“The Nelson Mandela University” with Amb. Nozipho January-Bardill in South Africa


The Nelson Mandela University in South Africa is the only university worldwide that has Mandela’s name. Chair of Council, Amb. Nozipho January-Bardill shares its unique positioning and its’ 2030 vision and unpacks Mandela, the myth, the man, and the concept. She is also one of the first high-profile board members of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. In this conversation with Anne Pratt, she shares her journey to leadership, her mission to make a sizeable impact on the world, and the treasures she learned from one of the world’s greatest leaders, including ‘vulnerability,’ a new leadership superpower. 

Listen to the podcast here


“The Nelson Mandela University” with Amb. Nozipho January-Bardill in South Africa

A University in Service of Society

Our thoughtful, bold leader joins us from Johannesburg, South Africa. Her illustrious career spans across countries, continents, and sectors. She is the Chairperson of the Council of the Nelson Mandela University in South Africa, the only university worldwide to bear Mandela’s name. She is also an independent Non-Executive Director for Mercedes-Benz South Africa, the MTN Foundation, and two nonprofits, one helping the victims of gender-based violence and the other helping under-educated primary school students.

In her former life, she was South Africa’s ambassador to Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and the Holy See (the Vatican.) She was also the former group Corporate Affairs Executive for Africa’s most prominent and listed mobile telecommunications company, MTN. She served in various positions at the United Nations, including Interim Chief of Staff and Special Advisor for UN Women in New York and South Africa.

She is a former teacher, author, and CEO whistleblower and one of the first high-profile board members of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Stay tuned as she shares more with us about her personal challenge and unlearning the lies of apartheid, the unique positioning, and the 2030 vision of the Nelson Mandela University, a university serving society, and Mandela, the man, the myth, and the concept, this global Icon, unafraid to show his vulnerability with dignity. We warmly welcome a dear compatriot and friend, Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill.


Leading Boldly into the Future | Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill | Nelson Mandela University


A Life Of Leadership

Nozipho, it’s so wonderful to connect with you again. I’m delighted you’re part of this global Mandela leadership movement for change and sharing your powerful voice and unique wisdom in this conversation.

Thank you for inviting me. I also appreciate it.

I would love to begin. You’ve had a number of different careers. You’ve also been an ambassador for South Africa, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, and also to the Holy See. You’ve served in various positions at the United Nations. How do you think your career to date has prepared you for this moment in your life and in the various leadership positions that you hold?

My career has been quite varied. The interesting thing is that it was not even planned. It’s not like I plotted it and said, “This is where I’m going to start, and that’s where I’m going to end.” Somehow, the universe has navigated it in a very interesting way, but also in a way that has brought out who I am because I started being a school teacher.

I left South Africa when I was eighteen. I told my parents that I would like to go to a university outside of South Africa when I finished in Kimberley, where I was born in the Northern Cape. At the time, the closest university to where we were, outside of South Africa, was the University of Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland (UBLS), which is based in Lesotho.

The 1950s were also a time of difficulty. I was born in the 1950s. I considered university in 1967 and 1968. When I was eighteen, my parents moved to Swaziland because apartheid had also forced them to leave. My dad was quite active in the ANC, the African National Congress. (Editor’s note: The African National Congress is a political party in South Africa. It originated as a liberation movement and led the anti-apartheid struggle. A black nationalist organization, outlawed in South Africa in 1961 for its’ opposition to the government’s racial segregation. It has governed the country since 1994, when Nelson Mandela was elected the first democratically elected President of South Africa.) My dad was a strong, independent man who wouldn’t let apartheid stop him from being the person he wanted to be. When things were getting dangerous, we left to go to Swaziland.

Leaving for Swaziland and going to university coincided. I went to UBLS in Lesotho, the small little kingdom next door to us, and an old university, a catholic university. We called it Pius XII at the time. There are lots of South Africans who went there. I’m talking about the likes of Tito Mboweni, who is the governor of our reserve bank, and Professor Njabulo Ndebele, who you make reference to and who became the Chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. There were many people, (Minister) Lindiwe Sisulu and Sheila Sisulu. All the people who were very active in politics at the time.

We congregated in Lesotho, and there were only 300 or 400 students at the time. Because the curriculum was narrow, I studied English, Philosophy, and Education. We didn’t have much of a choice. My parents had both been teachers, and I quite liked the idea of learning and being an educator. I finished my degree in 1973 and went to teach English in a boys’ school in the same area. There was a boys’ school called Christ the King Boys’ School.

There were two of us women there who were teachers. For me, that was also when I learned my first lessons in being a feminist working with male-female relationships because of these young boys. I was 23, and they were about 18 and 19. I was a relatively young teacher dealing with teenage boys who were very mischievous. I learned how to maintain my authority because I was also helping to shape who they were becoming.

I taught at the school and the university. I taught English as a second language to students studying Commerce. I loved being a teacher both at the university and at the school. I also got married.

John and I got married in 1973 after I finished my degree. My three kids were born in Lesotho. When we left to go to England in 1984, my little one was 4, my middle one was 6, and my eldest was 11. We lived in Lesotho for thirteen years. Lesotho was also interesting for me as a South African because it was a desegregated environment. People from all over the world came to teach at the university. Many Swalali, Basotho, Swazis, Namibians, Zimbabweans, and Malawians.

I began to create my African networks in Lesotho. The diversity and richness of that environment struck me. Everybody there was fighting for the liberation of the (African) region. Zimbabweans were fighting for their freedom in Zimbabwe, Mozambicans were fighting for Mozambique, Angolans for Angola, and the South African region. We were quite a formidable group of students at the time.

I’m sure, and a good network of people. A good network that was liberated.

It was. Our transformation and unlearning the lies of apartheid for me. Like, I wasn’t inferior, I wasn’t less than. We were all equal human beings. We tried to make a difference in a small way. We were very active in the ANC (African National Congress) as well. We were asked to do many things while we were in Lesotho. I remember when numerous people were killed in Lesotho, shot in 1982. We organized the funerals of all the South Africans who were killed at the time.

