> Unity, Reconciliation and Education - Updated: 2004-02-09 10:13 am
Welcoming Remarks. All-Africa Ministers’ Conference on Open Learning and Distance Education, Cape Town, 1 February 2004
It is my great pleasure to welcome you to this All-Africa Ministers’ Conference on Open Learning and Distance Education on behalf the hosts, partners and funders that have come together to make it happen. I thank the Government of South Africa for hosting us in this splendid venue and I greet you on behalf of the Commonwealth of Learning, represented here by its President, Professor Raj Dhanarajan, and of UNESCO.
It is also my pleasant duty to bring you the greetings of our other partners, the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom, the World Bank, WorldSpace, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Memar TV and the Irish Government.
We are delighted to hold this meeting in South Africa on the tenth anniversary of this country’s first free and universal elections. I am sure that you all recall pictures of that great event a decade ago, when millions of South Africans waited patiently and good-humouredly for hours in long queues to cast their votes for the first time.
South Africa was an inspiration to us then and continues to be so. Nowhere else in the world has there been such consistent emphasis on the two virtues of unity and reconciliation.
President Mbeki himself has been a tireless promoter of unity. I think of his great speech that begins ‘I am an African’ and evokes this land and his ancestors with their memories of cruel deeds.
But he went on to say that he was also formed by the migrants who left Europe to find a new home here, and that the blood of the Malay slaves who came from the East courses in his veins.
He evoked the great battles of Africa as a grandchild of warriors, but also as the grandchild who lays fresh flowers on the Boer graves at St Helena and the Bahamas. He said he was the child of those who built the economy of South Africa and that he felt kinship with those who were transported here from India and China.
Claiming a part in all these people, he celebrated the adoption of a Constitution that is an unequivocal statement of South Africans’ unity and their refusal to accept that their Africanness be defined by race, colour, gender or historical origins.
Over the decade since those elections we have all admired how that unity has grown through active and visible work of reconciliation. The luminous figure of Nelson Mandela is now a symbol of reconciliation the world over and Archbishop Tutu has charmed us with his cheerful and matter-of-fact approach to the practicalities of reconciliation.
In all this South Africa has been a model for the world and I speak for all of us when I say to our hosts what a pleasure it is to see your progress and to enjoy your hospitality.
We are here to talk about education, more particularly about the related movements of open learning and distance education. There too, we have much to learn from South Africa.
First, the Freedom Charter of the African National Congress and South Africa’s Constitution mirror the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in stating that education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children.
It also calls for the opening up of higher education and technical training and the achievement of full adult literacy.
In a statement that echoes UNESCO’s own goals the Charter declares that the aim of education ‘shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace’.
Second, South Africa has a long tradition of distance education. The University of South Africa, UNISA, was the first of what we now call the mega-universities, that growing number of universities around the world that teach a student body of more than one hundred thousand at a distance.
To its credit, UNISA had a multi-racial student body throughout the apartheid years. But it bowed to the restrictions of apartheid and did not, like other distance teaching universities, try to create an academic community by bringing students together for tutorials and meetings.
When we visited Robben Island today we saw a bittersweet symbol of those years in the 2-metre square prison cell in which Nelson Mandela studied with UNISA while it was his home for 19 years. Bitter, because his imprisonment was unjust the prison warders could remove study privileges arbitrarily. Sweet, because he did get the chance to study and qualify.
Visiting Robben Island and meeting former inmates was a touching experience because it evoked so sharply the contradictions of those times as the human spirit triumphed in inhumane conditions.
Hearing former inmates who had spent years incarcerated on Robben Island tell us that they have forgiven, although they cannot forget, was a remarkable testimony to the spirit of reconciliation in this country.
Another inspiring development of the last decade in South Africa has been the way that the country’s distance teaching institutions, by becoming genuinely multi-racial institutions, are also modernising their teaching methods. That is why South Africa is the ideal venue for this conference where we shall ask how the modern approaches of open learning and distance education can best be harnessed to the great educational needs of Africa.
No need is greater than the training and retraining of millions of teachers that will be required if Africa is to have a chance of meeting the goals of Education for All that all countries signed up to in Dakar nearly four years ago.
Happily, there is now an effervescence of programmes and projects in open and distance learning for teacher training all over this continent. Comparing notes and learning from each other will help us ensure that this effervescence leads to lasting change in education systems rather than merely the froth of novelty.
We have a great opportunity to look at these and other issues in the coming days. My purpose this evening is simply to welcome you on behalf of the hosts and wish you an excellent conference.