Change the world


DECOLONISING curricula and transforming universities have long been talking points at universities in this country – even more so with the arrival of the #FeesMustFall movement. But to what extent are universities putting all this talk into practice?

Five years ago, Nelson Mandela University became the first South African university to actively start the process of transforming its “institutional culture” as the first step towards changing the university into one that was better-positioned to respond to the needs of today’s society and students.

Reflections on the five-year process are the subject of the newly-launched book “Deepening the Conversations: Practice reflections on the Institutional Culture Enlivening Process (ICEP) at Nelson Mandela University”, penned by the lead facilitator of the process, Ilze Olckers, a Cape Town-based independent legal and process consultant, specialising in transformation.   

The book, which is an account of Olckers’s personal reflections over the ICEP process, which ran from 2013 to 2017, outlines the “new knowledge” created by the university as it set out to do what no other higher education institute had yet attempted: which was essentially to live out a five-year “social experiment”, underpinned by theory and social justice imperatives, with the aim of getting staff to better understand themselves and their own deeply-ingrained belief systems, their past, their pain, as the first step towards co-creating a new, transformed future for the university, for the benefit of its students.

Ilze Olckers, supported by a small team, facilitated safe spaces for participants to have courageous, uncomfortable conversations at retreats and workshops throughout the process period, and thus started sowing the seeds for a new university culture – and, although no one could predict its coming – one that was more ready for the change demanded by the #FeesMustFall movement.

The ICEP process was housed within the university’s Centre for the Advancement of Anti-Racialism and Democracy (CANRAD).

The book’s launch on November 23, at the university’s Bird Street Gallery, was opened by outgoing Vice-Chancellor Prof Derrick Swartz, the author of the university’s Vision 2020 – a visionary blueprint for the university Nelson Mandela University aspires to be, and also the document that inspired the ICEP programme.

In his foreword in the book, Swartz said ICEP’s purpose was “to offer into our institution new paradigms for organisation change and leadership approaches, new ways of being and doing that emphasise active listening, enable participation, ensure diversity of voices, co-create our future and ultimately, create the conditions in which we can live more closely into our vision, mission and values”.

During his speech at the launch, he said Olckers had taken his original mandate and “spun it and crystallised it in interesting ways I could not have imagined. And as it evolved, it became increasingly more interesting, in the context of change and transformation at the university”.

He said the project was about the “human condition”. “It’s about emancipating the human spirit and condition to release the incredible energies of everyone sitting in front of me today [university staff and students] to shift the world to a better place.

“This book marks a date line of where the university is and casts light on where we want to take it to … It’s for the next generation so they can set off where we have left off.”

However, he also said society needed to change before real change could be felt at the university. “We can’t have free and decolonised higher education without having a society that is more equal.”

But universities could also be agents to “foster and promote change in society”.

In her talk, Olckers said Swartz had alluded to a key aspect of the book which was “praxis” – where theory and action are directed towards change.

“At the heart of the ICEP process was this question: What does transformation look like in practice?

“What is the praxis of transformation? It is under-theorised and under-explained. And this is what I’m really excited about, because [this book] makes a contribution to new knowledge.”

She said the first few years of the project were the most difficult. “What I didn’t know was that we were preparing the ground for #FeesMustFall, and cultivating leadership to meet this incredible transformative event.”

The book includes the original 2012 proposal and tells the story of how the key processes evolved from then until now.

The university’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Teaching and Learning, Prof Denise Zinn, said the ICEP process felt like a dance. “Like the African proverb says, ‘when the music changes, so does the dance’ – and how the music has changed, often, often.”

She called the process a “brave, ground-breaking innovative experiment” but said, going forward, the university needed to ask itself the question: How do we engage with the “missing passengers in ICEP – the students”?

“It is time we embraced their own injunction: Nothing for us, without us.”

CANRAD director Allan Zinn, who was also ICEP’s project manager, closed the event saying: “Student leaders are going to have to help us to hold things through this turbulent time … We need to figure out how to work together.”

Read/download the book

Author, Ilze Olckers, receives a gift from Vice-Chancellor Prof Derrick Swartz, made by 2nd year Printmaking students of icons symbolising the awareness around violence against women and children.

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777