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The 2017 Unisa Chancellor’s Calabash Awards—a recognition of courage

Gill Marcus (Outstanding Alumnus Award), Sakhi Simelane (Chairperson: Unisa Council), Thabo Mbeki (Unisa Chancellor), Sally Motlana (Unisa Robben Island Award), Prof. Mandla Makhanya (Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Unisa), Dr Frene Ginwala (Public Servant Award), and Naledi Pandor (Outstanding Educator Award)

The recognition of four women who have been courageous and determined in bettering the lives of the citizens of our country and the lives of others around the world, took centre stage at this year’s Unisa Chancellor’s Calabash Awards on 2 November 2017.

The main guest of the evening was Thabo Mbeki, former President of South Africa, who was for the first time hosting the awards in his ceremonial position as Chancellor of Unisa. According to Mbeki, the calibre of awardees marked the university’s role of supporting women in society. “It is in times like these, where there’s so much negativity prevailing in the country, that society forgets that there are good people who do good things. These are the people we must honour and emulate,” he said.

Former Reserve Bank Governor of South Africa, Gill Marcus, received the Outstanding Alumnus Award for her significant contribution to society, South Africa’s economic stability, and her pursuit of the independence of the country’s monetary systems. Described by many as ‘a tough act to follow’, Marcus was thankful to her family, especially her parents, whom she said “had an extraordinary commitment to the country’s liberation and democracy”. A proud alumnus of Unisa, she indicated that her parents instilled in her that education opened doors and was the pillar that would help mould and make a difference in the country. “Without it, we cannot shape and be part of the future. This is a future that requires the county’s commitment to an education system that would empower our youth with survival skills for this competitive world,” she said.

Thabo Mbeki (Chancellor: Unisa)

The Public Servant Award was presented to Dr Frene Ginwala, former Speaker of Parliament, who thanked Unisa for celebrating the contribution to the changes that politicians had made in South Africa. She dedicated the title of the calabash to the youth of the country, as she believes the country is in pursuit of changing the education system to one that has access. She said that she wished to see a country that eradicated sexism, especially in workplaces, and advocated equal work and equal value. “Such countries, Ginwala said, “have seen remarkable changes to their GDPs. The award recognises South Africans who are making exceptional contributions to government structures.

The Unisa Robben Island Award celebrates Unisa’s legacy and contribution to educating South Africa’s leaders during the dark days of apartheid. Robben Island has a significant place in South Africa’s political history and Unisa recognises the role of political prisoners and activists, both men and women, who made hard sacrifices towards the liberation of the country. The ongoing commitment of Sally Motlana, community pioneer and political activist, to the freedom of the country saw her receiving this award. Even though she was not imprisoned on Robben Island, she was imprisoned numerous times for her political activities against the apartheid regime.

Accordingly, she had the unique opportunity to see the dawn of democracy, a struggle that saw scores of people exiled and killed. “To the youth of this country,” she warned, “it is your turn to deepen and sustain the fruits of my generation.” Even though education in this country has been an exclusive dream, Motlana believes that pivotal questions remain. “What are our children faced with? What have we done with the knowledge and skills acquired? What knowledge would our children impart?” According to her, the struggle for education continues.

Naledi Pandor, Minister of Science and Technology, received the Outstanding Educator Award for excelling in her service to society and in making transformative contributions to teaching, learning, and research. Her parents’ caring role ensured that they went to school. Her strong affinity with Unisa also stems from the fact that she is the granddaughter of Professor ZK Matthews, the first African to obtain a BA degree through Fort Hare University, which had Unisa as an examining body at the time.

Pandor said she was in support of the development of educators at universities—a call the Chancellor had made earlier that evening. “There is a great need for young academics to research current prevailing issues of decolonisation and #FeesMustFall that impact on the lives we live. Only academics can be able to respond to issues of the sustainability of the country and continent through the establishment of chairs and to become knowledge makers of this world.”

Reflecting on the events that had taken place in the last few years, Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Mandla Makhanya warned that society should not forget the effects of the #FeesMustFall campaign. He said that even though 2017 was kinder, with less student unrest and violence, “the country is still awaiting the formal release of the Fees Commission report, which has already drawn adverse reactions”.

The VC further warned that escalating costs and threats to sustainability meant that 2018 would herald another year of austerity where everyone would be affected. He said that the university was taking this challenge head on and with vigour, hence the various fundraising initiatives from Unisa staff, Unisa Council, and the Principal’s Bursary Fund to help ease the funding challenge.

“Will you help us?” Makhanya posed this question to the captains of industry, donors, alumni, sponsors, and diplomats present who he said had the requisite resources, in whichever form, to support the university to continue to shape futures and to serve humanity.

Unisa’s corporate partners who financially supported the event are Sabinet, Harry’s Printers, Advanced Laboratory Solutions, Hyundai, Sierra Hotels, Morena Corporate Services and Legends Lodges.

*By Busisiwe Mahlangu