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N. Barney Pityana

      . . . Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of South Africa (UNISA) (250,000 students) and professor of Constitutional, International and Indigenous Law. Dr. Pityana is the former South African Human Rights Commission Chairperson, an attorney of the High Court of South Africa, an ordained priest and deacon of Church of England, with a PhD in religious studies. He was a member of the first Board of Directors of the Global Reporting Initative (GRI), directed the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism, was President of South African Students’ Organisation (SASO) before being jailed and exiled. His publications are many, his honors and awards from all over the world.

Excerpts3:40 secs

An oppressive environment offers vital lessons, according to life-long political and human rights activist N. Barney Pityana. He is now Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the enormous University of South Africa (UNISA). What lessons did years living under apartheid teach Dr. Pityana? Never be paralyzed, he says. And never lose your humanity, because part of being human is to resist. Another lesson -- remove obstacles in order to find yourself, he says, because otherwise we would never be human, no matter what the environment.

The act of challenging apartheid and the doctrine inherent in that challenge were themselves liberating, he recalls, part of searching for humanity. He believes that had he and all the others who struggled for their freedom and dignity not challenged the system, they would have been forever unfree, while forfeiting the exhilaration -- which very often came at great cost -- of challenging that system.

In his own student days, Dr. Pityana followed his friend Steve Biko as President of SASO (the South African Student Organization). Dr. Pityana was also imprisoned, then lived in exile for decades. Returning home in 1993, his many leadership positions included being Chair of the South African Human Rights Commission and a member of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)’s first Board of Directors.

Liberation is still Dr. Pityana’s focus as he leads UNISA, one of the world’s great mega-universities. Education, he says, is key because education itself is liberating, opening as it does possibilities for someone to begin to use and understand and discover things for oneself. This idea of creating opportunities and enabling people is, in fact, so vital to the new South Africa, he says, it is in the preamble to the South African Constitution.

UNISA, he believes, is an excellent example of what an education should be about because it is responsive and centered on the needs of students and learners.  It understands that -- generally for no reason of their own -- many people have found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. Yet opening up knowledge and the possibility of knowledge must be available to everyone, he is convinced. That is precisely what open distance education does -- giving opportunities to people whom traditional society had, for a variety of reasons, thrown out -- and has been doing since 1946.

Today in South Africa a large number of people, particularly the previously oppressed, have what Dr. Pityana sees as an amazing recognition that things are not the same, even if the sense of equality and availability of resources has not become visible to the same extent to everyone. And South Africa is poor, in large measure, he says, because promised capital and investment was not forthcoming. Yes, these are challenging times. But after 300 years of oppression, grounded in ancient African culture and values centered on people and their well-being, learning from struggle is something about which South Africans know a great deal.

[This Program was recorded January 25, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Dr. Barney Pityana tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how the metaphor of doors opening and closing guided his life and South Africa’s freedom struggle. Never be paralyzed by an oppressive environment, he counsels, certain that the act of challenging apartheid was itself liberating.

Conversation 1 RealAudio6:25 secs

Conversation 2

Apartheid itself was not what the South African freedom struggle was about, Dr. Pityana says, recalling 300 years of oppressive and exploitative white minority rule. Instead, the liberation struggle articulated and the Freedom Charter focuses on 1.) reforming, constructing and establishing a new South Africa for all the people of South Africa and 2.) restoring the humanity and the dignity of the people of South Africa. He expands, then puts South Africa’s struggle for liberation, decolonization and the end of imperialism in a global context, over time.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:26 secs

Conversation 3

Dr. Pityana describes how the new South Africa is beginning to make inroads to the gigantic problems created by 300 years of neglect and suppression.  Acknowledging the enormity of challenges to be faced -- starting with poverty -- he gives a host of concrete examples of what has changed for the good since 1994. The developed world has failed to deliver on promises of capital and investments, he reports, and describes the consequences. It is imperative that the South African government change the life circumstances of it’s people, he believes, then offers examples of how the remarkable South African Constitution entrenches economic and social rights.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:59 secs

Conversation 4

South Africa and America have strong parallels, Dr. Pityana says, and expands.  Values are key, he believes, and recalls how maintaining the high moral ground was core in South Africans’ freedom struggle and remains so. Traditional African culture and values have enabled South Africans to make the sacrifices necessary for the kind of society they wish to construct, he says, then shows how these values are embedded in the Constitution and the Constitutional Court. Turning to economics, he insists the Washington Consensus is dead, then describes the New Program for Africa’s Development and a growing African Consensus about how it will engage the globalized world.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:49 secs

Conversation 5

Reminding us that the legacy of the South African freedom struggle is overcoming difficulties, Dr. Pityana describes the job of the University of South Africa (UNISA): to provide people of vision and leaders for social transformation and moral integrity who will provide the intellectual power of which Africa is capable and reverse the brain drain.  He describes how the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is challenging received wisdom, and the impact of the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) on corporations. He tells a story from his time as a “terrorist” in apartheid South Africa and offers a prescription for a terrorism-free world.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:47 secs

Conversation 6

Education is key to being free because education is itself liberating, Dr. Pityana asserts, certain that the possibilities of knowledge must be open and available to everyone. He describes UNISA’s unique role in and heritage of achieving that goal.

Conversation 1 RealAudio3:42 secs


South Africa is a beacon of hope in a world struggling to be free from oppression and exploitation. We are inspired by and humbled in the presence of individuals who spent -- and often gave -- their lives in this never-ending pursuit. We honor the people whose names we know, particularly Dr. Pityana. We also hold up in appreciation those who simply did what was necessary to overcome oppression when no one was there to tell their stories or put faces to their names. Thank you. All.

This program was the direct result of Dr. Robert M. Franklin’s efforts. We are, as always, appreciative of his support, interest, camaraderie and exhilarating enthusiasms.

Related Links:
You can learn more about the University of South Africa (UNISA) at their website, more about Dr. Pityana’s role at UNISA at the Principle’s website and about Dr. Pityana himself at UNISA’s “Introduction to the V-C”.

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