SAERA Mandela Lecture 2023 – ‘Commodification, Corporatization, Complicity and Crisis: The University in Contemporary South Africa’.

Prof Saleem Badat

This year marked SAERA’s 10th annual conference, a milestone hosted by Rhodes University’s Faculty of Education in East London in the Eastern Cape. This anniversary occasion was also marked by the delivery of our 10th annual Nelson Mandela Lecture as part of the conference at the end of the opening day in a plenary session delivered by Professor Saleem Badat.

The 2023 anniversary conference theme (‘Education(al) Foundations, Education(al) Futures’) was open for interpretation in multiple ways, but retained a binding concept at its core of engaging with dialectics and movements between what we do in education (at a foundational level), and our vision and purpose (for the future).

The annual Nelson Mandela lecture is an important occasion for our academic community in South Africa to revisit his legacy, asking the speaker to reflect on what Nelson Mandela means for the great task of education. Importantly, the occasion invites the speaker to consider how one draws upon his legacy to incite contradiction, to stimulate conflict, and to locate him as a site of provocation for thinking both about oneself and about self-in-the-world. It is an opportunity to consider some of the inspirations arising out of Nelson Mandela – his endurance, his presence, his writings and his being as a South African and global icon – and what these inspirations mean for education in South Africa and beyond.

Professor Badat is a Research Professor in the History Department at the University of the Free State, with a distinguished career in Higher Education. He has been Director of the Education Policy Unit at UWC, first CEO of the Council of Higher Education, and Vice Chancellor at Rhodes University before moving to the Mellon Foundation, with responsibility for grantmaking for humanities in Africa and the Middle East. 

He is widely published, with numerous books, book chapters and journal articles, is the recipient of numerous awards, three Honorary Doctorates, and serves on a number of boards including the International Consortium of Critical Theory, and as trustee of the Harold Wolpe Trust. He is also a former chair of Universities South Africa and of the Association of African Universities Scientific Committee on Higher Education.

Professor Badat gladly took up the invitation as he put it “to disrupt and complicate settled narratives, ask uncomfortable questions” in his lecture titled ‘Commodification, Corporatization, Complicity and Crisis: The University in Contemporary South Africa’. 

In his lecture he offered a view on the fundamental foundations of universities, while also unpacking the processes and actions that have bequeathed contemporary South Africa with institutions that are both commodified, corporatized, and crisis-ridden. He outlined key challenges facing Higher Education that underpin these processes including underfunding, massification, ineffectual state steering, political problems and protests, the erosion of cooperative governance structures by corporatisation, complicity and a lack of accountability, persistent inequities, a neglect of creative engagement with the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, short-termism, and organisational weaknesses.

He cited Harold Wolpe, saying that he had warned that without economic and social policies that “contribute to the construction of a new South Africa”, universities could “reproduce powerfully entrenched structures generated by apartheid” rather than serve “as instruments of social transformation.”1 In outlining an agenda for research, he indicated also that in his forthcoming book he will be inviting readers to reflect further on the idea of the university in South Africa; and on how the university has been thought about since the colonial, segregation and apartheid periods to today and shaped by struggles, at times visible and violent while at others hidden and routinised within specific contexts.

He then proposed a different future for our universities, arguing that epistemological and theoretical work alone will not bring about their renewal, but that this requires political action and struggles by individuals and social groups committed to a different kind of society based on other logics than the destructive and dehumanising logic of contemporary neo-liberal capitalism. In the process, suggesting that if we wish to reclaim the university as a place of learning, reflection, and debate we must hold onto its purpose and resist sacrificing its core values.

On this 10th anniversary Nelson Mandela Lecture, Professor Badat called for deep institutional conversations and a national conversation on the nature and meaning of universities, but also warned us against falling into the traps of essentialism, relativism, and universalism. These he said need to be avoided by critically examining the assumptions and descriptions used to define universities and by embracing the diversity and contextual nature of these institutions. Instead, he advocated for critically engaging with universities’ colonial and apartheid legacy and pursuing equity, quality and development simultaneously through creative institution building. 

His lecture encouraged us to go about this task by drawing on Mandela as a compass, an ‘enduring provocation to courageously rethink ontology as it is represented within modernity, quoting Soudien2, to manage ourselves within the maelstrom of its contradictions and possibilities with a greater awareness of oneself in the relational ecology of social difference.’

The vision presented in this year’s lecture inspired by Mandela’s legacy advocated strongly for universities to embrace values and approaches of social justice, equity, quality, academic freedom, community engagement, and ethical leadership as they work towards a more transformative and inclusive higher education system.

Professor Badat’s lecture provided SAERA with critical perspectives on the legacy of Nelson Mandela, and valuable discussions and reflections on the issues facing our scholarly community as we collectively gathered to rethink education foundations and futures. He has now kindly made the written version of his lecture available for readers to access via the SAERA website online here.

We thank Professor Badat for his exceptional anniversary lecture last year, and for his scholarly and invaluable contribution to the conference and to the Nelson Mandela Lecture series.

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  1.  Wolpe, H. (1991) Education and social transformation: problems and dilemmas. In E Unterhalter, H Wolpe and T Botha (eds) Education in a Future South Africa: policy issues for transformation: London: Heinemann, p. 1, 16.
  2. Soudien, C. (2017) An Introduction: Nelson Mandela and His Significance for Education. In Soudien, C. (ed.) (2017) Nelson Mandela: Comparative Perspectives of His Significance for Education. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, pp. 1-7, p. 5.