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Madiba and Engaged Scholarship: Remarks in celebration of Nelson Mandela Day at Rhodes University, Makhanda, South Africa-July 18, 2022

Budd Hall, Centre for Global Studies, University of Victoria and Co-Chair of the UNESCO Chair in Community-Based Research and Social Responsibility in Higher Education.

It is my distinct privilege to be speaking with you today from the traditional territories of the Nuragic Sardo peoples of the island that is called Sardinia which is part of Italy today.  I live and work usually on the lands of the Lekwungen-speaking peoples, the Songhees, Esquimalt and Wsanich First Nations in the city called Victoria in British Colombia, Canada. I acknowledge with respect the ancestors and contemporary knowledge keepers of the ancient peoples on whose land most of you are meeting today. Rajesh Tandon and I are very proud of the remarkable work which is being done at Rhodes University through your community university engagement centre and the Knowledge for Change Hub.  The news of the passion and professionalism of your K4C Hub is circulating all around the globe!  We are learning with you.

I am deeply honoured to have been invited to provide some reflections on the values and practices of engaged scholarship or participatory research on this day that has been set aside for the honouring of Madiba, our beloved Nelson Mandela. Given the complex and persistent challenges that we are facing in South Africa, in the rest of Africa, in Latin America and the Caribbean, in Asia, In the Arabic-speaking states and in North America, the voice, the example, the wisdom and the love of Madiba has never been more needed.

I have had the extraordinary privilege of working with two other giants of democratic learning over my years, Mwalimu Julius K. Nyerere, the founding President of Tanzania and Paulo Freire, the Brazilian author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I can imagine a study circle somewhere in the land of our Ancestors where the three of them are sharing their thoughts and ideas about knowledge and transformation while they witness our own reflections.

The Madiba that the world knows is the politician, the fighter for freedom, the voice of deep democracy and the spirit of love. He is also known as an intellectual and philosophical thinker. He is not usually thought of as a researcher in the usual ways that we think of research in our contemporary university worlds.  However, in reflecting on his life within the context of my work interrogating the interplay of knowledge, transformative learning, and action for positive change, I would like to offer a few modest thoughts about Madiba as an engaged intellectual, as a community-based participatory researcher and as the facilitator of transformative knowledge.

I have often been struck by the way that Madiba created an extraordinary learning environment inside Robben Island encouraging all the political prisoners to study, read, take courses. Robben Island was called by some during his 27 years of captivity, the Nelson Mandela University. Several lessons may be drawn from this period which speak to the practice of what some of us call community-based participatory research.  He believed in the universal capacity for all people to learn. And he learned that the sharing of knowledge was a fundamental human right. He believed that even those who were prisoners had knowledge to share.  He believed that those who had struggled for political freedom in fact had privileged knowledge of the meaning of struggle, a privileged reservoir of knowledge.  And finally, he believed that knowledge, knowledge of the meaning of struggle for freedom and knowledge of other struggles lay at the core of the movement for liberation in South Africa.  Organisation mattered, external political allies mattered, actions in the streets mattered, but the deep knowledge of the meaning of life for everyone was central to the movement itself. Knowledge, learning and action, principles of participatory research.

A second moment of his Presidency, the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is more directly related to our understandings of engaged research.  The TRC was a nation-wide community-based participatory research project.  It was a bottom-up process where persons who had been jailed, beaten, disrespected, or worse were given the opportunity to share the epistemic privilege of their experience.  No one, no objective scholar, no investigative journalist, no political commentator knew the existential meaning of what oppression was like better than those who had lived and suffered through those years.  The TRC provided and facilitated that space for knowledge to be created and co-created by the targets of Apartheid aggression and hate.  This is another principle of engaged scholarship that can be seen in his work, giving primacy of voice in the knowledge creation process, the research process of the TRC to those who had been historic victims.

A third reflection occurred to me while reading the response by Madiba to the final report of the TRC. He says, “We must never again divide ourselves one from another. We must not insult our common humanity”. He was speaking of the challenge of overcoming the many years when privilege, politics and power was fundamentally based on race. His vision was one a future with all lending a hand.  What I draw from his words are the implications for understanding the knowledge cultures of all parts of society and for applying principles of knowledge equity to our epistemic lives. SA students, Indigenous students, women, the excluded everywhere have been rising to draw attention to the on-going epistemological apartheid of white, male, European, hetero-normative, ableist, class-based and non-Indigenous epistemologies. Madiba’s admonition that “we must not divide ourselves from one another” has implications for those of us whose lives are tied up with knowledge creation, co-creation, and knowledge for positive change.  Participatory co-construction of engaged knowledge means learning to recognise the multiple epistemologies of life, of African Indigenous knowledge, of the knowledge of the shack dwellers, of women’s experiential knowledge and more.

A final reflection comes as well from the words of Madiba.  He says, “Expect change to be messy”.  Those of us working in engaged scholarship say the same thing!
Thank you once more and Blessings


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