Nelson Mandela University – a new name, a new responsibility

Nelson Mandela University must be at the forefront of resolving the challenges experienced by the communities that surround it, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said on 20 July.

Ramaphosa was speaking at the official renaming of Port Elizabeth’s Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University to Nelson Mandela University. The university is one of about 50 institutions in the world given formal approval to officially use the former South African President’s name.

“A university associated with (the late former President) Nelson Mandela must review its curriculum, remove institutional racism and promote African renewal,” Ramaphosa said. “This university must remember that it is an African university.

A university associated with Nelson Mandela's name must be a truly African university, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said at the newly renamed Nelson Mandela University on 20 July.

“When students walk the grounds of the university they should feel the humanism of Nelson Mandela, they should be enveloped by the value system Mandela lived by,” he said.

Nelson Mandela’s passion for education, and for the Eastern Cape, where he grew up, is well known, said Nelson Mandela Foundation communications and outreach director Luzuko Koti at the same ceremony.

“The Nelson Mandela Foundation knows that the university will bear this responsibility with care and diligence,” Koti said. He promised the university the Foundation’s support in bearing “the weight [of the responsibility] with the dignity Madiba would have expected”.

The Port Elizabeth-based university was named after Mandela, although he never attended it. He did attend the nearby University of Fort Hare, although he did not graduate from there, leaving owing to a conflict with the administration.

The renaming is part of a wider rebranding exercise, Nelson Mandela University spokesperson Zandile Mbabela told Business Day. She said the institution wanted to position itself as an international university, and dropping the word "metropolitan" would allow it to rebrand itself beyond Port Elizabeth.

The event was also attended by George Bizos SC, a longstanding friend and legal advisor of Mandela's and the lawyer who famously defended him at the 1963/4 Rivonia Trial, and African National Congress stalwart Ben Fihla. The Mandela Estate was represented by Bizos and Justice Dikgang Moseneke, both of whom shared the need for the university to transform, contribute to the transformation of South African society and protect Mandela's name.

Koti said Port Elizabeth was the closest metropolis to Mandela’s home villages of Mvezo, where he was born, and Qunu, where he grew up and to where he retired. It was also where the anti-apartheid Defiance Campaign was announced. Mandela was the campaign’s “volunteer-in-chief”, said Koti.

The campaign was the largest non-violent resistance campaign South Africa has ever seen and the first pursued jointly by all racial groups, led by the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress SAIC).

On 31 May 1952, the ANC and SAIC executive bodies met in Port Elizabeth and announced what would become the Defiance Campaign. Mandela worked on it with ANC leaders Raymond Mhlaba, James Njongwe, Robert Matji and Gladwin Tshume.

Koti also related an incident Mandela wrote about in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, in which he drove over a snake just outside Port Elizabeth in 1955. He was on a road trip after a banning order had expired.

“Madiba drove over a snake lying in the road,” said Koti. “He later called it a ‘deplorable act’ because the snake, ‘the poor chap’, had been no threat to him [and driving over it] left him with ‘a very sad feeling’.”

It was on this trip that Mandela met ANC leader and father of former President Thabo Mbeki, Govan Mbeki, for the first time, Koti said. “Their association was to endure for over four decades.

“I could go on sharing details from our rich store of archival information,” Koti said. “For instance, we could talk about Madiba’s passion for education as a liberatory instrument for individuals and communities, or about his own long years of study, from Fort Hare to Wits [the University of the Witwatersrand], from the University of London to Unisa [the University of South Africa].

“We could explore the little-known fact that Madiba failed 35 university courses between 1943 and 1989 as he pursued and finally secured his LLB degree.”

Instead, Koti drew to a close by saying the university’s new name provided a more direct, simpler association with Mandela, one that “brings greater responsibility”.

“What a name to carry. What a name to honour and protect.”

The university’s new name was gazetted by Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande in 2016, following an earlier request to have the institution’s name changed to Nelson Mandela University in 2005.

On Monday, outgoing NMMU vice-chancellor Prof. Derrick Swartz told Business Day the university was confident that the long-term benefits of being the only university in the world to carry former President Mandela’s name “will far outweigh any initial investment for the launch”.