Friday, September 18, 2015

We transform together - the high road towards a deep #Luister

Most universities, in South Africa, have become places of intense and (often) bitter struggle. It would seem that (mostly) students, want their voices to be heard – they want Higher Education authorities to … #Luister[Listen]. This is a valid call. Universities cannot remain spaces where the institutional culture, aims, practices and content of the teaching are decided in ivory towers and then simply dictated and delivered (from on high) to students. (This is no reference to the fact that we as Unisa are situated on a hill). The challenge of Higher Education transformation is (again) thrust on the public agenda – this time with urgency, and students want us all to #Luister [Listen].

There is however a few considerations that I wish to suggest as we embark on this crucial, yet complex journey. I offer this as simply another voice to a much bigger and I know highly sophisticated conversation. Yet again, graduandi and your relatives and friends, I do this also to invite you, as part of the broader Unisa family, to confidently take your place as we seek a way forward which will strengthen our quest and resolve to go beyond being a very good university (which we know we are!) towards being a great university!
Now, as a good Reformed dominee I wish to suggest 3 points:
1.   Firstly, we need to acknowledge, as noted already, that this is a complex journey. Progress cannot simplistically reduce only to the measurement of one indicator, whether it be appointments, language policy, institutional culture, only. When Allister Sparks, veteran and award-winning journalist wrote of the education challenges that South Africa faced in 1994, he referred to it as a ‘bitter inheritance’ (2003:220). On Higher Education he stated, the ‘system produced a wicked and wasteful distortion’ (:225). All the expertise and experience are needed.

These challenges also need to be put within a broader, African framework. Unisa is self-consciously a leading African university. When sociologist Professor Herbert Vilakazi sketch the challenges that African intellectuals must engaged in, in order to lead in building a new Africa, he speaks of a ‘massive and serious process of re-educating ourselves about the principles and patterns of African civilization’ (1999:204) (and I would add, knowledge systems). He continues, ‘The biggest spiritual and mental challenge to African intellectuals is that in this massive re-education process, the only teachers that they have are ordinary African men and women who are uncertified, and who live largely in rural areas’ (:204)….

He is however of the view that most African universities have not lived up to this, ‘their responsibility’. He calls this responsibility to be the dominant guiding light to the continent and to the societies in which they are located (:205). Indeed, this remains a daunting, complex challenge and journey in which all of us must confidently play their role.  

2.    Secondly, currently we face the reality of rapid change. Some would argue that in fact change itself has changed. Our quest for transformation, need to take into account this fluid reality. Stephen R Covey, the author of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”, in his book, “The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness”, argues that the changes we face, towards an Information/Knowledge Age is ‘one of the most significant shifts in human history’ (2013:12).

He illustrates it in this way,

‘Imagine for a moment that you take a step back in time and are a hunter and a gatherer of food Each day you go out with a bow and arrow or stones and sticks to gather food for the family. That’s all you’ve ever known, seen and done to survive. You are the best! Now imagine some-one comes up to you and tries to persuade you to become what he calls a “farmer”. What do you think your response will be?

You then see him go out and scratch the earth and throw, what he calls, seeds into the ground and you see nothing; you see him watering the soil and removing weeds and still you see nothing. But eventually you see a great harvest. You notice his yield as “farmer” is fifty times greater than yours as a hunter and gatherer, and you considered yourself to be the best. What do you do? Now the farmer is so productive that you see him making enough money to send his children to what he calls “school”. Little by little you are drawn to go through an intense learning process of becoming a farmer….

Several generations pass, and along come the Industrial Age. People build factories and learn specialisation, delegation and scalability. They learn how to take raw materials through an assembly line with very high levels of efficiency. The productivity of the Industrial Age goes up 50X higher over the family farm – What do you say?

The question is: What would you need to be a player in the industrial age? You would need a completely new set of skills- new tools. More importantly, you would need a new mind set – a new way of thinking.

Currently, we are in what some call, the Information/Knowledge worker Age. Sociologist Manuel Castells speaks of the Network Society. Much of the job losses in the Industrial Age jobs, they argue, have less to do with government policy than they have to do with the dramatic shift to the Knowledge Worker Age.” 

Indeed, our students know that knowledge, information, is available at our finger tips. I know as I speak here, many of you are in Facebook or Twitter to see what is happening in the (your gf’s or BFF’s) world – many of you Googled, “Stephen Covey”, “The 8th Habit: “From effectiveness to greatness”; But then (maybe) you’ve tweeted in 140 characters, “what a boring speech! Just let me get my paper and be gone. #mygraduation”

The point is that we are in the middle of rapid change. Unisa itself is on the cutting edge of this revolution in making it explicit that as an ODeL university we aim “to harness the new and emerging potential in information and communication technology to catapult the university into a truly digital future.” Any agenda of transformation in Higher Education need to take account of this fluid reality.

