Change the world


Little over 12 months ago, we only vaguely knew about coronavirus. It was something “out there and far away”. We could never have guessed then of the impact that this virus – COVID-19 - would have around the globe.

Or, of course, closer to home, in South Africa, this province, our Metro, our university, and in each of our own individual lives.

It has changed almost everything we previously did. It has changed the way we work; the way we study; how we live and how we behave.

It has derailed our economy; had a massive toll on our mental wellbeing; and seriously impacted on our education system.  In addition, it has further exposed the many failings within our country – widescale impoverishment, hunger, GBV, political infighting and large-scale corruption.

And, most tragically, it has led to a tremendous loss of life around the world – more than 1.69 million people have passed on to date, each death irrevocably changing the lives of their families forever.

We have not been immune to this.

Acknowledgment of those who have passed on

As a university we have lost many staff members to the virus, and each of us has been impacted by their passing, and the passing of others within our own friendship circles and families. There have been many other staff and student deaths this year too. My heartfelt condolences go to each of you who has lost those near and dear to you.

Nelson Mandela University journey

As you will remember, the entire country went into a strict Lockdown on 27 March after our President Cyril Ramaphosa had declared a National State of Disaster earlier in the month. The University duly closed its doors too, sending staff and students home for early recess, never anticipating the lengthy journey ahead.

Very quickly, we formed two key multi-disciplinary teams. The first, the Coronavirus Task Team was established to manage all on and off-campus preparations towards our collective end-goal of saving lives and saving the academic year. The second, the Coronavirus Co-Ordinating Committee was formed to harness the University’s knowledge and expertise and partner with others in “flattening the curve” and fighting the pandemic.

It was our namesake, Nelson Mandela, who once said: “We must use our time wisely and forever realise that the time is always ripe to do right.”

This is what we are endeavouring to do - to support both our staff and students through the most unprecedented time in our history, and in our efforts to serve others generally.

As I reflect, I am in awe of just what and how much has been achieved. This is because of you, our loyal, hard-working staff members and committed students.

It is our staff who have been guiding Nelson Mandela University to achieve remarkable things in extremely trying circumstances.

The end goal was clear: save lives and save the academic year.

But how?

Just how do you enable 29 000 students who live throughout the metro, province, South Africa and across the Africa continent to complete their studies when you can no longer meet?

How do you enable staff to support students towards this end goal?

There is no guidebook to follow and your enemy is both invisible and ever-changing. To use the popular analogy, this journey has been like building a ship while sailing. We have neither manuals nor answers, only that goal of saving lives and the academic year.

And, most critically, formidable teamwork that is making it possible.

In a matter of months, we have transformed the way we work and study by collectively seeking answers and investing in sustainable digital solutions to enable both staff and students to function remotely.  We have achieved some remarkable success despite the challenging.

Academic success

Our first semester success rate is 79; only 362 students were not reached throughout this period because of the unstinting efforts of our academic staff and students to contact each and every student personally. We introduced different learning pathways to accommodate the different contextual needs of all our students and this has further evolved into an exciting new, human-centred, and hopefully humanizing, hybrid model.

To support our students, our academics have adapted their teaching methods, upskilled themselves and transformed their efforts to offer a blended model of tuition. 

We have distributed more than 5000 laptops and provided 30GB of data each month to every student to enable remote learning. We have improved the WiFi experience in accredited off-campus residences and are consistently exploring new ways of improving our support.

Digital advances

Again, with the help of ICT Services, we have introduced many new digital improvements to make life safer and more convenient for staff and students.

These digital advances have also enabled us to work remotely, monitor our own wellbeing with the online COVID-19 self-screening tool, and given us the ease of booking services online, such as for venues for mask-to-mask lectures; for cleaning; for using our libraries, booking laundry and ordering meals. All these improvements align with our long-term plans of enabling access to education at any time and in any place.

Extending our reach

Equally, the benefits of having a digital approach has expanded our reach as witnessed with our digital arts packages and in the hosting on our virtual webinars. Guests now register from around the globe exposing the Nelson Mandela University brand to new audiences.

It has also transformed the way we recruit students. With traditional face-to-face marketing no longer an option, we had to re-imagine our strategies. I am pleased to say that interest in Nelson Mandela University as a university of first choice has grown by 25% year-on-year using both online and radio-based plans.

There have been so many other gains too – the implementation of our organisational redesign; the completion of a 198-bed residence on our  George Campus and the good progress made with our new residences under construction on both our North and South campuses; the awarding of two new SARChi Chairs in the humanities and, of course, the looming excitement of establishing our Medical School on Missionvale Campus.

External achievements

Externally, through the efforts of the Coronavirus Co-ordinating Committee, and the expertise of our researchers and academics we were able to produce hand sanitiser, assist with ventilator production, ICT solutions and offer immediate aid to impoverished communities and schools through the establishment of the Convergence Fund, among other initiatives. 

Each of these projects align with our mandate as a university in the service of society.

Heartfelt appreciation

2020 is a year none of us will forget. It has seriously knocked us as an institution. It has knocked us individually. It is important to acknowledge the impact that it has had on us. Just as the way we do business will never be the same again, so each of us will never be the same either.

These uncertainties and fears have impacted our wellbeing.

The changes and challenges have been relentless, and there is no safe harbour yet in sight as we continue to navigate an unknown future.

It’s been a marathon crisis for us –

  • For our frontline workers – Protection Services, Cleaning and Catering colleagues; our technical teams; our residence managers and our healthcare workers. Many have been on campus from the outset to ensure a safe return to campus for our staff and students.
  • For our academics who have adapted their ways, extended their working days to meet the different needs of students, who have equally had to adapt to new ways of studying.
  • For our students who have toiled through the uncertainties, overcome various challenges and adapted to a new way of studying and living.
  •  For our PASS staff as the operational and service backbone of our institution whose ingenuity and hard graft has enabled us to support the academic project, while striving for safety.

It has been hard. Many of you are exhausted from thinking, from trying and re-trying, from learning new things, from implementing new processes, and from working long hours.

You have gone above and beyond. You have kept this ship – Nelson Mandela University – not only afloat, but on course to help the bulk of our students to complete their 2020 studies.

We have worked collectively to find solutions and do what is right.

As Vice-Chancellor of Nelson Mandela University, I could not be more proud.

Thank you, Dankie, Enkosi.

Please rest and enjoy your break, but please do so responsibly by continuing to observe all the safety protocols to contain the spread of the virus.

I know we are tired, but the virus is not. Your safety is our priority, and so please protect yourself and protect others.

It is in your hands.

Professor Sibongile Muthwa
Vice-Chancellor Nelson Mandela University    

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777