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School with a vision — ‘living memorial’ to Nelson Mandela planned for slopes of Table Mountain

School with a vision — ‘living memorial’ to Nelson Mandela planned for slopes of Table Mountain
In a few years a new monument is expected to rise on the slopes of Devil’s Peak above the University of Cape Town. (Photo: UCT / Wikipedia)

In a few years a new monument is expected to rise on the slopes of Devil’s Peak above the University of Cape Town. Ironically, it will be built on a piece of land parallel to Rhodes Memorial and less than 1km away.

Only, instead of being a monument of stone and statue, a presumptuous and perpetual reminder of the arrogance of colonial conquerors, this monument will take the form of a school. It will be a building bearing Nelson Mandela’s name; a centre of scholarship and teaching intended to give birth to a new generation of democratic, visionary leaders in Africa.

On 17 May 2023, this revolutionary vision was launched at a special ceremony at the University of Cape Town (UCT). 

Its significance was borne out by the speaker list: a range of dignitaries and academics, UCT chancellor Dr Precious Moloi-Motsepe, acting CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) Verne Harris, SANParks chairperson Pam Yako and Faizel Ismail, the director of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance.

It was also attended by Western Cape premier Alan Winde.

Speaking to Harris, he said: “The partnership builds on previous partnerships between the Mandela Foundation and UCT.” The NMF aimed to “contribute to a public art installation which honours Madiba while avoiding elevating him in inappropriate ways and which speaks critically to the Rhodes Memorial close by”. 

Harris said that in future the centre will also house the foundation’s travelling exhibitions, and allow it “to explore leadership development synergies with the school”.

The new building will have a dual function: as a memorial centre for Mandela as well as the home of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance (Nelson Mandela School), which aspires to be the African equivalent of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University or the Kennedy School at Harvard.

Except that this school intends to harness and shape African leadership for the 21st century.  

The centre’s construction is made possible by a donation of $21.5-million by Atlantic Philanthropies (AP), whose president and CEO, Chris Oechsli, said this was one of the last grants made by AP as it concluded spending more than $8-billion donated by billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Chuck Feeney, whose philosophy and practice was “giving while living”. 

Justifying such a large grant for a building, Oechsli quoted Feeney as saying: “Good buildings for good minds can make the difference in the lives of a lot of people… these buildings and the activities they house are central to lifting up entire communities, and, yes, even nations.” 

Noting the “public governance deficits that exist worldwide”, Oechsli lamented that “rising nationalism and polarisation throughout the world are hampering the constructive and collective roles governments must play to address the needs of the people they are charged to serve”. 

Nelson Mandela School Rhodes Memorial

Rhodes Memorial on Devil’s Peak in Cape Town on 5 June 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Jacques Stander)

In this context, he said “the teachings, example and life lessons of the late Nelson Mandela, informed by the collaboration between the NMF and UCT, offer a ready-made blueprint for leadership development courses, case studies and teaching materials that will have a real and notable impact, not just in South Africa and across Africa, but globally”.

Oechsli described good governance as “a science, a craft and an art that is informed by knowledge and history and is best when imbued with empathy and humility that places the community it serves as its prized constituency”.

Architectural design competition

In the coming months an architectural competition will be announced to design the memorial centre and school. Luyanda Mpahlwa, respected architect and one-time Robben Island prisoner, convened a multidisciplinary advisory panel to develop the terms of reference for the competition. 

Speaking at the launch, Mpahlwa explained that the panel had explored concepts of memorialisation, symbolism and how to blend the landscape (in this case Table Mountain) with aspects of Mandela’s personality and leadership: service, humility, wisdom, inclusivity, mutual respect and dialogue.

According to Mpahlwa: “Social history and heritage are key considerations in our efforts to restore people’s dignity which was lost through centuries of disenfranchisement.” Therefore the panel had asked “how the development of the site can catalyse a new imaginary, a different relationship between land and people, one which contradicts the dominance and power which many memorials and institutions represent?” 

Public governance: Teaching and research

However, the Nelson Mandela School isn’t waiting for its grand home before starting work. 

