Prof. Nhlanhla ‘Bacwali’ Mkhize
As we complete the second week of the national shutdown, the number of known infections continues to rise exponentially, with close to 20 deaths directly associated with the angry and devastating COVID-19 pandemic of unprecedented proportions during our lifetime. International statistics are equally scary. With the exception of amadelamzimba—the health, security, food and other essential services personnel, who respond selflessly to the clock every day to sustain the pulse of the nation—everything seems to have ground to a halt. Our cities and townships, which are usually bustling with activity, are uncharacteristically quiet. Even peaceful, perhaps, with humans having retreated to the sanctuary of their homes. Rodents, monkeys, and other lower animals scavenge freely to eke out a living that they have been so unceremoniously denied by those at the top of the food chain (or so we thought). A somber mood prevails. Indeed, it is a time to reflect deeply on the meaning of life, and our role, in relation to the cosmic order.
Devastating as the COVID-19 pandemic is, it has exposed the futility of isolationism and callous capitalistic tendencies, in so doing bringing together the worlds of the mystic and scientist, in celebration of cosmic interdependence. Motho ubebelwa munwe! Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu! Motho ke motho ka batho! Kgosi ke kgosi ka batho! Ad infinitum. Not only has the COVID-19 pandemic vindicated the principle of diunital logic (You-in-Me, Me-in-You; Me-in-Earth, Earth-in-Me; Community-in-me, Me-in-Community)—which is commensurate with the literature on the wisdom tradition—it also calls upon us to act on that basis. While cognizant of the imperative to continue our core University business—our life and blood—we should also seek to do so while preserving the sense of community and mutual support. This in recognition that the pandemic touches all dimensions of our lives: the physical, the mental, the spiritual, the economic, to mention a few.
You will be aware that the University had already sent the students home, by the time the President announced the national shutdown on 27 March 2020. Immediately, an EMC task team was constituted, under the leadership of Prof. Sandile Songca, DVC of Teaching and Learning, to develop contingency teaching and learning plans. This task team has mapped out several teaching and learning scenarios, and the implications thereof, should the COVID-19 pandemic not be contained soon. Online teaching and learning training courses (for staff, and students) are planned, thanks to the forward thinking of our teaching and learning division, ably assisted by the experts across all schools in the College. A similar task team, led by the DVC of Research, Prof. Deresh Ramjugernath, is developing a contingency plan for research. A contingency plan for our professional services division is also in place.
At College level, the CMC meets weekly, sometimes twice a week, to reflect on the COVID-19 pandemic and our state of readiness to continue with our core business. School and division-based contingency plans are in place. The greatest challenge has been access to data, as we fast-track the delivery of online learning. I am pleased to announce that the majority of the staff have now been issued with data bundle packages (router and/or sim card) to ensure that teaching and learning does not ground to a halt. This thanks to the leadership of a number of people: Dr. Zakwe, Profs. Msibi and Hoskins, Mr. Kishore Gobardan, and Mr. Abdullah Shariff, to mention a few. Distribution of these packages has been a challenge, given the lockdown restrictions. The data bundle packages will be managed at school/divisional level.
Several challenges remain, perhaps the biggest one being the connectivity of students, and the management of social distancing upon their return (in residences and (large) classrooms). Just how do we manage the return of the students? And the staff? The Teaching and Learning and UKZN COVID-19 teams continue to apply their minds to these issues. Ideas are welcome.
Not only does the pandemic provide an opportunity to escalate our online teaching and learning in this fast-paced digital (IR) world, it presents with several research opportunities. I am pleased to advise that the College has submitted several research concept papers and opinion pieces, to the DVC of Research. We have responded as well to the call by the NIHSS (National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences) to provide a humanities and social sciences perspective to the unfolding pandemic. Our Dean of Research and Higher Degrees, Prof. Pholoho Morojele, is coordinating these efforts, ably assisted by all Academic Leaders of Research and Higher Degrees, and Prof. Jannie Smit. It is important that the human dimension of the pandemic, which will continue to be felt long after the pandemic is contained, is not left behind. Indeed, the world, the University, our modes of be-ing and relating to each other, will never be the same again, post COVID-19. Hence the need for the College of Humanities, the Soul of the University, to rise to the occasion and be counted.
Isolation, and this includes working from home (while possibly caring for the young ones, the elderly, and the mere thought that oneself or a beloved one may be infected), calls upon us to extend our support systems. The DVC of the College has agreed to give a weekly update on University matters (forthcoming updates not as long as this one!). The College is also looking into establishing a Facebook page, for staff to share ideas, concerns, and be each other’s support network. The connectivity that we have been denied by the pandemic, let’s move it to online platforms. You will soon be apprised of the developments in this regard. All divisions are encouraged to look into similar forms of mutual support. By the time the COVID-19 pandemic was announced in South Africa, I had already established a Humanities College Leadership Forum (HCLF), comprising CMC members, school operations managers, directors and academic and cluster leaders. This Forum has now been officially approved by the CMC, and I look forward to it playing a key role in providing staff and other forms of support. Dr. Siphelele Zulu, ED HR, is experimenting with sending wellness messages to all the staff. In essence, my key message is that we are all in this TOGETHER, and soon we will find BALANCE again.
Finally, so pre-occupied have we been by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have almost lost sight of the fact that the Lent period began on 26 February, and ends today, Thursday 9 April. Tomorrow (10 April 2020) is Easter Friday. I wish to take this opportunity to wish all our staff members, particularly those for whom this is a religious holiday, a good Easter weekend. May their prayers during this period, expedite the world’s transition to the post-COVID period.
Warm wishes to all our staff. And thanking you for your support. Keep well and safe: you, your families, and beloved ones. We all keep in mind: UMUNTU NGUMUNTU NGABANTU.
Nhlanhla ‘Bacwali’ Mkhize