Message from the VC: Freedom Day and Workers’ Day 2021

Posted on April 27, 2021

On 27 April 1994, millions of South Africans exercised their right to vote for the very first time. This historic moment made South Africa the last African country to break the yoke of centuries of colonialism and decades of apartheid. Our smooth transition to democracy showed the world our tenacity to come together as a nation. We have achieved a lot in the past 27 years, and in some respects we are the envy of the world.  

However, it is also true that we face very serious challenges. We are forced on a daily basis to confront uncomfortable truths like poor governance, ill-advised policy choices, stifling regulation, corporate and state corruption, failing infrastructure, violent crime, an ailing healthcare system and schools that are woefully underequipped. In the past year, all these cracks have become fault lines in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has further laid bare the ever-deepening inequalities in our society.

As one of the top universities in the country and in Africa, and a leader in many fields of study on the continent, we are proud of the contribution that the University of Pretoria (UP) has made, and continues to make, to freedom and democracy. We do so through providing access to quality education in order to redress inequity in society, and through our research that provides African solutions to local and some of the world’s grand challenges.

Our transdisciplinary research and frontline healthcare work has been part of the fight to help South Africa free itself of the scourge of COVID-19. Over the years, our expertise in food security and agricultural science has seen UP make strides in ensuring that we can be free from hunger and famine in the future. This is exemplified in our Innovation Africa@UP hub, which focuses on smart agriculture. Our Albert Luthuli Centre for Responsible Leadership in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, as well as other related research institutes, are working towards promoting ethical leadership locally and abroad in both the government and corporate spaces. GovInn strives to create new ways of thinking about governance; our Centre for Human Rights made a contribution to the drafting of our world-renowned Constitution; and in recent years, the late Prof Christof Heyns and others from UP Law have represented us at the United Nations to ensure that the freedoms and rights of all people are respected and defended.

These are not just isolated examples of what we are doing on a daily basis to further the democratic project, but are emblematic of what we do as a collective within UP to transform lives and communities through our endeavours, thus making the world a better place.

It is only through having a common goal of making today and each day matter that we can keep our eye on not only envisioning but actively creating a future where the positive impact of all our actions can make a difference. Doing so will create a world that is free, equitable, caring, compassionate and sustainable. We have exemplified this philosophy by embedding community engagement within our curriculum and research agendas, and thousands of students continue to make a difference in communities across the country while coming face to face with the socio-economic gulfs that separate so many people in South Africa.

While much has been done by way of attaining freedom through democracy, much more still needs to happen in order to extend access to all who need it and to create an equitable playing field.

It has been 27 years since the dawn of democracy in South Africa, and the right to free and fair association within the work and labour environment. As we also commemorate the hard-won rights of workers across the world this Workers’ Day, 1 May, we are acutely aware of the rising rates of unemployment that have been exacerbated by the economic crisis brought about by COVID-19. We still need to wage struggles for decent jobs in sustainable, inclusive economies that do not breed and widen inequality and poverty. The goal for a better life for all must be inclusive of workers, who make a critical contribution to the economy and society. Achieving the goals of our National Development Plan, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the African Union’s Agenda 2063 would directly impact the lives of workers and make the commemoration of Workers’ Day truly meaningful.

UP produces quality graduates who are ready for the workplace by providing students with access to a high quality of teaching and learning opportunities, and we are supplementing this by giving our students access to entrepreneurial training. In May, we will also be hosting the first-ever Nobel Prize Dialogue to be held in Africa. Nobel laureates from around the world will participate in the meeting, the theme of which is ‘The Future of Work’. Topics that will be discussed include the working skills people will need in future, and what can be done to create hope for a younger generation in the face of rapid technological change.

Pursuant to this agenda, we are also launching a new Centre for the Future of Work, which will research the education and skills needs of the emerging world of work. This research will be used to transform our curriculum and prepare our students to be ready for new jobs and a different world of work. Our students will then become adaptable and lifelong learners who will be able to change their careers and interests multiple times over the course of their lives. One of the Centre’s key objectives will be to use the knowledge it creates from transdisciplinary research to engage in policy advocacy in the public and private sectors, to ensure that the new world of work enables everyone in our society to realise their potential in enabling environments.

As we reflect upon the achievements and strides we have made as a nation, so too do we see the space for UP to be true to its motto of making today matter to deliver a better future for all through our mandate of quality teaching and learning, cutting-edge research excellence and transforming society by changing lives.

Freedom did not come freely, and we all have to continue to wage struggles to sustain it, defend it when it is under threat and deepen it as society changes.  

Prof Tawana Kupe

Vice-Chancellor and Principal

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe

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