Their very formative years. How do you think your time abroad has shaped you as a person?

Our time abroad was also quite interesting. The reason we left Lesotho is because my husband had come from England to teach there. John comes from Manchester in the United Kingdom. He taught in England. He was born in Derbyshire in the UK. He’d come to teach Politics and Public Administration at the university in Lesotho. The reason we left thirteen years later is that the university was devolving. The three former British protectorates (Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland) were now independent. They had got their independence in the 1960s, and each one of them wanted their own university.

They didn’t want to share the UBLS university where we had studied. That’s how the University of Botswana became the new University in Swaziland, and our university is now called the National University of Lesotho. All the expatriates had to leave because they were localizing. We had to leave.

John and I had the choice to either go to one of the Bantustans (Editor’s note: A Bantustan, also known as a Bantu homeland, or a black homeland, a black state or simply known as a homeland was a territory that the National Party administration of South Africa set aside for black inhabitants of South Africa and South West Africa (now Namibia), as a part of its policy of apartheid, a separation of the races.) My sisters were both in there. We decided we’d go to England and make a new life for ourselves there. I thought at the time there was nobody who was going to give me a job in England with a degree from an unknown university.

I applied for scholarships and entered Essex University in Colchester, where I completed my Master’s in Applied Linguistics. I would have preferred literature, but I applied to Linguistics to get a job teaching English as a second or foreign language. I left my family in South Africa. For the first six months, we all went to the UK and settled the kids into schools, and I studied for my Master’s degree.

There’s a one-year Master’s degree. I started in September 1983, and I finished in June 1984. I was studying and applying for jobs in England whilst I was studying. On the very last day, I landed a job at Slough College of Higher Education in West London, teaching English to foreign workers, mainly Pakistani and Polish immigrants in West London. 

You held different positions, including in the UN. How do you think that has shaped you?

I had come back to South Africa, and we had come back in 1994, just before South Africa’s first democratic elections. I started to work for an NGO called World University Service. I was the director. I had worked in Parliament. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka recruited me to come and run with the World University Service. The World University Service has given scholarships to refugee students across the globe (refugees like myself).

We moved to Cape Town. From there, I moved to Parliament. I was the head of transformation in Parliament for two years, working with the Speaker, Frene Ginwala. In 2000, the government asked me to relocate to the UN, serve on the Committee on Illumination of Virtual Discrimination, and become an Ambassador in Switzerland. I just got a letter from the Department of Foreign Affairs inviting me to go to Switzerland. I was quite shocked. I wasn’t expecting that at all.

I didn’t believe it initially, and I think because we were activists as ambassadors, we took it like ducks take to water, renewing what we needed to do. I was a bilateral ambassador. It meant I was in Bern, Switzerland. I wasn’t in Geneva. I wasn’t working in the UN system, but I was a bilateral ambassador. I also went to Geneva to serve on the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination because we used to live there three times a year.

I then saw racism in the rest of the world through that lens and challenged governments to comply with the convention. I listened to their reports and those of NGOs, who often came with shadow reports to counter the governments and what the governments claimed. We were learning to report because, whilst I was in Parliament, we had ratified all the conventions on human rights. We were beginning to report to the USA as well and say what was happening in our own country.

The Biggest Leadership Challenges

That’s a very interesting perspective, Nozipho. It begs the question. I’ve always admired your career and its diversity. It brings a unique lens in terms of the different sectors you’ve been involved in, the different countries you’ve been involved in, and the different roles you’ve played. Given that, if you think about the world now and the very big challenges facing not only South Africa but the globe, what in your mind are the biggest leadership challenges in the world now?

First of all, let me take it from the lens of my experience in Parliament. In Parliament, I worked with Dr. Frene Ginwala.

A wonderful woman. A good friend of mine.

What an honor and a joy to be with her. She was feisty, but she taught me a lot. From where I’m sitting now, the Parliament we wanted to create is not what it is now. Many parliaments across the globe also somehow have become parliaments of political parties rather than parliaments of the people. What we are seeing are parliaments, which are dominated by two-party states, often where they are not accountable. They’re not accounting to the populations which they are supposed to be serving and whose interests they’re supposed to guard.

If you take the state now and break it down into the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary, what you also see globally is an executive branch having far too much power in how they run their countries and wanting to dominate the state. They are not accounting sufficiently, in my view, to their people. I think the Nordic countries are a bit of an exception because they’re small and quite manageable in many ways. At least I understand that there’s some commitment to the people of those countries.

Throughout COVID, we also saw pockets of excellence in the executive function in government. For example, how did they respond during the pandemic in places like Australia and New Zealand? Iceland, which is also North of England, is a basket of Nordic countries. And then the judiciary. For us in South Africa, the judiciary is relatively strong. It’s probably the most stable of the three elements of government. Our courts are very busy these days. It’s the same in other countries.

Somehow, the judiciary plays a bigger role than it normally would because the executives are not strong enough. Leadership leaves much to be desired and is quite fractured in many places, as well. One doesn’t quite know if it is ideology that’s driving them. Yes is the answer often to that, and some ideology drives them. Basically, the institutions are also getting so eroded that they are not servicing the public to the extent that they should be doing.

You can see what’s happening in the UK. America is perhaps a little bit better in that regard because there’s a general sense of a more professional public service, which we don’t have here. Public servants are very much guided by political affiliations rather than service to the people, a lack of depth of leadership in that regard.

Public service very much guided by political affiliations rather than service to the people. Click To Tweet

Can you perhaps highlight 1 or 2 other big pressing issues for you that keep you concerned?

It’s poverty and unemployment. Everywhere, the cost of living is rising because of wars, which negatively impact the economies, so again, only the rich benefit. Businesses (in South Africa and some parts of the world) have made a lot of progress in moving from profit-driven to somewhat socially responsible. There has been a shift, but that shift isn’t big enough. It’s moving in the right direction, but it’s not got there yet.

