The global outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) has affected our economies and social lives in various ways. 

For the South African context, the implementation of the national safety measures to manage and contain the spread of this communicable disease, and chief amongst these commonly known as “lockdown”, has affected the functioning and operations of our service institutions – The extent of this is that by the second quarter of 2020, the country experienced an economic meltdown with devastating effects on our existing levels of unemployment and inequality.

The higher education sector was also affected by these developments, wherein its traditional methods of rolling out teaching, learning, research and engagement activities through ‘direct campus-based physical delivery contact’ was temporarily disrupted. As a result, the sector collectively moved towards developing and implementing a multi-modal remote learning system, which mainly featured the utilisation of digital online learning methods.

For Nelson Mandela University, these developments have come with various challenges that we have been carefully resolving as the University’s leadership. In the main, because our student profile resembles the socioeconomic patterns of the broader population of the country - where more than half of our students depend on state funding to finance their studies – we implemented a binary learning pathway strategy that entails the continuity of teaching, learning and research through online measures. Those, who due to circumstances chose to participate on the alternative route pathway, will be carried through as part of the phasing in or re-integration of students. This, process aims to not leave any student behind.

The University’s pathway strategy also entails the availing of data connectivity and laptops through various phases. Phase one targeted final year students and the second phase responds to all applications which has now started to be rolled-out.  These measures were implemented by the University within the premise of protecting livelihoods, sustaining the general operations and progress of our university enterprise, and safeguarding the principle of social justice. As things stand presently regarding the implementation of the pathway strategy, we are satisfied that the majority of the student body has participated in the online process – which is going to make it easier for us as the University to manage the rolling out of the alternative pathway and work in this regard has begun.

The country’s National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) led by the country’s President, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa, has moved the country’s operations to ‘Alert Level 3’ as of 1 June 2020 – which is a risk-adjusted strategy intended to slow down the rate of infection and flatten the curve whilst easing the intensity of the lockdown for purposes of gradual opening of the economy. For universities, this decision has translated to the measured return and reintegration of selected students to the campus precinct and residences. The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, announced a national guiding framework for the higher education sector in this regard – calling for the prioritisation of final year and health science students to be part of the 33% cohort of students who are returning to university campuses and residences.  To this end, as indicated earlier, Mandela University has included into this 33%, pathway 2 students and students with disabilities as part of walking the talk that no student must be left behind. We must journey together.

For our Nelson Mandela University context, the phased return of students is a task that we are prepared for. In the main, our on-campus and off-campus residences are going to be critical spaces for our health prevention strategy through the Department of Student Housing, Living and Learning Programmes. Our colleagues in that space have been in contact with the expected returning students and they have put in place all the safety measures as required by national and international COVID-19 management regulations set by the Department of Health and the World Health Organisation. In this regard, I encourage students to observe and respect these safety measures by ensuring that within their personal spaces, they wear face masks, wash their hands regularly with soap or sanitise, avoid crowded spaces as much as possible, and observe physical distancing where necessary.

We have also tasked our residence managers, student health and occupational health, and protection services personnel to assist us with the day-to-day management and monitoring of observing safety measures by students and staff in our residential communities.

Our approach to the fight against the virus is predicated on a multifaceted interlocked strategy:

  1. Stringent adherence to safety measures and at the core of this is mandatory screening, testing if you screen positive, quarantine and isolation.
  2. Mandatory wearing of masks whenever you leave your room, exercising physical distancing, washing your hands regularly with soap and sanitising.
  3. Obeying, upholding and promoting adherence to residence rules - this must be complied with by all residents as part of a social compact amongst themselves.
  4. Students, as a community, must internalise the fact that COVID-19, like any other pandemic, is a disease that does not give an individual the luxury of choice to decide as to whether they will get infected or not. For one to be infected is a social consequence as a result of the decisions being made by those around them. Hence, the fate of our being as a human race is deeply tied to our solidarity networks anchored on the human spirit. Put differently, the notion of ‘umntu ngumntu ngabantu’ could not have been more relevant and applicable as it is currently. So, we expect our students to exercise and uphold the values of social solidarity.
  5. Shared responsibility and accountability amongst students as members of the community.

Thus, the best mechanism to manage and contain the spread of COVID-19 in our University space will be dependent on the collective consciousness that students and staff share about the wellbeing of their campus community. The collective strength of the human spirit we possess as a people, has a potential to qualitatively shift our mindset and behaviour towards the one that is more compassionate, caring, has deep love for the people, is concerned about saving lives and at all times, nurtures human centered actions.  

I therefore implore students to take their future seriously by embarking on responsible, informed, and socially just decisions uninterruptedly. The future we are heading for is already in the horizon and it promises to be prosperous for those who have acquainted themselves with critical thinking skills and multidisciplinary competencies that would have been developed in our university space. The next class of capable, adaptable, and innovative graduates that we have committed to produce as Nelson Mandela University, has a challenging, yet abounding world to inherit which they should embrace and utilise to secure their sustainable futures.

I urge each one of you to keep safe with your families and also consciously protect others around yourselves during these challenging times and I wish those who are part of the first 33% a safe travelling experience back to our university campuses in George and Port Elizabeth.

Do not lose sight of the end game! Regenerate your mettle to invent your futures

Luthando Jack
Dean of Students

Posted on 23 June 2020 12:52:55

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This platform serves as a reflective, discursive and connecting space between myself and the entire student community of our beloved university. Through this platform, we converse with our students and broader stakeholders on all matters of student life, wellbeing and development at Mandela University.

Luthando Jack, Dean of Students