University name change: A product of student engagement

2017-07-08 18:08

The South African government and the Mandela family in 2016 officially gave the former Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU) permission to be named after the global icon in full as Nelson Mandela University. This was gazzetted by the government and thus granted the university space to no longer be named after the metropolitan city.

At the beginning of this year, the Vice Chancellor Professor Derrick Swartz invited all university stakeholders to contribute in writing and in voice on various platforms in the form of meetings, conversation opportunities and interviews to explore the meaning of the new name in line with Nelson Mandela’s legacy. This process was expanded to enable staff and students to share what the new name can and should mean.

The Nelson Mandela University SRC remains an independent voice of students, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. Driven by a deep-seated desire to reject all forms of discrimination, it is committed in the delivery of a transformed institution of higher learning to realize the values of human dignity, as enshrined in the South African constitution.

Students saw the name change process done by the university from that premise. They saw it as an opportunity to shift the dominant balance of forces in the university towards an alternative: a chance to open doors for curriculum transformation and a truly African institutional culture.

Students noted that the naming process that was being driven by the University did not reach ordinary students at the beginning. The SRC, therefore, decided to take ownership by doing a parallel process for students by consulting with them to hear their perspectives about the university and its future.

The meetings, in the form of mass gatherings, were held at the multiple campuses, including George, and reached residence students, both on- and off campus. The ideas exchanged had a consensus embedded on making the new Nelson Mandela University change the living and learning experiences of students from previously disadvantaged communities. Transformation and change must be felt practically by them.

The name change was also seen as an opportunity to give University buildings, campuses and streets new names. This is because buildings are an important aspect of a university. It is where teaching and learning content is produced and where the institutional culture gets its legitimacy to navigate the movement and thinking of human beings interacting with it daily.

Therefore, buildings cannot carry empty names like “Building X or Y”. Such meaningless names possess nothing significant about the context of comrade Mandela and the general climate of higher education in South Africa presently.

Students proposed names of traditional leaders, unsung local heroes, national and Continental leaders of the liberation struggle, artists, national symbols, student leaders who died after 1994 and other global icons for our infrastructure. For too long the university has progressed with such figures and their stories invisible from the university’s mainstream gallery. Naming infrastructure after commercial products and divisive figures was discouraged.

The naming process will promote efforts to redress past imbalances and deliver a celebration of the university’s cultural diversity and the country’s true socio-political context. Therefore, Nelson Mandela University, given its location within Africa, South Africa and the Eastern Cape, could not be immune to that context and reality. The SRC also committed to making the naming process continue beyond the new name launch, scheduled for 20 July 2017, into the future.

Names and an institutional culture are man-made, derived from the hegemonic power of the moment. The #FeesMustFall protests have, as a result, tempered with the usual hegemony of university administrators, where decision-making was previously done behind closed doors with lukewarm student consultation. The #FeesMustFall protests have leveraged student power, rendering students influential in almost all decision-making platforms of the university. The protests democratized the space and this name change process was no different. It gave students the license to shape the vision and mission of the University, in terms of its commitment to the development of a shared transformation programme.

The sociological imagination that students carry collectively about the future of the University is of a place that guarantees any individual the future they have potential for, not one they can or cannot afford. Your potential and commitment must determine your future, not your socio-economic position in society. Mandela University must be a progressive institution, where education is seen as a fundamental human right, an apex priority of the nation and a cutting edge towards the socio-economic emancipation of a previously subjugated people and community. No poor and academically deserving person should be denied access to the University. It should support the strategic objective of students: the rollout of free education in their lifetime.

From now on, the university must be named in full. Abbreviations are discouraged as they extinguish the identity of the university. Nobody refers to Harvard University as HU. It gets mentioned in full just like Cambridge, Oxford, Rhodes and Yale. Such universities are known globally for their intellectual identity and the calibre of graduates they produce. The same must apply for the new Nelson Mandela University.

The name must be a source of funding, cutting edge research on 21st century knowledge. It must be a new generation African institution that has an intellectual identity, denoting a significant footprint globally associated with respect for human rights, confrontation, engagement, decoloniality and academic excellence.

The battle for curriculum transformation and a decolonized institutional culture will be won or lost inside Faculties, where decisions are taken on what must be taught and by whom. It is there where learning material is determined to shape the ideological outlook of students. This important platform, therefore, cannot go unchallenged. Action must be taken to establish binding platforms inside Faculties, which will bring together academic staff, Deans, Heads of Department and students under one roof to discuss pressing issues of curriculum transformation quarterly. This will go a long way in ensuring that the curriculum truly reflects all schools of thought and the will of the students.

To students, the name Nelson Mandela represents an urgency to transform the university. I say this because students do not selectively celebrate the icon as others do. Racists, for an example, love the post-1994 Mandela who preached reconciliation and colourblindness – phrases abused by apartheid beneficiaries to avoid confronting their privilege and supremacy. Students, in contrast, recognize Mandela for the entire 95 years he lived.

They celebrate the revolutionary young activist, the commander-in-chief of Umkhonto WeSizwe, the volunteer-in-chief of the Defiance Campaign and the founder of the ANC Youth League, who got arrested for advancing the armed struggle and for carrying forward the uncompromising ideals of the Freedom Charter.

That radical Mandela compels this youth, to commit to its own generational mission: to fight for free education, the transformation of the university and its curriculum content

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