As we celebrate the 2021 Woman’s Day, we are also confronted with the one-year anniversary of the day the institution was dealt an unforgettable blow when we lost Professor Lungile Pepeta, Executive Dean of Faculty of Health Sciences. We take a pause to remember this son of the soil who gave so much to take the faculty forward and establish a Medical School. Before and since Prof Pepeta’s passing (7 August 2020), we have all been touched by COVD-19 related deaths in some way or another. It will leave an indelible imprint; as it should, for the human condition has many layers. So does the human experience. As much as we would like our experiences to remain mostly positive, the negative or painful are also inevitable.

We face what appears to be ever mounting challenges, like the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, gender-based violence, the recent uprisings driven by multiple factors, a flailing economy, to name a few. Yet even in the midst of these experiences, lies hope and the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Was it not during these tough times that we saw the people of our country coming out to volunteer and support each other without asking for anything in return? All of these generous acts served to remind us that not all is lost; that despite the negative turn our fortunes have taken, we can still triumph over most adversity. Likewise therefore, when we go through tough times we should remember how we survived through it all, learn from it and use it to build resilience for the next time we are faced with life challenges.

As we remember Prof Pepeta, we should honour his sense of service and dedication, his love for academic excellence and scholarship by committing ourselves once more to the wider agenda of advancement of all students who are part of our collective journey on the way to self-fulfilment. How do we ensure that no one gets left behind? We need to be responsive to student and staff needs, we need to be flexible and adaptable to the changing demands brought on not only by this pandemic, but also by other concurrent events that have placed us all under pressure. Through it all we need to ensure access to good opportunities to advance in a way that respects fairness and equality while championing our transformation agenda as a leading institution of higher learning. This should be reflected in our willingness to be central to the health needs of our community. Our fully functional vaccination site is a good example of this. We have many more that indicate our commitment to serve, which our former Executive Dean exemplified so well.

One of Prof Pepeta’s signature traits was his boundless energy. We can take inspiration in that by reigniting enthusiasm in what we do wherever we are placed within the institution. We can join hands and focus our unified energy to drive innovative ideas and strategies that target the many challenges that remain with us under this pandemic. The growing threat to the nations’ mental health and well-being because of the chronic stress we have all been placed under by resurgences of infections, the challenge to meet the vaccination needs of our local communities effectively, the possibility of additional waves should things not go our way, all demand that we remain prepared to act and protect our ability to teach, to learn and to continue with our academic year, despite the continued interruptions. In our collective drive to meet these goals we need to still balance our other needs, like the need for support and social connection, the need for upward mobility and self-improvement and the need to ultimately self-actualize. That means doing our best to advance the academic and research aspirations of students and staff while keeping an eye on COVID-19 regulations so that safety is central to all that we do. Keeping that balance is tricky at times but so far we have managed to do it, working together in the face of adversity.

As hard as things may be, the ability to bounce back and find different, sustainable ways of teaching, of learning and supporting each other, maintaining social connection,  getting up again even when we fall, has been our saving grace. That is what will continue to sustain us. It is not the superhuman strengths and impossible supernatural feats that define our resilience but rather the agility to survive the difficulties that come with everyday life in these extraordinary times.

By finding inspiration in the positive attributes that inspired us in Prof Pepeta, we can connect with the hero in all of us. That way his memory becomes more than the knowledge that we lost him to COVID-19. He lives on in all of us. In every little action or idea that we generate and implement as Mandela University, if it contributes to community advancement, that honours his legacy of selfless service and commitment in ways he would appreciate were he still among us. Ours is to do what we can in our corners to emulate those traits.  This is the stuff that heroes are made of.

Professor Zingela Zukiswa

Executive Dean: Faculty of Health Sciences