It was officially established in 2018, the brainchild of Alan Hirsch, former economics adviser to presidents Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Even without a permanent home, it has begun to make a mark on the continent, through its research and teaching. It is also playing a supporting role in important initiatives like the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, as well as generating ideas about how Africa can benefit from the economic and energy transition that must take place in Africa as a result of the escalating climate crisis. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: SA can support Africa on climate-resilient development goals 

In recent years it has also been bulking up its intellectual heft, drawing in globally respected thought leaders such as Carlos Lopes and ​​Dr Arkebe Oqubay, as well as a new generation that includes rising thought leaders Dr Musa Nxele, winner of the 2023 Ruth First Prize awarded by the Review of African Political Economy

The Mandela School is also now home to a number of scholars who first acquired invaluable experience and insight working at the heart of government in South Africa, including its director Faizel Ismail, the former trade and industry minister Rob Davies, Noncedo Vutula and former finance minister Trevor Manuel.

A place of encounter and political imagination

It was left to retired Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs to see the poetry in plans to combine a governance school and a memorial in a location as spectacular and significant as Table Mountain.

In a video recorded at the site, Sachs praised its beauty: “I’m imagining a building here where people come from all over the world, all over South Africa, all over Cape Town, to meet here and feel emotional and connect.”

Sachs called it a “spectacular spot for a place of encounter and exchange of ideas”. He recalled how “in the worst days of repression” he would climb Table Mountain “to get away from the ugliness of apartheid, to enjoy what nature has to offer, and then look down and see divided Cape Town… There’s something terrible when you find beauty ugly. When you start hating beauty.”

He concluded: “So, in a sense this place is a way of converting those negative memories into something positive, of people coming together. These things are so nourishing and enriching and so profitable for the imagination. This is a spectacular spot for a place of encounter, exchange of ideas, of interaction, of sparkle. Brilliant.” DM

Watch a short video of the launch here: Nelson Mandela Memorial Centre will make significant contribution to scholarship

Mark Heywood is an independent human rights activist and writer. He is also an Adjunct Professor at the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance.

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  • Gerry Hunt-Higgs says:

    “Giving While Living” the generous donator says.
    “Taking While Gaining” we say.
    Taking away yet more from our precious and fast depleting wildlife.
    Deluding the mountain of yet more trees and flora that give us Oxygen. To live. Consuming CO2 so dangerous for our existence. Giving life to fauna that is so important to our very being.
    SANPARKS should know better.
    CITY is killing us.
    The school would serve the Communities that need it mist…and would be cheaper to travel to… WITHIN the Community that needs it the most.
    This then is nothing more than a propaganda exercise of ill-educated intent.

  • virginia crawford says:

    But no cares for the environment then?

  • JDW 2023 says:

    I am all for a new school but why on earth on the slopes of an ecologically sensitive mountain that is already buckling under the pressure of human activity? What absolute stupidity considering what we know today about unchecked human development. It’s no wonder there is so much human-baboon conflict in the WC when developments like this are given the green light. I am gobsmacked.

  • Kanu Sukha says:

    Looking at the names of the naysayers (likely ancestors of our previous colonial masters like Rhodes?) I am ‘concerned’ (not like the predictable ‘concerns’ American politicians express about the ongoing genocide across Palestine), by some of the ‘wokeness’ (dare I use that over-used and abused term) they express. The first could not even wait to run a simple spell check on his submission (deluding – who ? – for denuding !) – how presumptuous and hubristic, when the ‘plans’ for the project have not been realised/released yet ? Maybe they will suggest the demolition of the buildings in front in the picture also? But then, I am a simple Joe and probably did not even understand the report !

    • T'Plana Hath says:

      “Looking at the names of the naysayers (likely ancestors of our previous colonial masters like Rhodes?)”
      Wow. Judge me by my surname, would you? And well you should not! Don’t resort to stereotyping. You’re better than this,
      Also why say ‘previous’? Are there ‘current’ colonial masters?

  • A B says:

    Why are we still celebrating a child murdering and child torturing terrorist.

  • JDW 2023 says:

    Why is my ligitimate comment from yesterday not being approved?

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