by Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, at her inaugural in April 2018.

“We are definitely on the right path, but there are two challenges pulling us back from becoming what we want and need to become.

“A large part of our institutional project requires a significant amount of funding to be carried out, but the sector itself is getting decreased state funding. For example, we get students from poor backgrounds every year, and to take a student through to postgraduate level is quite expensive.

“So there is that pressure on the state to finance students from the beginning to the end, so without the requisite fiscal backing, realising the vision for the institution is proving a bit problematic.

“Secondly, the pandemic has also added to these difficulties. Prior to the pandemic, we had a vibrant student culture, where we were able to feed off of each other in pursuit of the social agenda. Going into physical and social isolation has hampered this, resulting in somewhat of a loss to a big part of what Mandela University is.

“For many people, this can be destabilising and disorientating. We are now working to just finish the academic year and not participating in extracurricular activities that feeds students’ social consciousness.

“The student politics space at Mandela is so rich because of the allowance and space to be. The University has been a great nourishing space for students to flourish. The present circumstances makes it such that it depends on the individual and their resolve to change the world for the better, being driven to help change what it is that one feels is unjust in the system.”

Mzileni dedicates his PhD, which he says was a personal goal of his since the early days of his academic journey, to the black women in his life, particularly, who have played a massive role in shaping the man that he is today.

“This PhD means a lot to me because this was a personal goal I had set for myself, and I always go out to prove to myself that I can overcome anything to achieve my goals. I dedicate it to all the black women who played a role in my life. From my family, teachers, university lecturers and supervisors,” he says.

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777
Zandile.Mbabela@mandela.ac.za