Mandela Day 2020: ‘COVID-19 has jolted us into an acute awareness of our innate humanity and the need to care for one another,’ VC writes

Posted on July 17, 2020

‘We believe that a university education needs to be focused on knowledge as a catalyst for social, environmental and economic innovation, and change for the benefit of broader society.’

When I joined the University of Pretoria, a little over a year ago, I was taken aback by the warmth with which I was received and the passion that staff had for the work they do. It didn’t matter whether they were world-renowned researchers, teaching staff or professional support staff, everyone shared a common goal: to be the best we can be and to serve our community for the betterment of society. This is THE UP WAY. We believe that everything we do today has an impact on our future. That is why we make today matter. And that informs our certainty that we will reap the rewards of our work in the future.

It is this warmth, passion and care – which I experienced then and continue to see as we work online – that has made a positive impact in UP’s fight against COVID-19. We are all faced with highly unusual circumstances, but our humanity is not lost. In fact, it gives me great pride to announce that our staff have donated nearly three times more than last year towards uplifting and supporting our students as they continue their high-quality education and quest to graduate on time.

At UP we are committed to educating students to be socially responsive, active citizens and leaders working for positive change. We believe that a university education needs to be focused on knowledge as a catalyst for social, environmental and economic innovation, and change for the benefit of broader society. Several universities in South Africa stand out for this.

COVID-19 should enable us all to imagine a better world, and to take steps to change situations that undermine anyone’s humanity. The pandemic gives us an opportunity to disrupt the world as we know or knew it, by finding innovative ways to address poverty, unemployment and inequality, and strive for social justice.

This is why almost 30 000 UP students are directly involved in community projects and work as part of their curriculum annually. And more than 126 of our student organisations are involved in voluntary social responsibility projects. We want to instil the desire to use our knowledge to better society in all our generations of students and alumni.

As we reflect on Nelson Mandela Day this year, in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are reminded of the true spirit of ubuntu and caring for humanity. Mandela Day is a global call to action that celebrates the idea that everyone has the power to transform the world, and the ability to make an impact. I am sure we can all agree that we have seen this being demonstrated more and more. Recently, people across South Africa have rallied together to donate to funds and organisations with the primary aim of helping those less fortunate. At the beginning of the level 5 lockdown, many of us were concerned about the well-being of the homeless. Our ability as a society to care for the well-being of homeless people, people who are dependent on grants, and others who might be able to live only with the help of others is testimony to our growth as a society, from thinking of ourselves as individuals first, to thinking of and caring about the most vulnerable among us.

Many people, businesses and organisations have contributed not only their time but their resources to ensuring that our students transition to online teaching and learning in the best way possible. It is gratifying that we are able to help others in a time of need. This is especially true this year, when the usual projects will not be undertaken due to social distancing regulations.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been frightening in the pace at which it has changed our lives and how we work, altered families and social circles, shut down businesses and economies, and even displaced people across the world as countries closed their borders. But at least one big positive has sprung from this difficult time: COVID-19 has jolted many of us into an acute awareness of our innate humanity and the need to care for one another.

The adage of making every day a Mandela Day has never rung more acutely true than during the unprecedented times we are living through. They have forced us all to think of the next person and of society as a whole. COVID-19 has reminded us all that we are because of the care of others, and that all our lives and actions are interlinked. Many of us should reflect on our privilege and use our resources and empathy to inspire change, which will help others to also survive these hard times.

On this day, we must remember the values that former President Nelson Mandela stood for. We must collaboratively fight poverty, and promote peace and education. Thank you to everyone who is playing a role and has contributed to taking care of others during this uncertain time (particularly the future of our students), and to those who are doing something to make a difference today that will have benefits for others in the future.

By Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria, and professor of Literature and Media Studies.

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal

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