Change the world


Scholars, artists and academics from Africa and abroad have gathered at Nelson Mandela University to critically reflect on significant cultural and economic shifts taking place around the world, with the aim of building up to new cultural discourses.

The Being Human(e) Conference, which seeks to reflect on and interrogate what it means to be human and humane in the 21st century, got off on a high note with the first day’s deliberations looking at issues including gender, equality, race, culture, identity, philosophies, religion and education discourses.

The three-day conference is hosted by the University’s Faculty of Arts and forms part of the institution’s Mandela Centenary Programme, which has a series of activities executed and planned that rooted firmly in its academic, scholarly and engagement enterprise and considered the best contribution the University can make in preserving and nurturing Nelson Mandela’s legacy.

Opening the conference on 22 August, executive dean of the faculty Prof Rose Boswell said conference deliberations would see discussions spanning the conceptual and culture-political continuum of what it means to be human.

“Discussions engaging robustly with the meaning of radical freedom from the tyranny and bondage of hyper capitalism to local reflections on meaning of being humane in daily interaction.

Our question is what does it mean to be human and humane in the 21st Century?” Prof Boswell said.

“This question, the central theme of our Centenary Conference celebrating the legacy of Nelson Mandela is a challenging question to answer. Our initial thoughts were that humans living in the 21st Century are affected by a range of complex and interwoven challenges and opportunities.

“This is after all, the age of the fourth industrial revolution, the age of digitization, mass migration, environmental degradation and new cultural identities. It is also the age of multiply situated and syncretic religious beliefs, online dating, slam poetry and industrial theatre.

Prof Boswell highlighted how, in this context of rapid and substantive change, it is easy to forget that there are stories of unprecedented inhumanity in the world.

“Stories regarding environmental crime, pernicious racism and what the scholar, Bonaventura de Sousa Santos calls, ‘epistemicide’, literally, the annihilation of ‘Other’ or specifically, indigenous knowledges,” she said.

“Added to this dehumanization (and in this month in which we pay fuller attention to crimes against women), are crimes of gender violence.”

“The process of asserting one’s humanity is especially challenging for those who the historian Eric Wolf described as a ‘People without History’. By focusing on issues of race, culture and identity in the 21st Century, the presenters will engage with how Africans of diverse origins desire and seek to achieve a humane existence.

“Beyond this space and again, taking care not to stereotype, one might find a different kind of humanity, one that is disconnected in real time but connected in the virtual. The latter brings its own conundrums, how do we express emotion without the attendant processes of human evolution at our fingertips?

“One might argue that text messages cannot convey the million and one sentiments expressed through mutual human gaze. However, to offer salient and meaningful analyses of the world as it is, requires that we, as artists, writers, humanities scholars and social scientists be brave in our analyses. We need to question where our published works are going and for whom it is meant.”

South African actor, writer and poet, Lebo Mashile, was the day’s keynote speaker, and touched on various issues, including the impact of centuries of inequality, dehumanisation and violence meted out the majority of African people.

“I think a nation that is founded on bloodshed and slavery, colonialism, violence… that has rape and theft embedded in its own understanding of itself… unless you deliberately attack, deal and consciously confront that and imagine a reality beyond that, you will just keep perpetuating that thing,” she said.

Ms Mashile said with the country’s transformation efforts, changing the appearance and placing black faces in high positions does not equate to transformation.

“[That space] will remain the same and have the same energy, unless it chooses to rebirth itself. Those who have given birth will know this. Birth is pain. You have to go through it, it doesn’t just happen. Birth is not a PR exercise, it’s not a branding exercise, but a process that involves blood and guts that South Africa has not confronted yet,” said Ms Mashile.

“We are really only at the edge of transformation. I see the arts as the primary vehicle for meaningful expression of the values that are enshrined in our Constitution. We have got one of the most progressive political frameworks on the planet ... and is built on the blood and visions of so many people, but we cannot give life and full expression and meaning to these values without the arts.

“It is art that makes policy come alive. It is art that makes ideas accessible. It is art that concepts become real, lived experiences for people.”

Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WISER) director and professor of literature, Sarah Nutall, is the conference’s second keynote speaker, who will deliver her address on Day 2.

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777