Safeguarding Madiba’s Legacy

By Jessie Taylor

As chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Prof Njabulo Ndebele is one of the influential figures tasked with keeping the legacy of the late Nelson Mandela alive. An award-winning author, he has published fiction and essays to critical acclaim. He has also been honoured for his contribution to the academic world and has received honorary doctorates from universities in South Africa, the United States, Japan, Europe and the United Kingdom.

A Lifetime of Learning

Prof Ndebele was born in Johannesburg in 1948, the third son of a nurse and teacher. The family lived in the then Western Native Township before moving to Nigel on the East Rand shortly before the mass removals of people from Western Native Township and Sophiatown to Soweto. In 1960, he went to boarding school in Eswatini. He was one of many South African boys to attend St Christopher’s Anglican High School, as their parents sought to remove them from Bantu Education.

He continued his education at the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland in Lesotho (UBLS) in 1969, completing a degree in English and Philosophy in 1973. By the time he had graduated, he had already published poetry in some of the literary magazines of the day.

He went on to obtain an MA from Cambridge University and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. In his time in Lesotho, he became the Head of the Department of English, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, and Pro ViceChancellor at UBLS. Prof Ndabele returned to South Africa in 1990, the year of Nelson Mandela’s release, with his wife and three children. “I was trained and experienced enough to participate at the highest levels in the recovery of South Africa by its oppressed black citizens,” said Prof Ndebele.

His leadership in South African higher education has seen him serve as Deputy Vice-Chancellor at the University of the Western Cape, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the North, ViceChancellor of the University of Cape Town, Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, as well as chair of the South African Universities Vice-Chancellors Association; President of the Association of African Universities; and founding Chair of the Southern African Regional Universities Association.

Prof Ndebele’s political opinions were strongly shaped by the Black Consciousness Movement, and he became involved in it when he was president of the Students Representative Council at UBLS. He later joined the Executive Committee of the Southern African Students Movement. These influences can be seen in much of his literary works, including his collection of short stories, “Fools’ and Other Stories” (1983). The collection won the Noma Award in 1984.

Continuing Madiba’s Work

Today, Prof Ndebele serves as chairman of both the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. In one of his many public speaking engagements, Prof Ndebele said: “Nelson Mandela is the compass that unwaveringly points in the direction of the freedom, prosperity, dignity, honour, integrity, and happiness that we desire.”

The Nelson Mandela Foundation, founded in 1999 by Nelson Mandela after he stepped down as president, is a non-profit organisation focused on memory, dialogue and legacy work. Soon after the end of his term as president, Mr Mandela created the Foundation to allow him to continue his charitable work: from building schools to HIV/AIDS work, from research into education in rural areas to peace and reconciliation interventions.

Five years later, the Foundation began its transition into an organisation focused on memory, dialogue and legacy work, and the development of the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. The Centre contains an archive of the life and times, works, and writings of Nelson Mandela – this helps to generate an integrated and dynamic information resource on his life and times. “The Mandela Archive is infinite, fragmented and scattered, both geographically and institutionally. It is neither the intention of the Foundation, nor its mandate, to bring all these materials into a single physical collection. The imperative is to document this vast resource, facilitate access to it, and promote its preservation and use.

The Foundation also works to convene dialogue around critical social issues, including human rights and democracy, in order to contribute to a just society. This work relies on mobilising the legacy of Nelson Mandela and providing public access to information on his life and times. The key objective is finding sustainable solutions to the problems confronting humanity.”

“Drawing on the rich traditions of transformative dialogue, problem-solving and social renewal that made South Africa’s remarkable transition possible, the Foundation hopes the drive positive change and realise social justice by facilitating engagements about the problems people face. Another arm of the Foundation’s work is Nelson Mandela International Day. This call to action relies on a simple message – that each individual has the ability and responsibility to make an impact through public service.

The campaign looks to inspire individuals to take action to help change the world for the better and, in doing so, to build a global movement for good. Ultimately, it seeks to empower communities everywhere” –Nelson Mandela Foundation. Prof Ndabele has served on other organisations, including Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, MTN Foundation, Deloitte Africa, Cape Town Partnership, and the UBLS Association.