Wits vice chancellor (VC), Professor Adam Habib, said late statesman Nelson Mandela’s experiences at Wits University were similar to those of many black students at the university today.
Habib was speaking to Wits Vuvuzela in an interview before the university held its memorial in honour of Nelson Mandela on Thursday.
“Like many blacks in a white institution, he was alienated and excluded.”
Habib said Mandela’s stay at Wits also “opened his mind”.
George Bizos, Ruth First and Joe Slovo are some friends and comrades in the liberation struggle Mandela met as a Witsie. Habib said Madiba explored his political ideas about freedom and equality while at the institution.
Habib also noted that it was the Wits SRC (student representative council) that initiated the “Free Mandela Campaign” in 1974.
The group were arrested in 1975 and Advocate George Bizos became defended them in court. Habib said the Wits VC George Bozzoli at the time “very supportive” of the SRC.[pullquote align=”right”]’He believed in economic inclusion, democracy, civil liberties and political participation”[/pullquote]
Mandela enrolled at Wits in 1943 and was the only Black student in the Faculty of Law but failed to complete his degree. He left in 1948 but was conferred an honorary doctorate in law in 1991. He said of his time at Wits: “At Wits I met many people who were to share with me the ups and downs of the liberation struggle, and without whom I could have accomplished very little.”
Madiba continued to have a “powerful” relationship with Wits – not always agreeing with the institution, Habib said.
While he had never known the former president personally, Habib had met him a few times in groups of people.
Cherry-picking memories of Mandela
As an activist himself, Habib was always careful not to “iconise” individuals as struggle heroes instead of recognising liberation to have been the result of a collective effort. “Madiba made it hard,” Habib said, noting his unique presence which earned the name “Madiba Magic”.
While there was an undeniable charm about the statesman, Habib warned against “cherry picking what we choose to remember” about Mandela: “He believed in economic inclusion, democracy, civil liberties and political participation”.
He said some of these ideals, such as economic inclusion, had not been achieved and that the ruling party would do well to recognise this.
As part of remembering Mandela, Habib attended the official memorial service at FNB stadium this week on behalf of Wits University.
“Some things about the day were positive and some parts made me angry,” he said.
He commended the “sophisticated” running of the day and the “strategic” choice of speakers: “It sent the message that we determine our own events.”
Having America and Cuba not only speak at the event but be forced to interact said “We recognise you as a global power [to America] but these are our allies [Cuba, China, Brazil and India]. Having Namibia speak said ‘we prioritise the revolution of the African continent’ as well.”
The aspects of the day that upset the VC were the speaker system and screens not working. “We got it right for the World Cup, why not now? I want the small things to work.”
On members of the audience booing President Jacob Zuma, Habib said it was a clear indication that people are angry and that “things aren’t hunky-dory”.
He also said people would be mistaken to assume that was a sign of what’s to come in the elections next year: “It wasn’t representative of South Africa as a whole. KZN wasn’t there, the Eastern Cape wasn’t there, Mpumalanga wasn’t there. Don’t assume this sends a message. I did think it was the wrong moment for that as well. That was Madiba’s day.”
His was a life magnificently lived
Habib has made honouring Madiba an important part of Wits’ future: “We need to work towards ensuring that no student must go through what he went through while here.” Later in the day, Habib announced that Wits would erect a wall of remembrance as a tribute to Mandela.
“His was a life magnificently lived, a tragic life in many ways as well. If each of us could have half his passion for what we believe in, the world would be a better place.”
Habib hoped current and future Witsies would take this lesson from Madiba with them through their careers. “Excel academically and become a great professional but always remember those outside, on the margins. Think about the impact your actions have on them.
“In its paradoxical way, he personified Wits at its best.”
- Wits Vuvuzela: Wits University remembers Mandela at fireside chat, December 2013.
- Wits University: Mandela Memorial (photographs, audio and video available), December 2013.
- Wits Vuvuzela: UPDATED GALLERY: Mandela memorial, December 2013.
- Wits Vuvuzela: South Africans see the last of Nelson Mandela, December 2013.