Freedom Day and Workers’ Day message from the Vice-Chancellor

Posted on April 26, 2022

On 27 April 1994 millions of South Africans queued in the cold to vote for the first time in a free and fair election and to make a difference in their lives and their community through the power of the ballot. This day marked South Africa’s official transition to a modern democracy after decades of apartheid and centuries of colonialism.

This simple symbol of equality – an X on a ballot sheet – was an ideal that many anti-apartheid leaders lived for, and for which they were sentenced to life in prison.

Today, we call on staff and students to remember people like Walter Sisulu, Ruth First, Rahima Moosa, Nelson Mandela, Ahmed Kathrada and many others, who with selfless humility, sacrificed so much so that we could reap the benefits.

Whilst all might not be perfect in South Africa as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, corruption, unemployment and economic inequality; we do still have much to be proud of in how far our journey to democracy has brought us in terms of our freedom to live without barriers.

Despite our many challenges, we are reminded that historically it was the efforts of vast numbers of people who, individually and collectively, offered up their time and commitment through civil society, NGOs and a range of diverse voices across the political spectrum that helped to bring about the robust and democratic society we have today.

Our very own academics at the Centre for Human Rights were at the forefront of giving us the world-renowned constitution that we have. We need to remember that many of the liberties that we have today like freedom of movement, association, speech, religion and political affiliation were hard-won by many people who sacrificed their lives so that we can enjoy what we have today.

Just as South Africa has walked the long road to freedom, democracy and beyond, as staff and students of the University of Pretoria we too should live up to our motto and make today matter by ensuring that we do something every day to further the democratic project through mutual respect, tolerance of diversity and encouraging free speech and association.

At UP we celebrate and value the diversity of all our staff and students. This is in line with the constitutional values of human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of other human rights and freedoms. We aim to create an environment in which all staff and students feel equally valued, and in which any discrimination is not tolerated.

In a few short days we will also celebrate Workers’ Day together with over 100 other nations across the world to commemorate the labour movement and its contribution to the rights of all workers. We owe weekends, eight-hour work days, better working conditions and the freedom to strike to the broad labour movement over the years. However, in South Africa in particular 1 May has a special significance since the 1920s, thousands of black workers would march for better employment conditions and a culture of human rights. In 1950, the SA Communist Party called for a strike, declaring the Suppression of Communism Act illegal. Police violence saw people lose their lives. Later on, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) would become a force representing organised labour in South Africa on the road to dismantling apartheid and ensuring workers were adequately treated.

These are facets of historical importance which have an impact on all our lives on a daily basis. Just like the labour movement began to fight for better working conditions, so too will our Centre for the Future of Work interrogate our current and future working conditions in order to advocate for what’s best for us all based on cutting-edge research. The recently launched Centre, will collaboratively produce transdisciplinary research to advance the knowledge field of the future of work or work of the future to the benefit of South Africa, Africa, and the rest of the international community.

The University of Pretoria has already made considerable inroads into ascertaining which essential skills need to be developed for our graduates to actualise themselves and function optimally in the workplace, as well as contribute to the developmental aspirations of South Africa and Africa. We have incorporated a rich curriculum which includes fundamental and foundational skills in mathematics, stochastics, programming, electronics, and other STEM-based disciplines, to prepare for an exhilarating landscape which features artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and big data including powers we can only imagine and significantly impacting on trajectories of work. We have the Multichoice-funded Chair in Machine Learning, which will help grow the country’s pool of talent in AI, Machine Learning and cybersecurity for the digital future.

This future job market will certainly be increasingly dominated by the gig economy - temporary and freelance positions driven both by necessity, due to job scarcity, as well as through the appeal of a more balanced and flexible lifestyle, preferred by millennials. Skills such as entrepreneurship, marketing, strategic thinking and using social media effectively will all become the norm as people look for work opportunities rather than a job, and these are skills that the University of Pretoria emphasises.

Our students who will go out into the world with the necessary work readiness and entrepreneurial skills from UP should always remember the history of the labour movement and its contributions in their own right and to observe labour regulations and create a good working environment in their jobs or as employers.

Over the next few days, if you have taken leave (which is another historic benefit from the labour movement) and if you are taking an extended long weekend, please enjoy the time off and stay safe if you’re travelling anywhere.

Lastly, let us all remember to wear our masks, sanitise and wash hands as well as vaccinate to prevent severe COVID-19 infections.

- Author Professor Tawana Kupe
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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