The inequality is very worrying. Global inequality is growing between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots.’ That certainly gives me sleepless nights, and the reason for that is because you never feel secure. In some states, people get so mad that you are not safe. We are not safe. We’ve put all sorts of security measures in place to protect ourselves from poor people. We don’t respect poor people anymore. We make the people the problem rather than poverty the problem. That, for me, is perhaps one of the most disturbing things in this environment (in South Africa), and also what I see in other parts of the world.

It’s disturbing how we make the people the problem rather than poverty. Click To Tweet

If history is anything to teach us, empty bellies cause trouble, and many empty bellies cause a lot of trouble.

Having said that, one does not become despairing. I still have a lot of optimism in my heart. Despair is also very disempowering. What encourages me is civil society, certainly in South Africa and elsewhere, and the new Millennials and Generation Zs. I look at them, and I like the fact that they’re feisty and talk. They have a voice. They’re giving themselves a voice. They can say ‘no’ to things that are causing these issues that cause despair.

Shifting to your own childhood, those are very formative years. Is there a particular moment in your childhood that you can pinpoint that was defining? Can you take us back in time to what that moment was? How did you feel? What was your light bulb moment?

I had a fairly comfortable childhood in Kimberley. It is one of those places in the Northern Cape that is very dry and uninteresting. Kimberley is known for the ‘Big Hole.’ (Editor’s note: The Kimberley Mine or Tim Kuilmine (The Afrikaans word for ‘Big Hole’ is ‘Groot Gat.’ It is an open-pit and underground diamond mine in Kimberley, South Africa, and claimed to be the deepest hole excavated by hand, although this claim is disputed.) 


Lots of diamonds. We enjoyed living in that environment because of the township, interestingly enough, even though we were segregated and living in townships. As a kid, the township for us was the safest place to be. My sisters and I used to have music lessons. My father used to drive us to the city, where we used to play the piano. A White woman, Mrs. Lecordia, taught us. I still remember her. I love playing the piano. I still do. It was a moment as a child that I don’t forget. Thanks to my parents for having invested so much time in both my sisters and me.

The township was safe because there were only Black people living there. You were never exposed to the racism that one often experiences. It was in the township that we were affirmed for who we were. We all looked the same. We all played in the same playgrounds, on our bicycles, etc.

I have very happy moments in the township despite apartheid. When you go into the town, it reminds you. We’re living in a country where they segregated us. We know they don’t like us, but returning to the township is a moment of peace and just being. Many people still prefer to stay in the townships. Many of us have moved to the suburbs, but there are lots of people who prefer to stay in Soweto or Khayelitsha township or whatever because of this.

In that childhood moment is there a particular moment that strikes you as being very comforting and affirming in your childhood?

My parents had good friends. We had all sorts of friends in Kimberley. Lots of people were involved in the liberation struggle with my parents. We also lived in the same neighborhood. They used to tell us lots of stories. I remember the stories, sitting with the elders and my parents’ friends, and them telling us stories and teaching us values. There was one, Dr. Arthur Letele, who was our immediate neighbor. He was closest to where we live.

Uncle Arthur, as we called him, was a medical doctor. He used to play the violin, sit around the fire in the lounge, and tell us stories. We would sing songs, and we’d listen to our parents and our uncles. My parents used to have fun-filled parties. My parents partied a lot. We enjoyed our parents’ parties by peeking at them through the side doors. Those were happy moments.

Carrying Mandela’s Legacy

Fast-forward a little, coming to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. You are Chair of the Council of Nelson Mandela University, the only university in the world to bear his name. I’m curious about your role, Nozipho. I know you take on that role with great pride, purpose, and passion. What is unique about the university, given that it is the only university in the world that bears the name of the wonderful and globally loved and admired Nelson Mandela?

Two things for me. The one is that it’s based in Kabega, which is Port Elizabeth. It is based in the Province of Legends. People used to call it the Eastern Cape, the heart of where the liberation movement started. There’s some historical value based in the Eastern Cape. Having Mandela’s name has rooted the institution in that Eastern Cape environment, which, by the way, is one of the poorest provinces in the country. Lots of children are very poor and dying of hunger because they don’t have food. We decided to change the name of the university. It was the University of Port Elizabeth, then it became Vista University.

When Kadar Asmal merged them, it became the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, rooted in Port Elizabeth. (Editor’s note: Abdul Kader Asmal (8 October 1934 – 22 June 2011) was a South African politician. He was a professor of human rights at the University of the Western Cape, chairman of the council of the University of the North, and vice-president of the African Association of International Law. In May 1994, he was elected to the National Assembly of South Africa, and he joined the Cabinet as Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry. In 1999, after the general elections, he was promoted to Minister of Education.)

In 2017, we thought, “The metropolitan name makes it very parochial. Let’s take the metropolitan name out so that we can develop a university that is both continental and global.” What Mandela’s name also did for us was to say, “Here we are. We’ve named ourselves after Nelson Mandela.” Nelson Mandela was not a parochial person.

He belongs to the whole world. He was an Icon to the entire world. What we need to do is build a university that will be relevant across the globe as well. We internationalized ourselves and became part of the African continent as well. What that has led to is us trying to make friends with universities on the continent. We are part of 26 universities in South Africa. We are called a comprehensive university because we offer courses. We don’t offer just degree courses, Master’s and PhDs. We also do certificates and diplomas, and so on. 


Leading Boldly into the Future | Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill | Nelson Mandela University


We didn’t want to exclude anybody, which was also Mandela’s way of life, not to be exclusive. It was very inclusive in any of these approaches. Those are the changes that the iconic name of Mandela has driven us to strategize to become a global university known by the world and offer transformative courses in their content and how we teach. COVID helped us on the other side of COVID.

