“This appointment as manager of the Ubuntu Dialogues project is an opportunity to think creatively about ways in which institutional spaces like museums and universities could be used to facilitate and mediate conversations about the meaning of Ubuntu. I am also optimistic about its implications for transforming ways in which we live together in a diverse world but with more understanding of our place in relation to one another."
This is the vision of the newly-appointed Programme Manager of the Ubuntu Dialogues project at the Stellenbosch University Museum, Dr Marietjie Oelofsen, who took up her new position at the beginning of January 2021.
In 2019, Stellenbosch University (SU) made history with Michigan State University (MSU) when the two institutions signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in which they agreed to foster international cooperation in education, research and community engagement at both universities.
The agreement stemmed from a request by the two universities for Mellon Foundation support to deepen an existing initiative, the Ubuntu Dialogues project, over a three-year period; to develop replicable frameworks for university museums in Africa and elsewhere; and to collaborate in producing dynamic sites for the co-creation and dissemination of knowledge and practice through local and international dialogues.
Oelofsen was appointed to help build on the existing work that has been done by her colleagues and achieve the vision of both SU and MSU, as set out in the MoU.
“For me, it is a priority to understand how the project has evolved, what are the lessons we could build on, and how we could work together to generate creative and productive project spaces – physical, virtual, and digitally – that respond constructively and critically to the values that are intrinsic to the idea of Ubuntu. In my role as manager, I want to think with others how the Ubuntu Dialogue programme could be a transformative response to some of the most pertinent questions that are currently arising from histories of colonisation and institutionalised, systematic inequality," says Oelofsen.
The heart of the Ubuntu project is to create opportunities for an exchange of ideas between students, academics and practitioners from SU and MSU around the concept and meaning of Ubuntu. Due to the ongoing pandemic, the project will have to adapt to a 'new normal', says Oelofsen, as many of the dialogues and seminars will not be able take on their usual format.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has collapsed our spatial concept. Now we have an opportunity to reimagine who else may be involved in the programme, on what other platforms the conversations might happen and how these engagements might continue into the future. I think if we allow ourselves to think through all the possibilities of the 'new normal', we could generate some interesting connections across disciplines and across the academic and practitioner boundaries. I see my role primarily as a facilitator of creative and productive spaces for genuinely interesting, diverse and thoughtful conversations that make new connections between people and institutions across different platforms," says Oelofsen.
Oelofsen is a SU alumna and completed an MPhil in Journalism, cum laude in 2010. She holds a PhD in Journalism and Media Studies from Rhodes University. Before taking up the position at the Museum, she was a post-doctoral fellow at SU's Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation unit. Her responsibilities included being the lead curator of the digital platform, Through the Eyes of Survivors of Apartheid: Life despite Pain and Suffering. She also co-edited and managed the publication of the book, These Are the Things that Sit with Us, based on research about the inter-generational effects of apartheid on people living in three communities in the Western Cape.