The Mandela University Food Systems programme: An introduction

By Amy De Raedt, Oyama Mkaza and Bruce Damons


Upscaling and coordinating our interventions on 'food' as a key priority for Nelson Mandela University's engagement work emerged through various discussions over 2020. The production, distribution, availability and politics of food is a key marker of systemically-anchored inequalities. It thus came as no surprise that 'food' (re)emerged as a major thematic through Covid-19, central to people's daily struggle for dignified and sustainable livelihoods.


After multiple engagements with internal and external stakeholder communities within existing food and food systems projects, it became clear that there was potential to evolve a productive and collaborative transdisciplinary programme across knowledge fields and functional areas of the University. Thus, the Mandela University Food Systems programme was established in early 2021 with over 50 Working Group members across the University space.


The programme's purpose is to understand, clarify, and map the various existing food systems projects and programmes active in the University, and to explore the potential of connecting – or the convergence of – these projects and programmes to be responsive to the challenges related to food and food systems, through a number of internal and external signature projects. In other words, the purpose of the programme is to complement, strengthen, coordinate, and streamline the work already being done for a better, more sustainable social impact in society.

This purpose is closely aligned with the University's Vision 2030's core outcome to co-create a 'sustainable, socially just world'


Subsequently, the programme's work is deeply informed by Vision 2030's strategic focus areas - learning and teaching, research, innovation and internationalisation; and transformative engagement. Alongside Vision 2030, the Mandela University Food Systems programme has also been organised around the principle of a hub of convergence - different to the Hubs of Convergence (HoC) initiative -, articulated across the four portfolios of the University.

The hubs of convergence principles are considered philosophical and ideological demonstrable spaces of exploration and experimentation that foster harmonisation between existing and emerging praxes. These hubs consciously agitate for convergence, which is the conscious effort of drawing together internal and external stakeholders to unlock the knowledge and praxis that enable us to better engage on grander issues that affect our society.

The drawing together of these stakeholder communities recognises the voice and agency of all those involved in the engagement, which forms a vital element of a Humanising Pedagogy. Through these humanising praxes, we strive for reciprocity in a way that sincerely seeks the exchanging of co-created knowledge and resources through the principles of generosity, solidarity, co-creation, responsiveness, and inclusion for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders.

This collective generosity has the purpose of generating multiple forms of outputs, mindful that socially engaged scholarship is best derived from an authentic process of learning with others in practice; that it embraces the uncertainty embedded in 'not knowing'; and is supportive of multiple forms of knowledge output to drive social inclusion and cohesion.


As its first year of operation, 2021 saw the programme form a vibrant Working Group of members involved in food and food systems across the University space and worked to connect existing projects and programmes through a number of ways. This included: creating an initial mapping of all existing projects and programmes, launching a conversation series to advocate the work of existing projects, and publishing newsletters to share the projects' stories and facilitate further connection, collaboration, and celebration across the University space and beyond. 


Building on the work that emerged in 2021, the Mandela University Food Systems programme is set to move into phase three of its implementation plan known as 'project work' in 2022 and is looking forward to more exciting collaborations and engagements with its stakeholders. One of the programme's key focus areas this year will be student engagement as it seeks to promote transdisciplinary work across various faculties and departments.

Furthermore, the programme will also be prioritising engagement with external stakeholder communities as it works to co-construct sustainable solutions to our current food system - solutions based on the principles of generosity, solidarity, co-creation, responsiveness, and inclusion for the mutual benefit of all stakeholders.


About the authors:

Amy De Raedt is a Research Assistant in the Chair for Critical Studies in Higher Education Transformation (CriSHET) and forms part of the secretariat for the Mandela University Food Systems programme. 


Oyama Mkaza is the Leader of Thematic Hubs in the Hubs of Convergence (HoC) and forms part of the secretariat for the Mandela University Food Systems programme. 


Bruce Damons is the Director of Engagement in the Engagement and Transformation Portfolio and forms part of the secretariat for the Mandela University Food Systems programme.