3.    Lastly, in all our endeavors, we must never lose sight of our common humanity. The College of Human Sciences in particular deals with disciplines, like Anthropology, Sociology, Development Studies, Linguistics, Political Sciences, Religion, etc. We don’t do this in isolation, but with other colleagues and the world.

Recently a team of paleoanthropologists, led by Professor Lee Berger, research professor in the Evolutionary Studies Institute at University of the Witwatersrand, and a team of researchers, cavers and explorers announced the remarkable discovery of new species of a what they call ‘a human relative, who they named Homo Naledi.’This is remarkable and we congratulate our colleagues. When we think about it, then we realise that this again underlines the strategic place of our continent in the origins of humanity. It points to our common ancestry, our common humanity ...

The disciplines of Humanities, alongside our colleagues in Natural Sciences, are intrigued by the complexity, interplay, and mysteries of our common humanity.

Let me return for a moment to Homo Naledi. What is significant about this discovery, our colleagues, explains, is that the researchers argue that ‘this primitive-looking hominin may have practiced a form of behaviour previously thought to be unique to humans.’ which‘suggests the possibility of a form of ritualised behaviour (or repeated behaviour) previously thought to be unique to humans’[1]

Indeed, the interest in, study of and the discoveries of the mysteries behind the ritual, the connections with the transcendent realities, with our common ancestors alive and those who have gone before us, our interaction with our environment, will remind us that that the “I” am, because the “We” are – also often expressed in the notion of Ubuntu.
Let us consider for a moment all who share this common humanity; let us consider that all of us come from Africa, and we are here to share in the journey of transforming Higher Education to serve all of our continent and the world. 

As I conclude, I wish to remind us here that while the challenges of Higher Education, of building a new Africa are daunting; while the speed of change calls towards the quest for life-long learning in a Knowledge/Networking Age and while we recognise that we are doing this with each other, in recognizing our common humanity, let us continue on this road as partners in the common pursuit of knowledge, of truth. Indeed, we are growing as a Unisa community; we grow in community, we grow towards a new African community, as we are shaping futures, in service of all of humanity.
I thank you!

(This is an extract from my Chancellors Address delivered on 17 Sept 2015 at a Graduation of Unisa, in Pretoria)


Friday, February 13, 2015

My SONA Reflections

It was actually about leadership tonight.
Our country is in a crisis, and the question is, who will raise their hands to lead the way - to steer the ship? Of course, you are correct to point is that there were a few hands raised tonight at what was promised to be the State of the Nation (SONA) address. But my question remains - who will raise their hands to lead the way?

Whilst, I am encouraged by the EFF for cutting to the chase and the fog of parliamentary niceties. They are well-trained in the art of cashing in on opportunities - the EFF is not simply playing around or acting on emotion, as some would think. One need to give them credit for their ability to catch the eye and play the role of the voices of the masses. They know that symbolism and public display of militancy is the language that the masses understand. Look at the way communities are fighting their way through to the attention of local municipalities. And remember, most of them come from the ANC Youth League! One however has to remember that, taking on this kind of collective persona comes with a price. Whether they would like to hear this or not, Andile Mngxitama's vilification and violent gagging will come to haunt them. This kind of internal messiness is however part of a collective who consciously wants to be "revolutionary". Further, given the fact that many of them remains, deeply influenced by the ANC's political culture of materialism and no tolerance for dissent, the question is for how long they will be able to uphold the facade of a deep solidarity with the working class, the masses. Tonight however, they did raise their hands as the champions of the masses - unafraid of the power of the ANC elites, they kept on insisting to be heard. Also, they did their home-work. Baleka Mbete was out of her depth when they cited the different rules from the book. The violent clashes with security and banning were part of the plan, from the beginning. They want to stir things out in the streets. Whether this political strategy will take us beyond what we had the last 300 years is of course, another question.

