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Change the world

It is important that Nelson Mandela University has defined Institutional Research Themes for positioning the unique advantage of the University to prospective students and external stakeholders. During 2017, we began the process of redefining the Themes. After an extensive process of consultation across the University, the followed six Institutional Research Themes were approved:

1. Ocean and Coastal Sciences

Humanity is dependent on the oceans and coasts from climate regulation to food provisioning. Cultures have been shaped by oceans together with global economies. Society and oceans have evolved together to what we know. Today we are faced with global to local crises spanning from climate change to poverty and resource conflicts, a threat to oceans and humanities. Nelson Mandela University, taking cognisance of the importance of oceans, is promoting ocean science as an institutional research theme. The term “Oceans and Coasts” refers to estuaries, shallow water coastal systems, coastal wetlands, coastlines, marine business, coastal communities and pelagic systems. Research is encouraged from both a disciplinary and transdisciplinary perspective to  address key systemic questions that can inform policy, promote sustainable governance, influence management approaches and contribute to new knowledge.


2. Social justice and Democracy

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996, was adopted as the supreme law of the country so as to heal the divisions of the past and establish a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights. The Constitution's preamble also promises to lay the foundations for a democratic and open society in which government is based on the will of the people and every citizen is equally protected by law. This Theme focuses research on matters closely connected to the values that underly the Constitution, and which underpin the functioning of Nelson Mandela University, such as:

  • human dignity, the achievement of equality and the advancement of human rights and freedoms, including an array of socio-economic rights;
  • non-racialism and non-sexism;
  • ubuntu;
  • supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law; and
  • universal adult suffrage and a multi-party system of democratic government.


3. Environmental Stewardship and Sustainable Livelihoods

Building on the key research strengths of our natural scientists who have been researching fields such as Conservation Biology for many years, this Theme will also enable our academics in resource economics to address questions of sustainability – both for our region as well as nationally and across the African continent. Sustainable Human Settlements is a focus area for our School of the Built Environment that will also speak to this Theme. The Theme will also include the inspiring research taking place in our Faculty of Health Sciences, where projects are specially focused on vulnerable communities challenged by the high levels of poverty.


4. Innovation and the Digital Economy

This Theme aims to address not only the use of digital technologies in general but also the impact it has on the transformation of industries.  To stay competitive, manufacturers need to sustain global economic momentum while developing new digital and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) capabilities and operating models. The broad objectives of this theme include the following:

  • to promote a better understanding on the role of the digital economy in not only South Africa but Africa, particularly how digital technologies impact economies and transform both business practices and societies.
  • to examine how institutions, policies and regulations, and human skills can be transformed to keep up with the quickening pace of digital transformation in Africa.
  • to exchange views on the current state of the digital economy in Africa, including issues related to digital flows; e-commerce; financial technology; the role of education, skills, and innovation on digital economy; and implications of digital transformation on Africa’s manufacturing economic landscape.


5. Origins, Culture, Heritage and Memory

Science tells us that modern humans, Homo sapiens, evolved on the South African coast somewhere between the Tsitsikamma and Cape Agulhas, and sometime between 200 000 and 140 000 years ago; all of humankind can trace its origins to this time and place. The focus on origins is critical to understanding the beginnings of humankind, the context in which early modern human beings emerged and the biological facets of evolution.

The focus on culture, heritage and memory are equally important. In the last 50 years, the United Nations (via UNESCO) has advanced the global management of tangible and intangible heritage, identifying and inscribing what it deems to be universally valued cultural artefacts and practices on its World Heritage List (WHL) and its List of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritages. Heritage management and conservation, however, goes beyond the reach of global heritage organizations. It indicates the evolution of humanity and the resources early humans used to craft a socially meaningful existence. It also tells us about contemporary relations of power and the meaning of culture in society.

Social science focuses on 21st Century human cultural expression, especially questions about the construction of social identity, the deployment of culture and recollections of the past. Social scientists have studied heritage as a heavily contested concept, valuable to those in power and their quest for symbolic and economic power. Reflecting on historically inscribed identities (in monuments, sites and other tangible artefacts) historians and anthropologists are revealing an aspect of identity and community perhaps hidden, distorted or ignored as part of colonisation.

In countries such as South Africa, where a democracy is being forged, heritage and its management ought to be scrutinised, debated and diversely articulated. This process is necessary to establishing alter-narratives of the past, to critically and consciously represent suppressed histories and to unearth valuable and often silenced knowledge. Involving a cross-disciplinary group of international and national researchers from palaeoanthropology to botany, social anthropology and history, the Theme on Origins, Culture, Heritage and Memory will enable our University to conduct research on tangible and intangible heritage in South Africa and the world.


6. Humanising Pedagogies

Conceptually, our understanding of humanising pedagogy has been derived from the work of Paulo Freire, who wrote “(c)oncern for humanisation leads at once to the recognition of dehumanisation”, a phenomenon which has had severe impact on generations of students within South African society. The central relevance of this concept within learning environments, including in Higher Education, has to be explored with a view to developing both theory and practices - praxes -  which will enable people through the pedagogical encounter, especially our students, but also teachers and all university staff, to optimise their full human potential and all that they are able to contribute to society.

Nelson Mandela’s University’s Vision 2020 refers to the principle of humanising pedagogies as one of the signature concepts in relation to the strategic direction of the university. It has become “embedded in the strategic architecture” of Mandela University. As a ‘conscious design … (and) as a transversal principle across the university’s social, physical, financial, academic, management and human resources landscapes”[1]  we have taken on the imperative to explore the practical expression of this concept in all its manifestations within spaces where learning happens as one of the university’s Research Themes.


Contact information
Dr Palesa Mothapo
Director: Research Support and Management
Tel: 041 504 4535

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