Former president Thabo Mbeki at his inauguration as the chancellor of Unisa in Pretoria. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi
Former president Thabo Mbeki at his inauguration as the chancellor of Unisa in Pretoria. Picture: Thobile Mathonsi

Mbeki: The African renaissance's drum major

By OPINION Time of article published Mar 2, 2017

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Former president Thabo Mbeki could not have started his Unisa chancellorship at a more relevant time, writes Professor Vuyisile Msila.

When the former president took to the podium on Monday at Unisa’s ZK Matthews Great Hall he shared his august experience as people witnessed why he remains a drum major for African renaissance.

He elicited hope as his inaugural address enhanced the transformation agenda embraced by a gradually changing university. The issue of relevance and the need for an Afrocentric University has never been so distinct. Unisa is the oldest institution in the country which started as a correspondence university. However, today in accommodating the digital era, its programmes include not only open learning but e-learning as well. Mbeki arrives at a time when this open and distance e-Learning institution is gradually transforming; it seeks to Africanise knowledge thus creating a more relevant campus that responds to the demands of society.

To this end, Mbeki cited Nyerere who pointed out five decades ago that a university was not established for prestige but to develop its communities. This is reminiscent of what Nyerere said earlier as president of a newly liberated Tanganyika in 1961, stating that others may be aiming to reach the moon but first we need to reach the villages, and all other dreams will follow.

This is the essence of relevant African education and Nyerere’s message, like Thabo Mbeki’s, has never been so relevant as calls for decolonisation of higher education are coming from all fronts.

Mbeki poses questions about expectations of higher education at a time when almost all South African universities are discussing their responses to demands for an Afrocentric university. Among these calls are the student demands that appeal for sustainable funding as they redress the injustices of the past. He asks pertinent question as to how society will sustain higher education at a time when there are a myriad challenges that include corrupt practices from certain corners. Despite these challenges though, Mbeki suggests that we should continue examining the propinquity between society and higher education, posing the crucial question of whether our society is clear enough in its expectations of higher education.

There have been several reasons though as to why various institutions are still failing to implement decolonised curricula in Afrocentric campuses and the deliberation in this regard has been unchanging. Among these are fear and panic in accosting the new. Although the most persistent question that has caused this resistance has been concerns about academic standards; some critics contend that quality will plummet after Africanisation because the West will not be used as a yardstick. The latter is an argument that has pervaded since the late 1990s when people such as Professor Malekgapuru Makgoba popularised this concept in higher education.

This is unfortunate when one thinks of the laudable scholarship that is currently coming out of the continent. Budding philosophers are adding to the African philosophy debate demonstrating why we should not undermine what many western critics refer to as Ethnophilosophy.

Arguably, Mbeki is arriving at a Unisa that is receptive to change. The indigenous languages are critical to transforming African institutions. In fact, it was Cheik Anta Diop in the 1940s who averred that there can be no African renaissance without indigenous languages and referred to these languages as a beginning, a cradle for change. Years later it was Kwasi Wiredu who pointed out that African institutions of higher learning will be flawed if they continue to formulate new philosophies in European languages.

The Western languages, Wiredu argued, will not be able to articulate the essence of being African.

Unisa has responded to this in 2016 as students will now be able to use indigenous languages in some post graduate studies. This is long overdue and should be adopted by all African universities. It will never be necessary to drop English, French or German, but the indigenous languages should also form part of transformed campuses. Students should not throw in the towel; turn their backs on education because they are defeated by language rather than content. An initiative such as this one will need visionaries who will uphold certain values.

Universities should lead the agenda of social justice, hence Mbeki talked about the need to avoid Afrophobia and denounce the recent attacks on African immigrants. He reminisced how the Africans opened their arms for South African exiles who sought homes in distant lands. This should be the message of any African University that strives for peace, justice and democracy under corruption free governments.

The former president highlighted the role of universities in opening people’s opportunities, and produce activists for a renaissance rather than obfuscate people. Universities, Mbeki averred, should correct the injustices of the past as it uplifts the citizens.

Mbeki knows that African renaissance is about redressing gender, about community involvement and creative thinking. He envisages a system that emancipates, where the students learn to apply new knowledge thus able to redeem society of some societal ills.

While Mbeki denounces the unfortunate incidents that accompanied student protest; #FeesMust Fall and #RhodesMustFall, he maintains that these were just and sensible calls that still need to be entertained. In fact, he quite clearly emphasised why the university should be the cauldron of debate and fair critical engagement. This should definitely be the basis of an African renaissance. All fair and just causes should not be misdirected in institutions of higher learning. He reiterated that role-players in these institutions should be able to follow the right course in search of just cause. Students in our institutions for example, should adopt the culture of rigorous discussion; engage institutions’ management instead of opting for demonstrations or marches as first steps towards resolving major burning issues.

He even cited an example from one institution where students marched to voice their recommendation to name one of their buildings after Robert Sobukwe. This he said, was for a good cause and could have been positively dealt with around a table with the relevant role-players without any need to strike.

Mbeki is unequivocal that we need education that is globally relevant. Globally relevant education would mean building our own intellectuals who will learn from Africa’s context as they enhance the local while the West will also glean from Africa’s experiences.

African institutions can do this and it is a pity that people who have misjudged African education have used Western spectacles to judge an envisaged Africanised system of education.

Mbeki will be ideal to be part of a Unisa community that seeks to achieve Vision 2030.

This vision seeks to see the consummation of the project of an African university that responds to African


The former South African president could not have started his chancellorship at a better time; a time when Unisa wants to live its mantra - towards an African University. With over 400 000 students worldwide, Unisa’s influence cannot be eschewed. This has become a brand that is growing; as it Africanises it globalises enhancing Africa’s strength around the world. Unisa will also gain from Mbeki's reputation as his stature will be an impetus towards the direction the university is taking.

Finally, Mbeki is now chancellor of the University of South Africa but one hopes that his influence will spread across the country as higher learning institutions strive to define themselves.

He has been consistent in his stand for the African renaissance which has easily become a passing fad to many. Mbeki has stood resolute believing in the potential of an Africanised system of education.

Back in 1998 he was quoted as saying, “those who have eyes let them see - the African renaissance is upon us, as we peer through the looking glass darkly, this may not be obvious. But it is upon us.” The nurturing of the African renaissance tree needs the equanimity that the former president has shown and Unisa should be proud to have such a man at the helm.

Mbeki has become the personification of strong and ethical leadership we need to see in higher education institutions. We need such men as we try to make these institutions relevant to communities as they fight poverty, sickness, ethnic conflicts and several other social ills. We need able leaders to be in the forefront as we try to transform society and decolonise the minds of Africa’s citizens.

* Professor Msila is a director at Unisa’s change management unit. He writes in his personal capacity.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

Pretoria News

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