By Poelo Irene Keta
Rhodes University Community Engagement (RUCE) joined millions of people worldwide on Monday in celebrating and reflecting on the heroic efforts of the late Former President of South Africa and anti-apartheid activist, Dr Nelson Mandela. RUCE celebrated Nelson Mandela International Day, which falls on his birthday every year.
RUCE hosted a webinar to interrogate how community-university partnerships and the various forms of community engagement can be more deliberate about working toward achieving Madiba’s lofty ideals.
This year’s Nelson Mandela International Day theme was, “Do what you can with what you have and where you are.” In a well-attended webinar with panellists from around the world, one irrefutable fact stood out: education, and access to education, is an important stepping stone to changing the world. As it was, Madiba himself called it “the most powerful weapon”.
RUCE Director Di Hornby made the opening remarks and introduced the guests and panellists who would be participating in the discussion. In attendance was Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sizwe Mabizela, Standard Bank’s Tutuwa Community Fund Chief Executive Officer, Zanele Twala, a representative from the University of Venda, Professor Vohnani Notshandama, a representative from the University of Victoria in Canada and Co-Chair of the UNESCO in Community Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education, Professor Budd Hall.
“This day allows us to reflect on Mandela’s life, to reflect on his contribution and his legacy, to draw important lessons if we are to commit ourselves to the kind of society and the kind of world he would like to see,” said Professor Mabizela. He further emphasised the urgency of ensuring students developed the right attitude and acquired appropriate skills while at Rhodes University to contribute to the world they want to see. “Tata Mandela did not just dream of a better society, he acted to bring it about, and that is what we need to instil in our students,” he added.
With her foundation funding much of RUCE’s school partnership initiatives, Ms Zanele Twala could not help but praise the efforts of partners like GADRA Education, who have played an active role in the Makhanda community, and the dedication to education that the students have. “Education and development in its nature is a long-term exercise; as a teacher by profession, I understand that the greatest privilege that you can ever be afforded in life is to be tasked with human development,” she said.
During the panel discussion, which was led by RUCE’s Dr Rene Oosthuizen, the speakers reflected largely on the many hats that Tata Mandela wore throughout his life. He was a politician, a lifelong student, a lawyer, and a freedom fighter. “President Mandela, the student, was not afraid to represent others. He knew that as he represented others, he might stumble and misrepresent, but because he believed in collective wisdom, he applied himself in such a way that there were always opportunities for engagement,” said Professor Notshandama.
More than that, Mandela did not let himself become a victim of his circumstances; he saw a silver lining even during the most difficult periods of his life. “I have often been struck by the way that Madiba created an extraordinary learning environment inside Robben Island, encouraging all the political prisoners to study, read, and take courses. He believed in the universal capacity for all people to learn; he learned that sharing knowledge was a fundamental human right,” said Prof Hall.
RUCE has worked tirelessly to create an environment where students can choose the causes most important to them so that they can donate their time to serving the Makhanda community. A student who is an integral part of RUCE and has recently been awarded the South African Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, Claire Mccan spoke about how rewarding the Engaged Citizenship programmes were for everyone involved, not just those receiving our help. “It shows us the value of other people in our communities but also the value of our interconnectedness, the recognition that our future depends on the future of all of those around us,” she said.
RUCE is also bridging the digital literacy gap in Makhanda through a Social Innovation Hub, which was established to explore social innovation. “Digital storytelling is one of the things that has been done; people are being empowered to tell their stories and contribute to social change in that space,” RUCE’s Dr Bertha Sibhensana explained.