On 18 July 2009, on Nelson Mandela’s birthday, the United Nations General Assembly voted in favour of adopting an international day in honour of the life and contribution of Nelson Mandela to South Africa and the world. This decision shows the global impact that one person can have.
To commemorate his life, sacrifice and principles, Nelson Mandela International Day takes place annually, and people are encouraged to use 67 minutes of their day to better the lives of others, in honour of Mandela’s 67 years of sacrifice in service of building a better South Africa and world.
This year the theme for Nelson Mandela International Day is ‘One hand can feed another’. This is particularly important to us as the outbreak of COVID-19 and the ensuing global pandemic has left many people hungry and facing food insecurity. Children who would have been fed at schools and students at universities had been deprived of these meals during lockdown, and many faced acute hunger in lockdown in poor households across the country.
At the University of Pretoria, we are closely in tune with the spirit of Mandela Day on a daily basis. Just as the day encourages people to take action, inspire change, and to make every day a Mandela Day, so UP espouses the same for its staff and students: to make today (and every day) matter. We have a strong commitment to our communities and have well-established community engagement programmes through which our students and staff make a difference in the lives of so many people, daily.
A common critique of Mandela Day is that there is no sustainability to the clichéd ‘67 minutes’ projects that many organisations do. But this is not the case at UP. Giving back to our communities and being of service is ingrained into our DNA. For instance, we are committed to the long-term eradication of hunger and food insecurity through research in smart agriculture and in particular our African Research Universities Alliance (ARUA) Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Food Systems, which is a global network of talented researchers in pursuit of solutions to African food insecurity and nutritional challenges. This is a huge and daunting task, and we are harnessing partnerships in research and innovation to drive agricultural and food system transformation to ensure sustainable food security and nutrition in Africa. This is in line with Goal 2 (Zero Hunger) of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Our multi- and transdisciplinary research teams are working on making this a reality because sustainable food systems and sources from Africa can be used in many contexts around the world.
Over 30 000 UP students are involved in community engagement activities across all our faculties. Extending a helping hand and applying our knowledge, skills and research to help uplift our society is embedded in our curriculum. Giving back is how we LIVE THE UP WAY.
Nelson Mandela’s selfless contributions and dedication to justice for all means his legacy stands tall. This leads us to consider how our lives are spent, and what sort of legacy we will leave after we’re gone.
While the COVID-19 pandemic might have stifled many of the usual Mandela Day projects we undertake, we can find novel ways of continuing our contributions online. Many non-governmental organisations have been instrumental in South Africa’s fight against COVID-19, and we can actively donate to these organisations in cash or kind or by volunteering our skills.
As a university community, we have a pivotal role to play in transforming lives and communities. Our main tool for doing this is through research, innovation and the training of the next generation of leaders. Food security in particular is so important to us that we have several community feeding gardens built into our projects and campuses. Our Future Africa institute and campus has foragable gardens, and many of our community projects – such as Reliable House at our Moja Gabedi community – have vegetable gardens which feed our community. Some of our residences also have vegetable gardens in which students learn valuable skills around planting, growing and sustaining an edible garden. In fact, our longstanding Student Nutrition and Progress Programme (SNAPP) has fulfilled the needs of hungry and food-insecure students on campus. We are acutely aware that a hungry student cannot learn effectively, and we try our best to make life a bit easier for students.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, “There can be no greater gift than that of giving of one’s time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return”. We encourage our staff and students to give back and participate in the goals and objectives of Mandela Day, and to find novel ways of improving the world and society around us. We know that you make each day matter through your commitment to reflecting on solutions for some of South Africa’s most pressing needs.
Even though giving back 67 minutes a year might not seem like much, there is still a place for these activities. With high unemployment, economic inequality, inequity, and rising poverty levels, many South Africans are finding it increasingly difficult to keep up with costs. As a university community, I suggest that we use this opportunity to enquire about the well-being of friends and neighbours who may have lost their jobs. Share a meal, gift a food hamper or grocery store voucher, or support a friend’s small business or home industries. These are small gestures which have an impact and uplift the lives of people within our reach.
These are just some of the ways in which we can use Mandela Day, and indeed every day, to take some time and find a way of making life a little better and easier for someone else. Today (and as often as possible), give back 67 minutes of your time to commemorate the life of South Africa’s most beloved icon.