We lost some precious people who died of COVID-19, including the head of our medical school. We launched the 10th medical school in South Africa in 2021. The doctor who was building it died of COVID. We also learned how to do the online teaching and learning. Now, we are becoming real experts at that as well because, in a way, that will also make us global. That’s why we are also working on this project to link with Harvard.

It’s still a very small little seed, but we certainly hope to make it grow bigger. The name Nelson Mandela is a global. Everybody owns Mandela. We feel everybody should have access to our university. The main thing is the values because what we honor are his values and humility. It is not a humility that is disempowered, but a humility that is respectful of ours, that doesn’t discriminate, that sees people as less than or that doesn’t ‘other’ people – namely separate ‘others.’ 

A humility that is humane and also accountable. I think accountability is very important. Responsible management of the institution and the students is also how they become responsible citizens, give themselves a voice, and not put up with some of the things that are going on on the one hand but also not blaming all the time. If you think something is wrong, you fix it. You try and find a way of fixing it. Don’t blame somebody else. Go and do it. it. He was good like that. I remember when I was on the board of the (Nelson Mandela) Foundation.



The Nelson Mandela Foundation Board.

When he created it at the start, there were big (high-profile) people on that board. There was Frene Ginwala, Baleka Mbete, and George Bizos. We would have strategic planning meetings, and Mandela would come in and say, “What are you guys talking about? You know what the problems are. Take the money and give it to the people.” He was not a procrastinator.

He didn’t want to turn things into systemic issues. He hated the systemic nature of operating. For him, he wanted to get things done. What I learned from him was not to waste time. Not to procrastinate. It’s like you. That’s what you were doing. I think you epitomize somebody who goes out there and does it. You probably take the same leaf out of these lives (like Mandela).

The Myth, The Man, The Concept

I’m also struck, Nozipho. Thank you so much for sharing how the university has been going through quite an interesting process in distilling what Nelson Mandela means. What’s in the name? There’s a complexity about him. The name is complex, as is who he is. There is the myth, the person, and some of the essence of Nelson Mandela, and the person is known (publicly).

Some of it is far more complex in terms of being understood. I know you and your university council have done much work trying to distill and understand that. Can you share with our audience what has been uncovered in terms of trying to understand Mandela the man versus Mandela the myth?

In a sense, the myth still sits with the fact that he was in jail for 27 years. Nobody knew except for the people who went to visit him in prison. The little bit that was allowed to be written about him because the state was sitting on everything, reading all his letters and all of that. I think that Mandela, the myth, is this person who we all knew was in prison but who didn’t experience the real world in the way everybody did. He was almost in a bubble in prison, and he didn’t fully understand (the external context). That’s how and why there was a school of thought that says, “What did he know about running a country after having been in prison for 27 years?”

We didn’t put him there because he happened to be the face of the African National Congress. Everybody knew intellectually who he was but didn’t know much about him. How could he run the country? The only thing that he could have done was reconcile a nation because we were on the verge of a civil war. 

What’s so special about that? There’s that complexity around it. At university, students debate about these things. Academics debate about it. At least, you can say it because you’re in an academically free environment. The other thing is he’s there for one term only because he was becoming fragile. What’s the big deal about that? Why are you all making it such a big deal that he decided to leave? He wanted to go. He wanted to retire and be with his family.

Don’t mythologize the fact that he was only there for one term. It’s not a big deal. At the same time, he was so certain about not having too much power. He was very sensitive to the power of political power if I can put it like that. He understood its potential and how it could either build or destroy when the politicians corrupt, as we often see.

Madiba understood this wisdom. His wisdom also led him to think, “Let me move on. I’m modeling now for people that it’s okay to serve for one term and move on. Let somebody else come in,” and then Mbeki did. Mbeki did a good job as well. Mandela’s personal life is in this book that Jonny Steinberg has written. (Editor’s note: The book ‘Winnie and Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage’ is a beautiful and poignant portrait of a marriage of opposites. Two larger-than-life characters and how the ANC leader rescued his troubled country from civil war.)

His relationship with Winnie Mandela.

It also shows parts of him that are very well written, I must confess, of just him being the man. Madiba’s just the man. He courted her, and so on. Many people relate to that because this is where his humanity comes out. There’s some sensitive stuff in there that is also very interesting to read.

What did you gain from the Winnie-Nelson story? I’m curious to know what you gleaned about him.

He was just a man. Madiba was like many men. He had grown up in traditional and hierarchical families. He was also royal. He understood social capital. He understood that ‘I (Mandela) needed to mix with this person and not that person.’ He chose Winnie. It was not just for her beauty but also for her social status and family. He arranged his own marriage that way after his first marriage because he could see her power.

He zoomed into it. The two of them had played these power games, which were quite fascinating to read about. It is also what makes them human because people do that. People invest a lot in social capital, and these things play out all the time. For him, it was like as long as it doesn’t harm anybody. He was always sensitive about not harming people.

He loved Winnie.

He did. He was passionate. He did love her with all his heart and was deeply disappointed with what happened when he came out of prison. He then went and married Graça, another powerful woman. It’s fascinating to read these stories. During the holidays, I like to read Long Walk To Freedom again. It’s quite a long time since I’ve read that book.

The university uses this notion of Mandela in italics. This is now Mandela the person, but Mandela the notion, the idea, and the concept of Mandela, and how do we knit him into our institutions, our lives, our education, and everything that touches us? I always say that the one thing I also learned is that the state has a lot of power over us. When we are born, we are given birth certificates by the state. When we die, the state gives us a death certificate, and it impacts us throughout our lives.

From the time you go to school, in nursery school and primary school, the state decides what you’re going to learn in the curriculum, where you’re going to live, what health services you’re going to get, and what transport services you’re going to get. The state decides everything that you live through. Mandela was aware of that. That’s why, for him, politics was about a small ‘p,’ not party politics.

He understood the power of politics. When he said, “I will fight White racism and Black racism,” he meant that. “I will fight the White abuse of power. I will also fight the Black abuse of power.” For him, politics was what I call the political process with a small ‘p.’ It is not party politics, which sometimes gets hard. That’s where he was going. How do we then take that and feed it into our curriculum is what our challenge is?