But then there was also the DA's parliamentary leader, the honourable Mr Maimane. I was impressed with his leadership. First he led the battle against the jamming of mobile devices and then picking up the opportunity when it surfaced that the police was part of the squad protecting the king. By the way who amongst the inner-circle of Zuma thought of this tactic of jamming the signals of mobile devises? Of course, the intention was to censure what was about to happen, because they anticipated an ugly (violent) confrontation. Back to Maimane. One should give him credit for leading these two battles. It unsettled Mbete and paved the way for what was to come. And they won those rounds!
In a sense, it was here that I felt that Maimane came out more ... what is the word that I am looking for .... presidential, then Malema. At least this is my impression from this event. One the other hand, however, I'm still not yet convinced that he is speaking and thinking for himself. Let's leave the rhetoric of "collective leadership" and "synergy" aside for now - we need leaders who are thinkers, strategically and tactically, they lead their troops on different (unforeseen) terrains as they battle. Further, whilst the DA comes with key expertise and a wealth of political and economic experience, they have not yet convinced the "masses", that they carry their dreams on their hearts. Maimane remains to be seen as some-one who is controlled from some-where else, perhaps the ones (in the dark) who holds the purse. Only time will tell.

This leaves me with Msholozi. I don't know what to say really. This character was there to behold the whole fracas and yet he walks up to the podium, stoically and cracks a joke. One the one hand, he didn't show any remorse for his (alleged) complicity in this (he cannot see anything wrong in it), on the other hand, even at a symbolic level, he didn't even say something presidential like,  "Friends, what we have seen tonight is a tragedy, the tragic consequence of political leadership gone awry - but that should not derail us, we are here to work" Or something like this .... It was as if he was not there; he didn't feel the depth of dismay at the way the sacred institution of parliament was damaged, on a symbolic level; he simply couldn't soak in the emotion of a nation and tell us that everything will be fine.
Of course, there is reason for his alienation - he caused this mess. What is worse, he is not willing to own up to this. Sadly, this is where I have to leave it. This is what we have. The less I say about Mbete or "die kwaai skooljuffrou"[the harsh schoolteacher], Thandi Modise, the better. They were not prepared to be able to respond to what EFF and the DA was presenting to them - there was no wisdom, no compassion shown. And then, because they knew they had the strong men ready, they sent in the thugs to "clean" out the house. That was weak. It reminds me of this big bully on the school-yard, who fails all his tests and then tears into us during break. It was actually so sad.

But what remains for us is to see how Malema, Maimane and Msholozi responds to the current crisis. My cards, I will keep close to my chest, but who knows, maybe we might be surprised with the turn of events, or (over the long haul) how things will unfold ... it remains a long walk ...  

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The State of our Nation.

The State of the Nation address is on every-one's lips. Whether we will be able to listen to it - or understand it, is another question. But let's not be nasty. Most commentators and "religious leaders" want us to be nice today. The "religious leaders" even prayed against, the "spirit of division" in parliament.

I'm not so sure that Juju and his red brigade, understand, or want to understand these niceties. For them, it is an opportunity to grab the attention of the media. After all, all publicity is good publicity.
However, one need to ask the question what would be the best way to serve the interest of poor communities. Would it serve the interests and change the desperate situations of communities, terrorized by violent gangs and viscous druglords, or who don't have any source of income, communities who have been left behind, due to incompetent local government officials, that we also put on our red overalls and shout (with everything in us), "PAY BACK THE MONEY, PAY BACK THE MONEY!!!" (or any other appropriate slogan)?

I wonder. It seems to me that even Juju and his clones, have not yet convinced me that they would be able to develop the kind of engineers, town planners, architects or financial planners, etc. to run and make this country (all our communities) thrive. We don't need more political theatrics, or a new mob of looters - what our communities need is leadership, the ability to drive and implement a vision to pull together the finest, toughest and sharpest minds, in the quest to solve the most challenging of challenges that we face. This is an inspirational challenge, but also, it calls for periods of long-term silent, lonely and yes, even boring slogging, to create a sustainable future. So, at least this observer, citizen, patriot is not yet convinced that the red brigade can provide this, let alone the current lot sitting in cabinet or the state departments. 

The current state of our nation is experienced in local communities - out there in the dark; in the pit latrines, where our toddlers drown; in the bushes close to the "lollie lounge" where our young girls are raped and mutilated, in our communities where poor people turn on each other - ripping ourselves apart. These chilling realities are symptoms, which calls for a deeper, slow, albeit urgent work - not for another gang of clowns, who can sing and dance, as the only qualification to run a modern state.
I am hopeful that this country has the character and abilities to rise above the moment. We can still change things, but then the state of our nation need to be not only on our lips, but also pressing upon our hearts, and captivating our minds and hands, as we work towards the peaceful, non-racial, non-sexist nation, which our constitution dreams of. We have the state of our nation, in our hands - what are we going to do with it?