Seminars keep speakers on their tip toes

09 February 2006

You need fire in your belly to face up to the regulars at the All Africa House seminars.

Don't expect any mollycoddling from the event's 60 or so patrons (mostly residents). They don't pull any punches when the floor is opened up for questions, and Nobel-winning former presidents, respected ambassadors and acclaimed scholars have all felt the brunt of their onslaught.

Cautions from warden Associate Professor Sagadevan Mundree notwithstanding, many eminent speakers still agree to grace the event. Take this year's roll-call for example - former President FW de Klerk and Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane drew full houses when they spoke just before the April elections, the Graduate School of Business's Loyiso Mbabane got everyone riled with his talk on South Africa and UCT's fitful transformation drive, and busy Louis Mazel of the American consulate - he had to hop on the back of a truck to pour balm on a protest of AIDS activists outside the Cape Town consulate in June - visited to compare the US elections to those in South Africa.

"The speakers immediately feel a bit intimidated when I tell them what to expect," says Mundree. "But they also appreciate that it's an academic environment where there is no shield from questions."

And speakers don't soon forget their time at All Africa House. Just before he was posted to Washington this year, former US ambassador to South Africa Cameron Hume, who got a lashing when he spoke at the residence in 2002, wrote an unsolicited letter to Mundree saying just how memorable the event was.

"That is testament to the quality of the discourse that takes place," says Mundree who, by the by, was honoured with a Distinguished Teacher Award from UCT this year.

For topics, Mundree tries to keep his finger on the pulse of what's happening around the country and beyond, even if it's just an undercurrent. This year alone he's had a survivor of the 1998 Planet Hollywood bombing in Cape Town talking, and has also hosted presentations on xenophobia, childhood and post-mortems on babies in Africa, the regulation of genetically-engineering organisms and crops, ancestral ethics and human rights in southern Africa, and political instability on the continent, among other topical issues.

Successors will have a hard time keeping up that rollercoaster schedule, but very soon someone will have to. Mundree has just been appointed as CEO of PlantBio, the National Innovation Centre for Plant Biotechnology, the last of the four biotech innovation centres created by the Department of Science and Technology. He takes office at the Pietermaritzburg centre, set up to act as a catalyst for the plant biotechnology industry in the country, in July next year, but will still be involved in some teaching and supervision at UCT. Mundree also plans to help the incoming warden draw up a list of possible speakers for the last half of 2005. Started four years ago when he first joined the residence, the seminars are, after all, near and dear to him. "It's the one thing that I really, really enjoyed."

But before he leaves, Mundree vowed at a seminar a week or so ago, residents can look forward to another enthralling line-up for the rest of 2004 and the first six months of 2005. True to his word, he has managed to sign up Salman El-Herfi, the Palestinian ambassador to South Africa, for the last session of the year on December 3.

El-Herfi has gone up against some tough audiences before. He should expect nothing less at All Africa House.

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