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African scientists say goodbye to Madiba

As the entire world mourns the loss of South Africa’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela, scientists and policymakers from across Africa have been quick to note “Madiba’s” often-overlooked contributions to their field.

As South African universities were flying their flags at half-mast, Research Africa received messages of condolence from all over Africa remembering the elderly statesman who died at home on the evening of 5 December.

“The fact that there are several science and technology institutions of higher learning named after Nelson Mandela speaks volumes of this visionary legend,” says Aida Opoku-Mensa, former director of science and technology at the UN Economic Commission in Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Michael Kahn, extraordinary professor at Stellenbosch University’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology, says that Mandela’s government was integral to the adoption of South Africa’s first science and technology policy.

“He understood the central importance of science and technology for both growth and societal wellbeing and gave encouragement at all stages of these processes,” he wrote in an email to Research Africa this morning.

Mandela used his status as a global icon to further the cause of science and technology, even when this was not the norm, says John Mugabe, former head of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development science and technology division.

“He let his identity be associated with the idea of new institutes of science and technology in Africa when there was a lack of clarity on what such institutes would do that existing and old universities could not. [This was] at a time when many African presidents did not really see the need for new institutes,” Mugabe says.

Mandela also had a unique “hands-on” approach when dealing with research and science matters says Andrew Kanyegirire, an advocacy officer at the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council in Geneva, Switzerland. He says Mandela was very involved in the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships, which empowered scientists and academics from all over the continent.

“Nelson Mandela understood the complexity of contemporary African society and the difficulty of getting often ignored voices to contribute to research, academia and education in our communities,” he says.

Unesco is proud and honoured to have counted Nelson Mandela as a member of its family. The greatest tribute we can pay him, is to carry on his message of hope and to continue his fierce defense of the values he stood for,” said the UN agency’s organisation’s director-general Irina Bokova in a statement.

Unesco was one of the first global organisations to give Mandela a prestigious prize after his release from prison when they awarded him with the Unesco-Houphouet-Boigny Peace Prize in 1991. He later served as one of the organisation’s Goodwill Ambassadors.

Image credit: Bianca Huijs-Elemans

More tributes from the African science community to Nelson Mandela.

"Today, so many South Africans are working and succeeding in the fields of research that the nation has emerged as Africa’s science leader. Its potential is vast. Its future is bright. This is, without doubt, a testament to Mandela’s vision. We have lost a man of rare courage and understanding. But if the world’s science community is guided by Nelson Mandela’s energy and his commitment to improving life for all people, his legacy will live on for many generations, with great benefits for humanity." – Romain Murenzi, executive director of The World Academy of Sciences for the advancement of science in the developing world.

“Our great leader, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, set us on the path of truth, the path of selflessness, and the path of freedom. His long walk was the first step towards our freedom – freedom from oppression, freedom from want and freedom from disease. To all of us involved in medical research, we have so much more to do in fulfilling his dream. We will humbly try to continue following in his footsteps in the enduring quest to make our world a better place for all.” – Salim Abdool Karim, president of South Africa’s Medical Research Council.

"Science needs freedom, which is guaranteed in modern societies, and above all for democracy. It’s the same as saying that there is no democracy without freedom. Also a science without freedom is hardly inclusive. As a pillar of freedom, democracy and social inclusion, Nelson Mandela created the foundations for that science in South Africa and became a factor for social inclusion and equity". – Domingos Neto, Angola’s Department of Science and Technology.

“Madiba lives on. I say there is no need to mourn his passing away. What all the people should do is to celebrate the values which are much more needed now. Madiba’s life experience left behind for us the choice to shape a truly gentler, graceful, kinder world of caring and sharing away from the instrumental, insensitive and selfish ways that much of the way life is run today.” – Mammo Muchie, SARCHI Chairholder at the Institute for Economic Research on Innovation at Tshwane University of Technology.

“Nelson Mandela was a servant of the people and a visionary. I will remember him for his Rhodes Mandela Leadership Scholarship that helped many children access higher education here in Africa and abroad,” – LT Nyaruwata, senior lecturer at Zimbabwe Open University.

“Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has finally departed this world but his contribution to higher education, especially in South Africa is indelible. Mandela demonstrated uncommon commitment to make education available to all, irrespective of race or colour. He also removed all racial policies, which made education to be preserved for a privileged few. Now all South Africans have access to education, especially higher education in any institutition of their choice.” – KB Oyende, University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Law.

“If there is any man that Africa has ever got in this century then it is Nelson Mandela. If there is any man who has been very selfless and fought for the interest of his people and not for himself, it is Nelson Mandela. If there is any man who has championed  the liberation and freedom for Africans, it is Nelson Mandela. May his soul rest in perfect peace.” – Kofi Agyekum, Department of Linguistics, University of Ghana.

“You were a truly inspirational leader and among the best of leaders in the world, you shone like the sparks of a million stars in the sky. You dared to invade grounds where many feared to thread. Your simplicity is an asset to be shared among many generations,” – David Akeju, assistant lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Lagos.

"I was a postgraduate student in the UK when Nelson Mandela was released from prison and made the historic "Never Again" speech. Mandela restored confidence and hope to the heart of the African – whether black or white. We celebrate a rare gem and and a worthy son of Africa." – Lanre Moody, University of Ibadan.

"It is a great honour that genera and species have been named after Madiba. But the ultimate tribute will be building institutions to champion the ideals he stood for." – Calestous Juma, Harvard University

"Mandela’s path in democracy set the stage for South Africa becoming a global science and technology powerhouse. SALT and SKA would not have been possible but for the political direction led by Mandela." – @BlackPhysicists (twitter)

"I had the privilege of serving in Madiba’s cabinet. So often, when you get closer to a person, you see the flaws. In his case, the opposite." – Derek Hanekom, South African Minister of Science and Technology (via twitter)

Tata Madiba, we walk in your footsteps, we are guided by your principles, and we live by your humanity. You are with us today, and your contribution as an alumnus of our university, as a fellow South African, as a comrade, and as the father of our young nation, is etched in history, and will live on forever,” – Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand.

“Our thoughts are with the UCT Chancellor, Graça Machel, and the Mandela family as they navigate this intensely personal period of mourning. We have extended our deepest condolences to them and assured them that future generations of staff and students will continue to look towards Madiba’s achievements for inspiration.” – Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. 

“Nelson Mandela’s vision, determination and leadership were central to driving children’s health to the top of the international agenda. In the first years of our existence, he helped GAVI to increase access to vaccines for hundreds of millions of children in the world’s poorest countries,” Dagfinn Høybråten, Chair of the GAVI Alliance Board.

“You have made Africa proud through your patriotism and selflessness. You are the only African leader who willingly left the presidency after serving only one term. We will all miss you. Rest in peace,” ­­– Laila Abubakar, Department of Biochemistry, University of Nairobi.

How has Nelson Mandela touched your life? Share your experiences below.