Address by President Nelson Mandela at the University of the North graduation ceremony

20 September 1997

Mr Vice-Chancellor;
Chairperson and Members of Council;
Members of Senate and of Faculty Boards;
Members of the Administrative and Service Staff;
Chairperson and Members of the Students' Representative Council;
Members of the General Student Body;
Distinguished Guests;
And particularly the Graduands and Diplomates of the day;
Their Parents, Guardians, Family and Friends;
Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are told that the Chancellor is the titular and ceremonial head of a university, and that the real business of running the university is left to others. This injunction not to interfere in the details of the institution's management and functioning provides us with the opportunity to reflect on the broader issues, and focusing on the bigger picture within which we operate.

It may well be one of the endemic problems of our times that we get so engrossed in the specifics of what concerns us as individuals or particular sectors, that we are not always sufficiently mindful of the greater cause and context.

Let us, however, first and foremost remember what this day is about. It is to celebrate with those receiving their degrees, diplomas and certificates. We salute them for their individual achievements gained through dedication and hard work. We pay tribute to their parents, guardians and families for their commitment to the development of their children and charges. We recognise this as the collective educational effort of students, teachers and support staff of this university.

It is our hope that the fruits of your studies shall be rewarding to yourselves and your families; that you shall put your knowledge at the service of society and community; and that with the help of your contributions South Africa shall become a winning nation, steeped in science and learning.

As chancellor, it is furthermore my hope that as many of you now exit the university to enter the world of work and the professions, you will leave behind an alma mater that will continue to grow in quality, excellence, relevance and capacity to serve. And that you will find ways to contribut materially and intellectually to its growth. Solid, stable, quality institutions of higher learning are essential for the overall development of South African society to meet the challenges of a modern and global world.

Even though we do, of necessity, do many other things at university, we should constantly remind ourselves of what stands at the core of our activities. Universities, it has been said, are those social institutions charged with the handling of knowledge. It is for that reason, and for that reason only, that societies establish, subsidise and maintain such institutions.

Most of the other secondary things we do at universities can be better performed by other institutions, and we should never elevate them to a primary status in the life of a university.

Perhaps this day provides me, as your ceremonial head, with the occasion to call upon every sector and every individual member of the university to re-dedicate themselves to that essential function. It may mean asking ourselves every day, and every time we embark upon any activity, how we are contributing to the advancement of our society through the promotion of learning and knowledge.

It would be foolish of us in the universities to ignore the widespread perception that all is not well within our current university system.

There is talk of a crisis of leadership within higher education. It is said that the universities have gone silent on what should have been the major public and intellectual debates of our changing society. It would appear as if the discussions on transformation focus largely on questions of governance and issues of power, rather than the more crucial intellectual subject of curriculum transformation. Demands around access and funding are seldom seen to be linked to plans for enhancing quality and performance or undertakings to achieve this.

We would not be surprised if all or most of these charges are overstated, and we are confident that persuasive counter-arguments to each one could be put forward. We would, however, do well to ponder these perceptions and observations even if they are not wholly valid. And it may be that, where there is substance to them, part of the cause lies in us not keeping that core intellectual and educational function of the institution sufficiently within our sights when we go about our business in the universities.

We are certain that the parents and the members of the broader community present here this morning, will agree with us and would want us to state as emphatically as possible that the university is in the first and the last instance about teaching, learning and research. And that we want to see all of our institutions of higher learning being centres of quality that can take their place in the world of international scholarship.

We are aware of some of the major steps taken by this university in establishing the academic infrastructure to equip it for that role in the region and for the country.

The Agriculture Research Unit combines research, training and development work in ways which put science at the service of the community and region in which you operate, while at the same time striving for the highest international standards of scholarship. The same can be said for the Computational Materials Modeling Centre; the National Community Water and Sanitation Institute; and the Sports Science Testing Institute.

The work of your Language Centre in providing courses in different languages of the province, to facilitate written and verbal communication in the work-place; the technical and vocational training in your Votek Programme aimed at meeting the skills needs of the Province's agriculture, commerce and industry; these are examples of an institution of higher learning which remains sensitive and responsive to its grass-roots service area without forsaking its primary task of scholarship.

The Turfloop Graduate School of Leadership aims to become Southern Africa's premier business school, dedicated to enhancing the country's pool of executive managers and entrepreneurs.

It is incumbent on all of us to build on these foundations. We are looking to the academic staff of our university to rededicate themselves to those basic tasks of quality teaching and the constant search for new knowledge. The future of our youth, and of our country, is in your hands.

You, the students, stand at the centre of the university's activities. For the past decade that center stage had seen heroic acts on your part to bring about and speed up political change. Now, we look to you now for the courage to return with equal single-mindedness to the lonely work of libraries, laboratories and study rooms. Defeat that evil Verwoerdian dream of an innumerate and scientifically illiterate population, by dedicating yourselves to the concrete tasks of learning and scholarship.

To the academics and students of the university, let us say; the level of scientific and intellectual standards of the country, so crucial for the future of all our people, is not an abstract thing - it is dependent upon what each single one of you contribute. Society invests heavily in universities, and it legitimately expects returns on that investment. We are confident that you, as the academic heart of the university, will rise to these challenges.

It is in support of efforts to meet those academic and scientific challenges that the administrative and service staff play their indispensable roles. Without them, the university cannot perform its primary function. We thank them for their unselfish dedication to the education of our youth and the advancement of their university.

Mister Vice-Chancellor, Ladies and Gentlemen; The miracle of our political transition needs to be permanently translated into the social and economic transformation of our country. That cannot be achieved without tertiary education of the highest quality. It is to that task that we call all members of our university this morning.

I thank you!

Issued by: Office of the President

Source: South African Government Information Website