The Southern African Bursary began as an idea from the JCR (the undergraduate representative body) for a student-funded bursary intended to enable more students from Southern Africa to study at Cambridge. It has continued since the early 1970s, with around 80% of current students, as well as Fellows, opting to contribute £6 a term towards what is now the Southern African Studentship.

The first recipient of the Southern Africa Bursary was Njabulo Ndebele, now Professor Ndebele, Chairman of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, and of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. He went on from Churchill College to become a leader in South African higher education, holding Vice-Chancellorships and chairing government commissions, as well as being an award-winning author.

He is an honorary Fellow of Churchill College, and delivered the Roskill Lecture at the Churchill Archives Centre in 2022, on the topic of re-imagining the global community.

Here he provides some updates on what he is doing now, and the impact the Southern African Bursary had on his life and career.

What are you doing now?

Since graduating from Cambridge in 1975 in English Literature, I have taught and researched in English Literature, African Literatures, and Creative Writing. Over the years I have published fiction and non-fiction, as well as worked in senior university leadership positions in Lesotho and several universities in South Africa. Now in retirement, I serve as Chairman of two of Nelson Mandela’s three legacy organisations: the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Mandela Rhodes Foundation. I am also a Trustee in the Allan and Gill Gray Philanthropies Africa.

What achievement are you most proud of?

Having straddled several areas of interest, I would say that writing and publishing fiction and essays on a range of public issues in South Africa have brought me the deepest satisfaction. Winning the Noma Award for the best book published in Africa in 1984 has been a most heartening achievement; so is the honour to have served as Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town.

On reflection, what impact do you think receiving support from the Southern African Bursary at Churchill College had on you personally and/or on your career?

The Southern African Bursary at Churchill College opened several life-changing doors for me. It enabled me at the time, to escape from the severe, daily restrictions apartheid South Africa imposed on the thinking, feeling, imagining, and movement of black South Africans. According to South African law black people lived for the sole purpose of working for white people.

Away from such a dispiriting environment, I got to experience, far more than I could imagine at the time, a lot more freedom in the United Kingdom, particularly in the welcoming atmosphere at Churchill College. I lived with my wife and son at the Wolfson Flats where married graduate students from around the world interacted in a rich international environment far away from racist dogma and parochialism of white-ruled South Africa.

Cambridge also gave me a solid foundation for doctoral studies, setting me on the way to a firm academic career.

Were you aware during your time here, that students and Fellows were donating to the Southern African Bursary?

Yes, I was, and that awareness was most humbling. I admired and respected how the bursary was a concrete manifestation of the collective commitment of the College’s students and Fellows to what I experienced as humane internationalism. On the day of my arrival at the beginning of the Michaelmas term in 1973 I was welcomed to the College on behalf of the Bursary by student Kari Blackburn (later Boto). She became a family friend and went on to be an accomplished BBC World Service journalist.  We cherish her memory.

What is your favourite memory from your time studying at Churchill?

I have many wonderful memories! But because the weekly tutorial was part of the historical fabric of the University and its colleges, I retain fond memories of the many tutorials I attended. The pressure on me to keep up with my readings and to make the necessary preparation for the rigorous demands of the tutorial were always amply rewarded by the quality of discursive interaction between me (or the small group of students I was a part of) and the presiding tutor, at Churchill College as well as at other Colleges to which I was attracted by tutors specialising in areas of literature I was interested in.

Do you think the Southern African Bursary is an important tradition to continue at Churchill College and if so, why?

As the world and institutional circumstances change, so may people and organisations might feel compelled to ask why they should continue with certain traditions. But because traditions do matter, particularly if their desired efficacies are consistently achieved, their continuation may be justified by their manifest successes and the resilience of circumstances that led to the origins of the very traditions.

As far as Southern Africa was concerned, I would like to believe that Churchill College students and Fellows were motivated to establish the Bursary in solidarity with oppressed people in that region of the world. Particularly in that region, the combination of colonialism and racism was a toxic mix that resulted in an abhorrent economic, political, and social system of apartheid which the world community through the United Nations, declared a crime against humanity.

While the historical circumstances that led to such a declaration may have significantly changed for the better, their structural roots remain hard to uproot in significant ways. South Africa still exerts a dominant impact on the entire Southern African region and continues to be most unequal society in the world.

I believe that, against such a context, Churchill College’s Southern African Bursary remains a tradition worth preserving. A tradition such as this would further sustain the College’s ever deepening relationship with a region of the world where the connection between Europe and Africa has arguably been the most intense.

Beyond that, the mixed resonances of the name of the historical figure the College commemorates signal the necessity for the College’s continuous engagement, in practical and proven ways, with an emerging multipolar world order in which global ethics and morality need to hold sway over international relations.

I have appreciated the opportunity to reflect on the impact on me of the Southern African Bursary at Churchill College fifty years after being its first recipient in 1973.

Professor Njabulo S Ndebele
Cape Town,
South Africa