“To be the African university in the service of humanity” may be one of the most inspiring and memorable visions of all higher education institutions, but what does this actually mean in practice?
This was the question posed by Unisa’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mandla Makhanya at Unisa’s 2012 Chancellor’s Dinner and Calabash Awards on 11 October 2012 when the university recognised and celebrated the excellence of four South African leaders – the first democratically elected President, Dr Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Unisa Robben Island Alumnus award); founder of the Citizens Movement, Dr Mamphele Ramphele (Outstanding Educator award); Chairman of the Liberty Group, Saki Macozoma (Unisa Robben Island Alumnus award); and the incumbent Chief Executive Officer of the Industrial Development Corporation, Geoffrey Qhena (Outstanding Alumnus award).
Under the theme “The role of the African university in the development of African leadership”, the night was one of celebration and also introduced the Unisa Robben Island Alumnus Award, an award which acknowledges the role played by Unisa in shaping present-day South Africa. It also acknowledges the characteristics and leadership of the freedom fighters incarcerated on Robben Island. Among the celebrations, the fundamental questions were posed: What is required for the training and development of excellent African leadership? What is the African university’s role in this regard?
Prof Makhanya said the relentless pace of transformation in the knowledge society has brought about global turmoil that is rendering futures very uncertain. He said while dealing with their unique challenges, South Africa and Africa are also impacted upon by international crises and leaders “seem to be caught up in worrying cycles of crises which we struggle to resolve.”
“I would suggest that our dilemma has something to do with the fact that social justice and fairness, and excellence with integrity are conspicuous by their absence in our national dialogue right now. Rather, we seem to be mired in a destructive paradigm that places self-interest at the top of our individual and collective agendas, although this often comes wrapped in a patently manipulative veneer of caring about the ‘other’.”
So what becomes the solution? Prof Makhanya says: “…Those of us who genuinely embrace and espouse human dignity, democracy, freedom and social justice as enshrined in our Constitution, cannot afford to keep silent for fear of consequences that may be a bit uncomfortable. As a university, we are ideally positioned to contribute to public discourse on the state of our nation and we shall endeavour by all means to do so. Ultimately, that is what the role of an African university in the development of African leadership is all about.”
Unisa Chancellor, Honourable Judge President Bernard Ngoepe, said there is a particular group of Unisa alumni who have distinguished themselves in quite a remarkable manner, and we are privileged as a country to reap the awards of their exemplary scholarship, leadership and conduct. “I can say without reservation that if our graduates of today exhibit the same qualities of leadership, integrity and commitment to social justice, as represented by our Robben Island alumni, and our other alumni, you will see a very different country… These people have made a positive impact in various walks of our lives, all of that from an education which they received via the distance learning mode. In that context, one cannot but wonder about claims that distance education is somehow inferior. How inferior is an education that produces a president, a Nobel laureate, a Chief Justice, and a deputy Chief Justice?”
Keynote speaker and awardee, Saki Macozoma said there has to be objective criteria that will enable the baptism of African higher education institution. “I believe we must start with the university system itself before we get to the individual institutions. In my opinion, an African university can emerge from a system that guarantees all the fundamental building blocks of a university universally. That is academic freedom, cooperative and collegiate governance, institutional autonomy and many others.”
He said that in order to achieve a truly African university, stakeholders should not spend time in sterile debate about the construct of a university or its African expression, and they should also accept the concept of differentiation within the system as Africa is a diverse continent, and so there cannot be one way of creating an African university.
Core characteristics of an African university, according to Macozoma, are an African value adding university, where scholarship addresses the priorities of the African continent and its peoples; an innovative university; a university that is resourced to respond to the imperatives of access and equity, without having to compromise academic excellence; and a world class and world competitive university, dedicated to deep community engagement at the local and regional level.
Macozoma said attending and graduating from such a university does not automatically qualify one as an African leader. “…The role of the African university is to prepare graduates who can be developed into leaders who embody ethical leadership; who are innovators as all the challenges that face Africa require innovative solutions; leaders who are institution builders as opposed to builders of personal dynasties; leaders who are integrators and reconcilers; and leaders who are independent…”
When accepting his award, Geoffrey Qhena raised the issue of the economic crisis and the fact that emerging economies, of which Africa, including South Africa, is one, have not been able to escape unscathed. This uncertain environment, he said, offers us opportunity to strengthen inter-Africa trade and therefore everyone has to play a role in their areas of expertise, to make a proactive contribution. “The institutions of higher learning are also called upon to play a leading role, offering new and innovative ways of addressing the challenges we are facing. And also play a lead in forming partnerships with key institutions of our country to ensure that we emerge with concrete solutions in reducing unemployment, and reduce the skills shortage that we experience.”
Accepting on behalf of Dr Mandela, Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Information and Communication Manager, Sello Hatang said that as Unisa approaches its 140th anniversary, all its stakeholders should remember that is in their hands to make a difference in South Africa and Africa. “We all know that Madiba cares deeply about education and its power to transform society and change circumstances… We hope that Madiba’s generation of leaders continue to inspire us to continue fighting social ills such as inequality, crime and corruption with the same determination they fought apartheid.”
* Story written by Rivonia Naidu