Given that the university also highlights the fact that Mandela is a symbol of humanity and given his own purpose and his own vision, not only for South Africa but for the world, centered around serving society and having a sense of social justice, How has that part of Mandela and his vision for the country and the world shaped the mandate of the university? What is the vision and mission of the university, given that?

A University In Service Of Humanity

We say the main thing for us will be a university in service of society. What’s the university for? It’s a university that will serve society. What does that mean? It means we take full cognizance of our environment, especially in Port Elizabeth, where we are situated, and we can with what’s happening in that province. We respond to and are very responsive to it, which is why we built the medical school.

We built it not in the city. We built it right in the middle of a township and chose to do public health rather than clinical health, so all our students go there. We only opened a few years ago. The first year, we had only 50 students. We were allowed to have 80 students. In 2024, we have 100 students. The powers that be will come to examine the medical associations and ministries of health and higher education to see how we’re doing then we will be allowed to open the floodgates for more students to come.

Already, our students are going into the townships, making sure immunizations taking place. As human beings, they serve as people, not just as doctors. They’re not just doctors, but they’re also responsive in a humane way. They volunteer and make the place accessible. During COVID, we do all sorts of things to ensure people are safe. What is it? The masks and the main ventilators in the Department of Science. We did everything and shared this around the community. We’ve started a ‘period poverty’ project for menstruating girls. A project for girls to ensure all girls have access to sanitary pads. We get the schools involved. We invite the schools to all the seminars that we have at the university.

You’re talking about high schools in the area.

Yes, and sometimes private primary schools as well. They feel the university is part of the community. It’s impacted the community. Some of our students go out and help matriculants with their studies at the end of the year before they write their final exams. They will have math or English lessons for them. All the students are beginning to volunteer their services while doing their own work. They are developing responsible human beings with values that are so relative to Madiba’s.

Building on that, Nozipho, in terms of defining what you teach, how you teach it, and what research you do, you’ve shared with us some of how you’re teaching and how you’re getting these students to engage and apply their learning in the community. Can you share a little more about how that impacts what you teach, the curriculum, and the research that the university does?

An Inter-Disciplinary Approach

The are three things that we’ve done. I’ll start with the Ocean Sciences Center. We are at the sea. We are in a coastal city. We’re portless with this. Ocean Sciences offers an ocean sciences facility, which we’ve built. There, we are offering multi-disciplinary research. When we look at the ocean, there’s a legal side to it; we do the Law of the Sea, and literally, conventions that relate to the sea will be included in the curriculum for the students who are researching the ocean. Also, for our law students who are in the mainstream law and legal department.

We are also doing and using an anthropological lens. We’re researching the anthropology of how early men and particularly the sound communities, lived off the sea during their time so that we can create a body of knowledge on the use value of the sea and our natural asset and how it served the sound communities and how it can continue to serve us now.

We’re looking at climate change issues, and that’s our research as well. All these get fed into the mainstream curriculum used in different disciplines. We’ve taken that one thing and zoomed into it regarding business. We have companies that sell fish in South Africa. We’re also looking at the sea from a business perspective in the business school.

We invite the private sector to lecture on that part of the business school. We’ve also built a new law school. The law school again looks at all sorts of laws across the board, from musicians because we have a music school. We had an art school, and often, the artists were very happy to make their music but did not understand the business or the laws that govern their creative activities. The one word is an interdisciplinary approach.

I’ve heard that in the theme. It’s taking an issue, whether it be the oceans or climate, and creating an interdisciplinary aspect to it so that it’s not a specialized area. People come up with a very strong understanding of the oceans and the environment and what impacts that from a legal point of view or from a business point of view. This is very different from how many universities are structured in other parts of the country, the continent, and the world.

Everybody can come because we also have a little planetarium there. We’ve built a new science dome next to the ocean sciences building. We’re doing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) subjects for the community and the university. They are modernized science.

Engineering and Maths. That’s a different approach. I’m curious, moving along a little to your 2030 vision. I did have a look at the University’s DVC inauguration speech. In the 2030 vision for the university, what are the three big strategic goals, given its niche and the fact that it’s Nelson Mandela University? What are the three strategic goals that the university wishes to accomplish by 2030?

Our university used to be a science university. It used to be only science when it was the University of Port Elizabeth. Only in the last few years have we brought in the humanities. Part of our vision is to strengthen the humanities and bring them into that curriculum with a lot of relevance to understanding colonialism, which decolonizes our curriculum. When we say we want to decolonize our curriculum, it’s all about the humanities moving from the margin to the center without getting rid of the sciences. We also see the sciences as quite important. That’s quite a big change.

The second thing is the whole transformation issue of our universe. When we talk about transformative, we are talking about transforming the institution but also transforming how we teach, changing the curriculum, and recruiting people from outside. We want more people to come to our university to try and internationalize it as well.

When we talk about innovation, we’re also talking about internationalization because of Madiba’s international profile and international dream of us being one person. The university is looking to reach a wider world, which is great. That’s what we’re looking for. At the end of the day, as well as our students, we talk a lot about wanting to develop students who are responsible (global) citizens who can make a difference in our own society. We want them to stay in South Africa and learn here.

They can go to other universities globally, but we want them to feel proud of our universities at home as well. We think we are unique as a university based in the Eastern Cape, South Africa. We’re also unique as a university on the continent, and with Mandela’s name, we are unique worldwide.

My interpretation of what is being said is those three things.



Mandela’s Gift Of Leadership

Shifting a little, I’m sure you’ve had so many, Nozipho. Can you recall a specific Mandela moment for you? A specific time and place when you either listened to him, talked to him, watched him, or read his books? Is there a particular moment where Mandela directly impacted how you think, act, and lead, not only in this wonderful university but also in the world?

