Guest Column

Nurture new Nelson Mandelas - a challenge for universities

2018-07-18 10:24
(Photo: iStock)

(Photo: iStock)

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Nico Koopman

Our highly respected and appreciated Minister of Higher Education and Training, Ms Naledi Pandor, recently challenged universities to nurture Nelson Mandelas. She specifically put this challenge to Stellenbosch University (SU), where some of the most prominent leaders of the apartheid regime were educated.

This challenge provides parameters for the three core academic mandates of universities, namely research and innovation, learning and teaching, and transformative social impact.

These three academic imperatives should be guided by the logic and viewpoints of Madiba and the way he argued and thought about a wide range of issues. They should also be guided by his ethos, ethics and values, moral principles, integrity, as well as his pathos, compassion and caring heart. Universities are challenged to provide the country, continent and the world with graduates who espouse Mandela’s logic, ethos and pathos.

In this year of the centenary celebrations of Madiba and of SU, Maties can pay in a special way attention to the minister’s challenge.

Madiba’s logic entails that we do not settle for over-simplified solutions to complex challenges. It also asks for an embrace of intellectual engagement and a rejection of intellectual laziness and anti-intellectualism. Always open for consensus-seeking and for achieving morally acceptable compromises in contexts of a plurality of opinions and perspectives, Madiba’s logic never absolutised one viewpoint. Such absolutisation carries within it the seed for populism, for stereotyping, stigmatising, demonising and annihilating those who differ from you.   

Madiba’s logic also embraced and managed ambiguity, i.e. the fact that the same word, expression, text, event can have a multitude of meanings and emotional associations for people who seek life together in one space. His way of thinking acknowledged the ambivalent nature of reality and recognised that people, processes, programmes, and progress with undertakings are neither one-sidedly good nor one-sidedly bad. The simultaneously good and bad in everyone and everything is reckoned with. 

Madiba’s rationality makes room for paradoxes, i.e. for apparent, but not real contradictions. This paradoxality entails, for instance, that societies and institutions can become more inclusive without creating new exclusions. 

Madiba’s logic warmly accommodated a healthy duality, which means that we function not always with an either/or option, but where appropriate with a both/and option. For example, we do not have to choose for either diversity or excellence. No, duality means we choose for both diversity and excellence because there can be no talk of excellence in the absence of a diversity of persons, backgrounds, perspectives, insights and opinions. 

Madiba’s focus on intellectuality paves the way for excellence through diversity. He never settled for second best. In a society where mediocrity is increasingly not only tolerated but also uncritically accepted, we must remember and be activated by his lifelong journey of excellence. 

The ethos of Mandela that can be nurtured in our graduates is articulated in the Bill of Rights of our Constitution. The most foundational value of the Bill of Rights is the value of human dignity in the context of the integrity and unity of creation. This means South Africans stand for the dignity of all humans and all of nature. 

The four building-blocks of dignity, according to the Bill of Rights, are the healing of our people, justice for all, freedom for all, and equality of life for all. This equality is equality of worth, value and esteem and entails a life of quality for all, a life of equal access to the necessities and goods of life. Equality, therefore, demands that equity practices be implemented to right the wrongs of the past and to achieve higher levels of equilibrium in society, so that some do not have too much and others too little. This is the dignity, healing, justice, freedom and equality that Nelson Mandela embodied. 

He also embodied the civic virtues without which societies cannot flourish. They include justice in a context of inequality and discrimination; temperance and moderation in a society of greed, gluttony, selfishness and apathy towards the plights and cries of others; wisdom and discernment in a context of complexity and poor judgement; courage, resilience and moral heroism in societies where the fortitude and strength to be patient and to tolerate, to speak out and to act and transform is lacking.

Universities are fulfilling their mandate if they awaken and nurture in graduates a pathos, passion and compassion for all people and all of nature. This compassion has no room for patronising, manipulating and wrongly pitying others. It is a compassion that is especially shown to the most marginalised and wronged, the most vulnerable and fragile in our societies. It entails that we cannot go to bed undisturbed, whilst knowing that the most basic needs of so many of our brothers and sisters aren’t being met. The level of dignity and liberation of an institution and society is determined by the compassion and equality of life that the most vulnerable enjoy.

Madiba’s compassion was about sympathy, about feeling with others, feeling with their joys and sorrows. It was about empathy, about thinking and feeling yourself into the situation of others, standing in their shoes, living in their skins, attempting to look through their eyes. It was also about interpathy, about thinking with and feeling with people from other cultures and worldviews, and people from whom we were estranged before. The pathos of Madiba was already action in itself, and it also prompted further concrete action, policies and practices to advance a life of dignity for all.

How wonderful would it not be if our universities nurture engineers, economists, accountants, agri-scientists, lawyers, educators, social scientists, natural scientists, doctors and health care specialists, theologians and religious leaders who embody the Mandela logic, ethos and pathos. And how blessed are we not to have a minister of higher education and training who puts this challenge on our tables! We will honour Madiba and Mama Albertina Sisulu in their centenary year appropriately, and we will commemorate the centenary anniversaries of SU and the University of Cape Town appropriately, only if we commit ourselves to this Mandela logic, ethos, and pathos. 

- Prof Nico Koopman is Vice-Rector for Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel at Stellenbosch University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    stellenbosch university  |  nelson mandela  |  cape town  |  mandela100  |  education
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