Living through the Corona Virus crisis with integrity

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By Professor Nyameko Barney Pityana: Grand Counselor of the Baobab (GCOB)

UFH Alumnus (1966-1968)

As a scholar, I straddle three academic divides – all by sheer force of circumstance. My original professional studies were in Law. Upon qualification, however, I was barred from admission as an Attorney by the apartheid regime at the time. In England subsequently, I studied Philosophy and Theology. Besides training as an Anglican priest, both subjects became my intellectual anchor and much of my writing and publishing has been in those two areas.

Coming back home from exile, not only did I complete a PhD in Religious Studies at UCT, I was also admitted as an Attorney of the High Court.

Becoming the inaugural Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission brought me back to the love of law and much of my work was in Human Rights Law. All of that resulted in the award of an ad hominem Chair in Law at Unisa, focused on Constitutional and International Law.

I have sought to combine all the disciplines that shaped my intellectual outlook, and I found that Social Ethics drew me more closely to an integrated scholarly activity,  as a well-rounded social and human scientist that has influenced my research as well as research interests to this day.

The scourge of the novelle coronavirus pandemic raises some fundamental questions of social ethics.  At Oxford, I submitted a dissertation on Medical Ethics and this has been a springboard for me to engage developments both medical, legal and social. In truth,  the world we live in goes through cycles of crises that create devastation: from the pestilence of the Spanish Flu 1918-1919, to the World Wars 1914-1918, 1939-1945, and in 2008 the Global Financial Crisis.  In between, there have been some famines as in Ethiopia, or even Ebola in west Africa in recent years. Some might wish to add the environmental crisis that we are experiencing in global warming and climate change with its attendant unpredictability in weather patterns.

Since December 2019,  the world has been gripped by the coronavirus pandemic. In other words, humanity has to live with the understanding and realization that pandemics are never a once off. They come in cycles. Amazingly, however, every pandemic is met with disbelief and with a state of unreadiness.

In other words, the wisdom of Joseph about the predictability of the years of famine following years of plenty (Gen 41:33-36), is somehow lost. The first thing to know then is that there are never any surprises. Secondly, it is worth noting that not only is it the case that there are never any surprises, but that in almost every instance the crisis is caused by human irresponsibility or greed or abuse of power or failure to recognize the balance in human living between nature and society. The obvious lesson should then be a call for a new way of human living as the Paris Accord (2015) and many international instruments suggest.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein…

Humanity has a moral responsibility in the management of the earth’s resources. And yet, in it, we are granted intellectual insight to research, find solutions, and to share such, so as to make this a better world for all.

A search for a more just world order, eco-justice and more quality and humane relationships has served as a standard for my academic outlook. Coronavirus has dramatized the extant, odious and entrenched arrangements of racial and gender inequalities in our country.

I am hopeful that at least one of the lessons we will learn will be that we need to reorganize our financial and economic arrangements,  that we do not reward greed any longer, but we use public resources to equip the needy to live better lives.

What about NOW? The obvious duty is to be more responsible and recognize that our well-being is tied up with the lives of the other; observe the rules for the good of all, honour those who serve dangerously in order to protect the lives of the rest of us.  Let us take our tasks seriously.

The Great Lakes University in Kenya draws its motto and inspiration from 1Peter 4:7-11.


Prof Pityana was born in Uitenhage and attended the University of Fort Hare from 1966. He was one of the founding members of the South African Students' Organisation of the Black Consciousness Movement with Steve Biko and Harry Ranwedzi Nenwekhulu. He was part of the student protests in August 1968 that led to the temporary closure of the University of Fort Hare and the expulsion of many student leaders. Among these were Prof Louis  Molamu, Mr Peter Vundla and Adv. Dumisa Ntsebeza SC who were student leaders at the time in the protest against the appointment of the then Rector Professor De Wet , a member of the Broederbond.


He received a degree from the University of South Africa in 1976 but was barred from practicing law in Port Elizabeth by the apartheid government. He was banned from public activity and went into exile in 1978, studying theology at King's College London and training for the ministry Ripon College Cuddesdon in Oxford. Thereafter he served as an Anglican curate in Milton Keynes and as a vicar in Birmingham. From 1988 to 1992 he was Director of the Programme to Combat Racism at the World Council of Churches in Geneva.


He returned to South Africa in 1993, following the end of apartheid. He continued working in theology and human rights, completing a PhD in Religious Studies at the University of Cape Town in 1995. He was appointed a member of the South African Human Rights Commission in 1995, and served as Chairman of the commission from 1995 to 2001. He also served on the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights at the Organisation of African Unity in 1997. Professor Pityana became Vice-Chancellor and Principal for the University of South Africa in 2001 and held the position for nine years.

He was  Rector of the College of the Transfiguration (Anglican) in Grahamstown (from 2011 until 2014) . He is a member of the University of Fort Hare Gauteng Province Support group.