As I said to you, the one moment was when he came to our board meeting when we were doing a strategy plan.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation.

It was with powerful people. He had just started the foundation, and they set up a board because there’s a whole governance thing. You’ve set up the foundation. It’s an institution. It has to have a governing body. It has to have a governance structure and do things properly. We have to account for funders. We have to write reports to them to tell them what’s happening. We said, “You can’t do it how you’re accustomed to doing it, raising the money and just giving it away.”

We were also taken when he walked in and said, “There’s no need to do that.” He didn’t mean it in a way that “I don’t want to account for anything.” What I took from it was how urgent the passion was. A passion of mine, which is why we need to do something about this now. All this other stuff will waste time because you’ll end up having useless conversations about governance and all of that.

He wasn’t saying, “Don’t account for me.”

He wasn’t saying not to be accountable. For him, it was an expression. He was expressing his sense of urgency. At that moment, I took everything from Madiba. It was urgent. It had to happen now. We still need that sense of urgency. The other part was when I was an ambassador in Switzerland. I was there during the ten years of celebration, which you also make reference to.

I was in Switzerland, and we were all asked to celebrate South Africa’s ten years of independence in 2004. When we won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup, it coincided with ten years of freedom. We were told, “The state doesn’t have any money. You ensure you celebrate ten years of freedom with the people in your country in Switzerland.” In my case, the people of Switzerland. 

It was quite a moment for us. We were young ambassadors. We had just started. I started in 2001. Lindiwe Mabuza was in London and lots of us. We used to meet annually as ambassadors. It was quite an exciting way to do this. Anyway, for me, it was the moment that Sepp Blatter had to pull that envelope out, the card to say South Africa had won the World Cup. Madiba had to come to Switzerland, and Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki. We had to prepare to receive them.

Lots of South Africans came with their vuvuzelas in case we won the bid because we were bidding against Egypt and, I think, Morocco. There were two other countries. Now, as it happens, Mandela was not well at the time. I don’t know if you remember. What struck me about him is that he came despite the fact that he was so ill. His vulnerability showed, but he wasn’t afraid of being seen to be vulnerable.

That was the second moment that struck me. We all knew that if he stayed the night, the bid was supposed to happen. If he had stayed until the following day, we would have won the bid. At some stage, we all went to pray with Desmond Tutu, and Madiba appeared. The moment had arrived when South Africa’s name would come out of Sepp Blatter’s envelope, and we would understand that the World Cup was coming to South Africa. It was a very interesting time in this country as well because the whole nation rallied. For those six years, I was working at MTN when I came back. I was working at MTN in 2010 when the World Cup did happen.

MTN was the major sponsor, the big gold sponsor.

We were the only African sponsor. We were in a group working very closely with the government to make it happen.

What was your takeaway, and how was his willingness to be vulnerable? First, his resilience in getting there. Second, he is willing to reveal and express his vulnerability. How do you think that has shaped you now, Nozipho?

It doesn’t matter how big you are. There are moments when you don’t have to feel shame from it, from being vulnerable. Somebody as large as Madiba could have been persuaded to stay home and not come to Switzerland. As he said, he was willing for the whole world to know that the man was ill. I thought that text was for me. It’s okay to be weak and frail sometimes without feeling shame, or you’re not showing up. The way people expect you to show up. That’s what I take away.



To support you in that, Nozipho, my own experience of you is that you are a woman who shows up in a very authentic, vulnerable way. Sharing those moments of vulnerability. Interestingly, the moment shaped how you thought about vulnerability and showing up. Switching to a couple of fun facts. What is your favorite light relief when things get a little stressful and you decompress?

Interestingly, I married one of the most intelligent people I know and also one of the funniest people I know.

What a great combination. I look forward to meeting John.

John has made me laugh all my life, and I’ve enjoyed my fun moments. It’s when we laugh together. He makes me real with laughter and our kids. Our children ‘s lives have all been quite complex in South Africa because they were born in Lesotho, brought up in London, and came back to Cape Town when everybody was called colored (mixed race). They were not called ‘colored’ in Lesotho or the UK. Then, they became ‘coloreds’ in Cape Town. We made huge jokes about this, even though it was quite hard and painful. They’ve all got their dad’s sense of humor. I don’t have that sense of humor. I’m a bit more serious. My fun moments are the laughter we have. Also, I love to dance. I’m a pretty good dancer.

What dance are you doing?


African dance?

Not ballroom dancing at all, but dancing to great African performers and singers like Hugh Masekela, Brenda Fassie, and Miriam Makeba. All the things we used to do. I used to play the piano, and I have a granddaughter who’s become very good. She’s ten, and I enjoy watching her learn to play. Those are my fun moments. It’s nice to be able to play an instrument because, on a Sunday afternoon, when the world comes to stand still, you can go to your instrument and play your favorite tunes and so on. I still read sheet music. I can play. I’m not a good play-by-ear, so I can’t play without the music sheets.

Second fun fact: what was it that attracted you to John when you met him? What was the moment you knew, “This is my guy?”

It was his smartness—his amazing intelligence. I always said I would marry an intelligent person because I needed a companion to talk to. We have the same interests in politics. He knows so much. He studied politics in the South African administration. He’s a lovely guy. He’s got a good heart and a lot of compassion. He does most of the crying when we’re watching soapy movies.

He teaches with vulnerability, too, does he?

He does. His current health situation humbles one. He was also a very good teacher. If you talk to any of John’s students, they tell you, “He taught almost all the politicians that are running the country at the moment.” Certainly, the ones in 1994. He was very engaged in transforming the public service in 1999 after the President changed from Mandela to Mbeki.

Where was he at the time?

He taught at UWC, the University of the Western Cape. We moved back to Cape Town when we came back from England. He loves his students. He’s very thorough with the PhD students that he worked with. He spent a lot of time. It took everything that they did very seriously. 

Third fun fact: what would you say now to your fifteen-year-old self?

