Opinions

Public memorial lectures as platforms to celebrate intellectual heritage

  • Posted on January 23, 2015

In South Africa, public memorial lectures have become a way to celebrate our South African intellectual heritage. This tradition, which has a long history, has become increasingly popular as a way to affirm the new dispensation of democracy by reflecting on the intellectual contributions made to society by outstanding South Africans. To date, there are approximately fifty-three memorial lectures hosted by a range of universities in partnership with foundations and NGOs.

These public lectures have not become platforms to celebrate the work of ‘conventional’ intellectuals but to create a space to recognize the contribution of organic intellectuals in society. They have become a bridge to link those intellectuals shaped by through academic corridors and those whose sense of shrewd intellectualism is created by their experience in society. The latter were not recognized under the apartheid dispensation as their knowledge was perceived as equivalent to primitiveness rather than with modernity whilst conventional intellectuals were viewed as suspects of the apartheid state.
One point of interest is that in democratic South Africa this tradition of celebrating South African intellectual heritage through public memorial lectures, which focus on social activists, freedom fighters, outstanding academics and icons of the struggle, has become a way for universities to reposition themselves as social intellectual institutions that are cognisant of the intellectual contributions made by political grassroots leaders. Among those celebrated through annual public lectures are: Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Ahmed Kathrada, Rusty Bernstein, Yusuf Dadoo, and Jakes Gerwel amongst others.
Universities often host these lectures in partnership with external organisations such as the Ruth First Foundation and the Raymond Mhlaba Foundation. And, most of the South African universities have selected their own alumni who made an outstanding contribution to society and flag them as game changers and intellectual giants. Convenors and hosts firstly carefully select outstanding individuals, political leaders, and civil society activists to celebrate. Secondly, they critically analyse the legacy of these people and thirdly they consider the impact their legacies may have on the future of their institutions and how these legacies can make their institutions more socially relevant in a fast changing society.

The University of Fort Hare, in Alice, has made it its annual intellectual tradition a celebration of the life and times of Cde OR Tambo as a long standing leader of the ANC and as an outstanding alumni that fulfilled the university motto: ‘In lumine tuo videbimus lumen’ which is translated as ‘In thy light shall we see light.’

The University of Cape Town, in partnership with Steve Biko Foundation, hosts the Steven Bantu Biko Memorial lecture which aims ‘to commemorate the life and death of Biko and to celebrate his courage and leadership as a political activist. The lecture also celebrates him as an intellectual whose courage was in the battlefield of ideas, through his writing, and whose greatest contribution was the intellectual contribution he made to the struggle and to the ideas of black consciousness .’

The University of Western Cape (UWC) hosts an annual public lecture dedicated to Prof Jakes Gerwel, the former adviser to the first democratically elected Mr Nelson Mandela. The late Prof Gerwel made a profound intellectual contribution and impact in the landscape of politics and academia that not only assisted in the transition to democracy but also to the transformation of South African society. The University of Western Cape continues to honour him in way that instils his values to the staff and students of the university. It has also since 2005 convened the Dullah Omar Memorial Lecture at which Arthur Chaskalson, Frances Baard, Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki and Albie Sachs have spoken.

All these celebrated leaders transcended particular social, academic and political barriers imposed by apartheid and their achievements and their legacy serves as a beacon of hope. One thing that these universities do not dispute is that the legacy of these leaders is not immune from controversies or contestations. In the light of these above issues the South African universities seem to be careful about what aspects of their legacies must be celebrated and memorialized and packaged as ‘our heritage’.

In the process of selecting a legacy to be memorialized, universities (in consultation with partners and host organisations) carefully invite guest speakers that are recognized as social, academic and political champions whose contribution to society is not disputed. For example, Trevor Manual spoke at the Ruth First Memorial lecture at Wits in 2013; Thabo Mbeki spoke at the Raymond Mhlaba Annual Memorial Lecture at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University; Ngugi wa Thiangio (2003), Ben Okri (2012), Nkosazana Dlamini-Zumu (2013), Navi Pillay (2014) were speakers at the Steve Biko Memorial Lecture; Jacob Zuma (2013) and Cyril Ramaphosa (2014) at the OR Tambo Memorial Lecture; and Jacob Zuma (2013) and Blade Nzimande at the Chris Hani Memorial Lecture. Guest speakers must be socially and politically connected leaders in business, politics and academia. This begs the question: do universities celebrate intellectual heritage to reposition themselves as cooperative academic political entities? Do they compromise autonomy so they are perceived as politically correct institutions?

This repositioning of universities (and other host institutions) utilizes the legacy of the struggle as a platform to showcase intellectual heritage that is often informed by particular agendas, interests and pressing needs of that particular university. For instance the agenda, interests and needs of historically disadvantaged universities may be different from those of historically advantaged universities which are bestowed with resources needed for them to operate as comprehensive world class universities. It is these diverse agendas, interests and needs that inform the selection process of guest speakers who will be used as a conduit to channel interests and needs to a business and politically connected ruling elite.

This implies that there is a fierce contest amongst universities to access state resources using these public lectures for such ends. Thus, the celebration of intellectual heritage by these institutions may not be as sincere and transparent as they seem. This also implies that the survival of memorial lectures and possibly of other university programmes depends on how much and the type of intellectual heritage that institutions celebrate and value. A celebration that challenges cultural hegemony may put them on collision course with the ruling elites. Therefore selection and choice is carefully considered and cannot be isolated from the choices of prevailing political power and authority in case these universities bite the hand that feeds them through the subsidies.

It seems that both historically disadvantaged and historically advantaged universities seek approval of their progress and that this approval is sought from the state as opposed to civil society. Universities do not have to celebrate rich South African intellectual heritage because they want to be seen as progressive and politically correct. The celebration of this intellectual legacy should come naturally rather than be seen as imposed on by the state on academic institutions that are supposed to be autonomous in nature.

The celebration of African intellectual heritage by South Africa Universities should be a project that affirms the unique culture and heritage that produced these outstanding and celebrated South Africans. It must be an opportunity to memorialise their shrewd intellectualism and concerted efforts that brought about freedom of expression, freedom of association and equality. In the process of nation building a uniting and diverse heritage should serve as a cornerstone to build a nation, to protect and promote democracy and social cohesion. To a certain degree the memorial lecture contributes to nation building however it is limited and public lectures expanded and used to shape course content.

In fact, the time has come for South African Universities to take seriously the intellectual work produced by these people whose intellectual heritage is celebrated through public memorial lectures. Their work and contribution to society must find way into the university curriculum and students encouraged to research and write about them further. The impact of these public memorial lectures should not be measured by attendance, red, yellow and blue academic gowns and processions but by how much their revisited work is changing a university student from being an uniformed student to an informed citizen.

Vuyani Booi is an Archival Platform correspondent based in the Eastern Cape.

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