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Critical Mandela Studies – A unique intellectual exploration

By Robyn Thekiso

A new Transdisciplinary Institute of Mandela Studies (TIMS) based at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa aims to position the iconic figure of Nelson Mandela as a lens through which to grapple with societal challenges and generate workable solutions. And the university is asking for input from outsiders into framing the institute and its work.

According to a recent university statement, the decision by the university in the Eastern Cape in 2017 to drop ‘Metropolitan’ from its name put the former statesman at its centre, and stirred an exploration of its roles and responsibilities as the only university in the world to carry the Mandela name.

This “sparked an idea to introduce Critical Mandela Studies at the university – studies where Mandela, as a figure of social justice, becomes the lens through which the huge challenges of our time can be viewed, grappled with and understood, and ultimately pave the way towards new and better ways to solve them,” the university said in a statement.

Unique programme

“Though many academic entities and outfits are named after Nelson Mandela, no programme on Mandela Studies yet exists, as far as we can tell. Nor is there an outfit like TIMS anywhere in the world,” said Professor André Keet, chair of critical studies in higher education transformation at Nelson Mandela University, in the statement.

“Through TIMS, we want to develop Mandela scholars. There are many people doing great work in isolation, but not in a programme that will bring them together. That’s the uniqueness of TIMS … We want to attract people who have a deep sense of the issues Nelson Mandela would have been interested in, and to study them at a postgraduate level,” he said.

The process behind the conceptualisation of the institute aimed itself to capture the essence of Mandela using dialogue and consultation as a channel to foster inclusivity and ownership.

It started with a unique two-day colloquium held in early March that brought together Mandela scholars from across South Africa and abroad to discuss what Critical Mandela Studies should look like and how TIMS could be framed.

The meeting was held in partnership with the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Human Sciences Research Council. The two organisations have undertaken to work together with the university to support TIMS, “not as gatekeepers, but as friends and collaborators”, said Keet.

Speaking at the opening of the colloquium called “Dalibhunga: This time? That Mandela?” (Dalibhunga means ‘convenor of the dialogue’ and is also a reference to the name given to Mandela after his initiation ceremony), Nelson Mandela University Vice-Chancellor Sibongile Muthwa said the challenges facing the country, which included poverty, inequality and discrimination, needed “new interpretive schemes and practices to challenge them”.

Academic expression of the Mandela legacy

“Our university should be known as a foremost academic expression of the Mandela legacy, with practical import and real-life programmes that make a difference to ordinary people,” said Muthwa.

The great-grandson of Nelson Mandela, Siyabulela Mandela, who is also a PhD student at Nelson Mandela University, told University World News that “Mandela envisioned an Africa that is at peace with itself”.

On the aims of the new institute, he said: “Beyond studying Mandela, the person, universities are a microcosm of society and thus Nelson Mandela University, through TIMS, is compelled to dissect the tripartite challenges of our time such as poverty, inequality and discrimination and such understanding should inform policy-makers and government officials, alike, with sustainable solutions to such challenges.”

The colloquium resulted in a draft report with some of the initial findings that are to frame the establishment of TIMS, and the idea has been discussed by the university council and will go through formal university structures.

“Participants agreed on the need to develop a Critical Mandela Studies programme as a strategic humanities project that converses with the richness of African intellectual traditions and redraws the frontiers between the sciences and humanities,” said Keet.

Themes

Identified themes for the institute include: Mandela, feminism and intersectionality (on which a future colloquium is being planned); Mandela, social justice and ‘the university’; Mandela, transformation and decoloniality; Mandela, knowledge production and ‘the sciences’; Mandela, modernity, auto/biography and history; Mandela, the revolutionary; Mandela, context, critique, contestations and ‘the archive’; Mandela and the arts; and Mandela, political economy and neoliberalisms.

Keet said: “We have left the idea of TIMS very open as part of a journey to co-travel and co-create with communities, students, academics and Mandela scholars. We hope to have the framework for TIMS in place by the end of June.” TIMS is expected to be up and running at the university by the end of 2020.

First published on University World News on 14 June 2019.

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