Don’t be shy. I was very shy when I was fifteen. I had internalized a little bit about the inferiority. If I look at that fifteen-year-old now, I would say, believe in yourself. Believe in who you are and be who you are. Also, being quiet is okay. It’s okay to be reserved and to have privacy. I have a soft approach.

Coming back to leadership, do you think Mandela’s leadership is relevant today, not only in South Africa but also in the world? If so, why?

Yes, I think it is. It was bold, which goes back to what you said about bold leadership. He didn’t mince his words. I like that he led with certainty. He led from the front, but that didn’t mean he didn’t follow, either. I like that certainty. One must learn to live with uncertainty. If you’re in a leadership position, people must follow you because they trust you will lead them in the right direction.

Leading Boldly into the Future | Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill | Nelson Mandela University
Nelson Mandela University: One must learn to live with uncertainty. But if you’re in a leadership position, people must follow you because they trust you’ll lead them in the right direction.


That’s what I admire most about Madiba. He made a point when he said, “You can’t choose my friend. I won’t let you put me in a situation because you want me to be the enemy of your enemy.” I won’t do that. I will support the Cuban government. I will support Castro and the Palestinian cause because I understand it so deeply. He had no doubt about that. There was something very comforting about people who are so clear about their values and about their certainty and knowing this is the right thing to do when nobody’s looking – solid, clear values. 

What do you think Mandela would say to our generation and the youth?

To the youth, he always says, “Education is your most powerful weapon.” I think he would never stop saying that. Education gives you choices and opportunities. It makes you a better person. He would also say, “Don’t doubt yourself. Let your instinct.” I have a grandson whom we celebrated.


He lives in the UK because he goes to school there. He’s just here for the holidays. He says unconventional things about education and how bored he is often in his lecture room because he hears what they’re saying, but they’re repeating from books and so on. He wants to be out there. Madiba did not mind if you were upset with what he said because he didn’t take your upset comments personally. That’s quite a hard thing to do –  don’t buy into how you feel about what I’m saying.

It’s the ‘issue’ and not the human being.

I liked that about him. A leader needs to be able to have difficult conversations without compromising anyone’s dignity.

It’s very important for a leader to be able to have difficult conversations without compromising dignity. Click To Tweet

What do you think he would say to our generation in South Africa and the world?

He would say, “Don’t depend on the government to change your life.” Madiba would be very happy to say that. He would say, “Do something for yourself. Find something to do.” People are doing that. The civil society is very active in this country. I belong to a number of women’s groups that are doing phenomenal things. From where Madiba (Mandela) sits, he’d be very proud.

He’d be proud that the university takes a stand on gender-based violence and we make our views known. He’ll be proud of all the men who are marching against gender-based violence. Madiba was personally offended by injustice and inequality. It was a personal thing. It wasn’t an idea. It was just, “If I’m personally offended, then I’m going to do something about it.” When I lived in the UK, I learned so much because I worked in the HIV space when I was there and learned a lot about death, dying, and discrimination. Watching Black people being oppressed and watching the pain that gay men lived through those periods when HIV came out.

After a while, it became so offensive. Lots of people experience oppression. It’s when all those people experience oppression, when it offends you personally, that you become a leader. That doesn’t just mean seeing the world through your own suffering but also seeing it as other people have experienced it. In this country, we’ve also got migration all over the world. Migration is a big issue. People have always moved from country to country. I feel sad to see how many governments, particularly in the West, respond to the whole issue of migration.

Coming back to what you think Mandela would say to our generation.

He would say your pain is not just yours. There are lots of other people. Acknowledge what you feel. Everybody has something that they feel pain about.

To take action.

Do something about it. Do something about your issue, but remember to do something for the world. Get the world fixed. Not just South Africa. They’re largely fixing the world as well. It sounds like a funny word: fixing.

Take action, do something about your issue, but also remember, do something for the world. Let's get the world fixed. Click To Tweet

Contributing. In our final moments together, any final thoughts for you, Nozipho, about the future of leadership and the importance of bold leadership in the future?

Our leaders must never give up hope. One mustn’t despair too much. If you despair as a leader, everybody is going to be a little confused to know what to do. Our leaders can’t cope with this difficult situation because they’re steeped in despair. They’re not leading at all. We should become used to living with uncertainty. Nothing anymore is certain. There’s a lot of complexity in the world, which creates uncertainty.

We need to examine that complexity and see things through different lenses, not the ones we’re accustomed to. I find that we need to build our institutions and strengthen them as leaders. If I were a leader, I would professionalize the public service in this country and make it serve the people or do something to help them understand the value of serving them. We have to have strong institutions that bring them back into shape in South Africa.

Our transport industry is killing the mining industry. We need to fix that. I’d like to see a lot more of the creative arts playing a role as a leader. During the liberation struggle, music, dance, and the arts played such a phenomenal role when we were in exile. I see that industry being totally neglected. America is a very good example of how to take the arts seriously and how they turn it into an income stream and invest in it. Young people who are in that industry are struggling. The talent is completely wasted. In my view, leaders need to pay attention to young people, especially on the continent. We need to pay attention to young people and listen to them.

The highest demographic segment is the continent. They also have the highest unemployment rate.

Lastly, accountability. I am appalled by corruption and the lack of accountability. We owe each other accountability. Leaders must be accountable to the people who elect them into power. They are the servants—not us—not the other way around. I think Madiba would also say that being a servant leader means being ethical in your conduct and doing the right thing when nobody’s looking.

Are there any final thoughts on boldness?

Boldness is something you learn. I’ve realized that boldness is something you have to practice being bold. You have to make a deliberate, intentional decision to be bold. It doesn’t just come. I’ve learned that. I was never bold. Let me not say that; it’s not true. When I was running this World University Service, I was a CEO, and I had a finance manager and a deputy finance guy.

The deputy finance guy found out that the finance guy was siphoning off all kinds of money into his personal bank account. What we did was we decided to have him arrested. They filed the police report, and they came in and arrested him. One of the new laws in South Africa was to seize your assets. We did the research immediately and looked at that legislation.

