Address by President Nelson Mandela on the installation of Professor Bundy as Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand

25 March 1998

Mister Chancellor;
Mister Vice-Chancellor;
Chairman of Council;
Members of the University;
Guests at this special occasion;

Universities are at the same time custodians of tradition and agents central to renewal. They are charged by society with safekeeping the fount of knowledge gained by generations past, while ever exploring new horizons of science and learning. As individual institutions, the great universities are those built on a solid record of achievement and custom, while constantly exploring, creating and adapting to the new.

The appointment and installation of a vice-chancellor always point to that crucial intersection of tradition and renewal in the life of a university.

I am here tonight in the first place as an alumnus of the University of the Witwatersrand. I am therefore one who has shared in the institution's tradition, and may be counted in some small way to be part of it.

It gives me immense pleasure and pride to participate in the formal installation of the University's new academic leader, a scholar and administrator who, I have no doubt, will lead the University along exciting new paths while jealously safeguarding the great traditions of university life.

This evening brings many memories from the past and many hopes for the future.

I remember my own days as a student and I honour some of my fellows who studied, debated and agitated on this campus. Their names are legend: Joe Slovo, Ismael Meer, Harold Wolpe, J N Singh, William Nkomo and Ruth First.

They count amongst those who set forth a message and an ethos in direct contrast to the fear, oppression and subversience which legislation of the time sought to impose and inculcate. They represent one of the proud strands in the tradition of Wits, a strand which the university will undoubtedly seek to build upon as it grapples with its role in the development of a new kind of South African society.

We are greatly privileged to have as the new Vice-Chancellor an eminent historian, one who was part of an important renewal of South African historiography. A historian of that calibre needs no reminding that all our universities have much in their history and tradition that the present generation will look back upon with less than pride. However, dwelling on the shortcomings of the past is not the object of being aware of that history - rather, it is changing the present and making the future.

Wits and some other South African universities cherished and courageously defended their autonomy against the onslaught by the apartheid government. No history of the defense of freedoms in this country can be complete without reference to the principled stands by these universities who bravely insisted on their right to decide who and what would be taught and who would tech.

Today in looking back we may note that in spite of these noble stands, our universities too often compromised and acquiesced in the legislative strictures and dominant social practices of the day.

But to acknowledge that, is not to deny the proud tradition of university autonomy which we must nurture as we transform and reshape our higher education system. That tradition of open debate, enquiry and challenge remains fundamental to the life of a university and indeed of a country, now as much as then.

Periods of fundamental social and political change always highlight, and make explicit, relations and linkages which in other times are more assumed and implicit. The social obligations accompanying rights are often more pronounced in such times of transformation. Such is the case now. There are heavy social responsibilities placed on the university by its claimed right to decide who and what shall be taught and who shall teach.

To exercise that right without constant reference to the history of exclusion of the majority from the organs and opportunities of teaching and learning, would be to court a dangerous and eventually self destructive decadence in our intellectual life.

To insist on the right to decide what shall be taught without acknowledging our society's grave developmental needs, would be a form of systemic autism rather than creative autonomy.

The slightest form and measure of comfort that any of us might have had from our history of division and discrimination, make all of us jointly responsible for the redress of that past.

The legacy of apartheid education places an enormous responsibility on universities. The sins of our fathers visit us in the underprepared generation of learners we have to guide and shape to be the creative and productive future of our country. The challenge is to be caring, responsible and innovative; and to be truly South African in our practice and approach, being neither patronising nor claiming of entitlement.

The university has the further responsibility to be a place which provides opportunities for lifelong learning; not only to graduates but also to those who never had the opportunity to attend an institution of higher learning. Wits once, under particular historical conditions, proudly claimed to be "open university".

Today it is lifelong learning which will mark the open nature of the great university, its access policies and programmes, and the quality of learning it engenders in its students.

Professor Bundy, we congratulate you on your assumption of the leadership of a South African institution with a proud tradition. We wish you well with the great task of leading that institution along the paths of renewal as we enter the new millennium, as our country and continent seek regeneration.

You have taught and worked at universities abroad; you came home to teach at one of our established historically white institutions; you were one of those top class academics who joined an emerging younger historically black institution in order to become part of the exciting project of transformation there.

Few academic leaders in the country can be better equipped with that combination of being steeped in tradition and experienced in charting new terrain.

Welcome to Wits.

Source: Nelson Mandela Foundation