A year-long celebratory programme packed with diverse activities, including reunions, high-level societal debates, unveilings, exhibitions and cultural activities, kicks off later this month with a seminal education summit to further strengthen quality education as Makhanda’s unique selling point.

Convened under the auspices of the Vice-Chancellor’s Education Initiative championed by Professor Sizwe Mabizela, the multi-stakeholder summit is the first of its kind in the country. “Never before has there been an event convened by a Vice-Chancellor with the kind of a city-centric vision such as the one at the heart of this summit’s agenda,” Co-organiser and Programme Manager of the Makhanda Circle of Unity, Mr Sisesakhe Ntlabezo says.

Rhodes University’s 120th-anniversary project in 2024, or RU120 as it has come to be known, was launched by Prof Mabizela early in 2023.

The project is designed to advance a vision to deepen the unity of purpose among the University’s diverse and multi-generational alumni, connect glorious and continuing scholarly exploits from Sir George Cory to the present Distinguished Professor Tebello Nyokong and Professor Justin Jonas era, and reimagine Rhodes University anew, reifying its institutional purpose in a fast-changing global economy,” RU120 Project Manager, Dr Luzuko Jacobs says.

For a project with such a purpose, co-creation is critical to cultivate buy-in and glean input. To achieve this, a five-stage project plan was developed and implemented starting with consultations involving students, the academic leadership, workers, and the broader University community. External engagements included virtual and physical consultations with multi-generational alumni and funder groups across South Africa and the globe.

“The 2024 anniversary year presents opportunities for all University stakeholders to unite behind a singular resolve to pursue growth and sustainability, reinvigorate our mutual connections for deeper collaboration and draw from our collective energies to reimagine a new future for our institution and its purposes,” says Prof Mabizela.

Behind RU120 are driven, diverse and dynamic self-directing teams formed to ensure that the project’s goals are met, and objectives are implemented effectively and organically.

According to Professor Peter Clayton, the former Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research & Innovation and the Project Sponsor for RU120, “It is important to be excited about many aspects of the project such as the prospect of having Abdullah Ibrahim headlining our cultural programme.”

The RU120 events calendar includes academic and research showcases such as the initiation of the Internet in South Africa in 1991, a game-changing project in which Professor Clayton was involved, community engagement accomplishments that saw the University win the global MacJannet Citizen Prize and launch the Community Engagement journal – another first for Africa – and the teaching and learning statistical data that sets Rhodes University apart as the cauldron of scholarly excellence.

“Despite the extensive celebratory components of RU120, it would be remiss not to shine a spotlight on and confront some of the substantive challenges within the national educational landscape as an integral part of RU120,” Prof Clayton says.

Key challenges include financial sustainability, the socio-economic state of South Africa today, the Province of the Eastern Cape and Makhanda in particular, and funding for higher education.

The ever-spiralling historical student debt currently hovering above R17 billion, inequality, corruption, and poor education outcomes feature among these.

Highlights on the RU120 programme include:

· Vice-Chancellors from different Eastern Cape universities in dialogue addressing pressing social, economic, political, and ethical concerns.

· High-level current affairs reflections and debates, starting with Doha Debates between Rhodes University students.

· A Journalism Summit to explore journalism’s role in today’s world as the cornerstone of democracy and human advancement. High-level political, community and business leaders are scheduled to contribute to meaningful discussions about the future of South Africa.

In the year’s second quarter, Emeritus History Professor, accomplished author and the University’s longest-serving Orator, Paul Maylam, explores Rhodes University’s intellectual history.

After that, bringing the present and future into sharper focus, the grand opening of the R90 million Institute for Nanotechnology Innovation building will take place – which will house the groundbreaking research being done by Professor Nyokong and her dedicated students.

The RU120 spirit of unification will most likely shine brightest at the heart of the various social and entertainment events planned throughout the year. From sports festivals to parades and art exhibitions, celebrants will not be short on cultural options to explore. An orchestral ensemble comprising the Nelson Mandela University Orchestra, the Rhodes University Orchestra, and the Makhanda Community Orchestra will forge a memorable auditory backdrop for the year.

Towards the end of the year, a legendary reunion is planned, bringing together some of the oldest alumni who fondly refer to themselves as ‘Knocking on Heaven’s Door’. These individuals, who vividly recall their early 1970s protests advocating for the inclusion of Black students at Rhodes University, have aptly named their bittersweet gathering ‘The Final Countdown’.

RU120 is more than just a celebration – it is a strategic and inclusive initiative that aims to address contemporary challenges like student debt and educational reform strategically, Prof Mabizela says.

“This multifaceted approach, predicated on diversity and collaboration between stakeholders, symbolises a significant step in honouring the past, engaging with the present, and envisioning continued positive future impact on the community and the broader educational landscape, he says.