The state assets forfeiture.

It’s about the state closing down on your assets. All that was done in a week because we decided I would be the whistleblower. All CEOs should be whistleblowers. I would recommend that very strongly because that’s bold leadership as well. Do not shove things under the carpet, and try to hide. I know your legal department will always say, “It’s not so safe to do that, or it’s not so safe to do this.” In the interest of the country and contrary to popular belief, people respond very well to honesty. Some people can tell them.

That’s such an interesting conversation, a call to action for more CEOs to blow the whistle and gain the respect and the trust of multiple stakeholders. I didn’t realize you’d been a whistleblower, but it doesn’t surprise me. You’re an incredible woman. I want to thank you. I’m so looking forward to the work we’re going to be doing together, and I truly want to honor the work you’re doing. Not only at Nelson Mandela University but for the country and broader aspects in the private sector and nonprofit sector. Thank you for your bold leadership. I look forward to much more in the future.

Thank you. You’re so kind. Thank you for the kind words and for who you are. I’ve learned so much from you in the days that we’ve been talking. Thank you for that.

Thank you.

Keep up the good work, and I wish you good health.

Thank you, Nozipho.

Read some of the details of Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill’s moments of working with Nelson Mandela and, as ambassador, hosting him in Switzerland when he flew abroad. South Africa was celebrating ten years of democracy and winning the successful bid to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup, which highlights some of Nelson Mandela’s power and strength, including his human vulnerability and frailty.

For so long, the leadership paradigm has been to win at all costs. Even if that means falsely pretending to know all the answers, compromising one’s values, or, as they often tell us, fake it until you make it. Showing vulnerability has long been perceived to be a self-sabotaging act of weakness and associated with shame, fear, and uncertainty. An act that allegedly gives ammunition to the opposition, especially in a culture that is toxic or dysfunctional. The leadership paradigm is changing.

Despite being physically unwell, Mandela flew to Switzerland to show up in solidarity and support. I’m afraid to reveal this human vulnerability on May 15, 2004, was a celebration and a glorious day. The Zurich Sun warmed the hearts of those present and afar as South Africa was pronounced a successful bidder to host the 2010 FIFA World Cup.

A fragile, tearful, and vulnerable Mandela held up that golden World Cup trophy with joy and pride. Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston in Texas and author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, emphasizes that vulnerability is not a weakness. In fact, it is not a weakness. It is our most accurate measurement of courage. What is vulnerability? It is often defined as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.


Leading Boldly into the Future | Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill | Nelson Mandela University


That uncomfortable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone and let go of a little control. The truth is, we’re all vulnerable. We’re all imperfect. It is trying to hide the vulnerability that creates the stress and where the struggle begins. What is the power of vulnerability? Brené Brown’s research reveals that leaders willing to be vulnerable are likelier to build greater trust, encourage innovation, and build a culture of creativity and growth.

The well-renowned author Simon Sinek, who wrote the book Leaders Eat Last, argues that leaders who are willing to be vulnerable create greater safety and trust. The well-renowned psychologist Dr. Daniel Goleman, who wrote the book Emotional Intelligence, defines vulnerability as emotional intelligence. Emotionally intelligent leaders can recognize their emotions and the emotions of others and more effectively navigate very difficult solutions.

Embracing vulnerability into your leadership lifestyle may be much simpler than you think. Some simple guidelines include being authentic. Be who you are. Embrace discomfort because that is an environment in which we learn and grow. Announce and admit to one’s mistakes to self and others. It builds trust and listens actively and openly. It fosters a culture of responsible vulnerability and builds trust in the organization.



It is time to let go of the old and embrace the new. It is time to let go of winning at all costs and instead show up with vulnerability and fortified moral courage as a powerful and new, successful tool. Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices, and bold leadership is about taking bold action. One small step at a time. One step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.


Important Links


About Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill

Leading Boldly into the Future | Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill | Nelson Mandela UniversityAmbassador Nozipho January-Bardill has a bachelor’s degree in English, Philosophy and Education, an MA in Applied Linguistics, and a Diploma in Human Resources Management. In 2019 she was conferred with an Honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by the University of Glasgow Caledonian (for the common good) in Scotland.

She is the Chairperson of Council of the Nelson Mandela University and was a trustee of the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust.   She is an Independent Non-Executive Director of Mercedes Benz SA, the MTN Foundation, Afro Barometer (Ghana) and 2 NGOs, Tshwaranang Legal Services (for women who are victims of gender-based violence) and Phenduka Literacy (for under educated primary school pupils in Alexander Township). She has served on other corporate boards including AngloGold Ashanti, Credit Suisse SA, and chaired the board of the UN Global Compact SA.  She also served 12 years as an independent expert on the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.  She was interim Chief of Staff and special advisor to UN Women in New York and Pretoria respectively. 

At the start of 2021 she was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the UN Voluntary Fund for Technical Assistance and the Implementation of the Universal Periodic Report (UPR) in the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  Her own company Bardill and Associates advises companies on integrating race, gender and sustainable development into their business strategies and building cultures to end sexual harassment, bullying and GBV in the workplace.

Nozipho served as SA’s Ambassador to Switzerland, Lichtenstein and the Holy See as well as Deputy Director General, responsible for Human Resources and the Foreign Service Institute in the South African Department of Foreign Affairs.  A 4-year position as Corporate Affairs Executive at MTN Group, the largest and most diverse mobile telecommunications company in Africa, exposed her to executive leadership in the private sector at home and on the continent, and the challenges of creating a human rights culture in business.

Inspired by the desire to document the lives of women in leadership roles across the continent, and the silence imposed by lock downs during the COVID pandemic, she self-published Write To Speak, a collection of 55 personal stories across 23 countries in Africa.  

Ethical leadership and governance, social justice and sustainable development are central to her life and work. She has 3 children and 5 grandchildren.

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