The 10th Eskia Mphahlele Memorial Lecture

The African Writer as a Prophet and Catalyser in the Role that Institutions of Higher Learning Could Play to Produce Responsible Accountable and Ethical Leaders Within the Context of Transformation by Dr Reuel J. Khoza   I  27 September 2019


The crucible of reawakening

“I continued to believe then however, as I believe now, that a people with a past infused with oppression and suffering is charged with a special responsibility to remember and remind; to redeem that past with a creative meaning; to recognise and insist that we must treat one another as equal, human, beyond difference of race or nationality, religion or culture, if we are not to become more beasts of talk.” - Ronald Segal; The Black Diaspora.

“As a plea on time’s best conduct, I salute the homestead and the ancestors”; and I add “Bayethe Nibakhulu Bawo!! Thobelal Re a lotsha Badimo ba Bokgaga!”

I, like the author of this plea, Kofi Awoonor, do so for I believe that they – those who went before us – those who intercede on our behalf in the world beneath this one, ordained this great Spring night under the Southern Cross.

Yours is a lasting, lingering legacy, it has been a long time coming, it is indelibly etched into the history of this land, Es’kia. I am a businessman. I will make no pretences to any expertise in literary criticism. Besides literary critics have had a bad press – present company excluded of course. I hear that critics are the external spectators to one of humanity’s greatest feasts – literature. So, I shall speak as a businessman.  I shall speak as a South African – a beneficiary of the wealth and legacy that Mphahlele bequeathed us. I shall speak as a son of the soil – one who has trembled at the extreme beauty of his prose and verse. I shall speak as one touched by the vivid descriptions of the trials, agonies, joys and loves of this land.

I shall speak as one who has observed this often-heart-breaking life of staggering genius, this symbol of South African resilience and time-tested wisdom. I speak as one whose soul has stood alone transfixed in the middle of a page by Mphahlele. I speak as one whose tears have permeated a page or two. My address rests on two axes. Firstly, I am acutely aware of the constant mirror effect between the various epochs of the Mphahlele odyssey and those of the history of the people of South Africa. Secondly, the joint journey is strewn with landmarks of mutual importance. It is punctuated by key critical moments – what I call crucibles. I want to take time explaining what I believe a crucible is.

To do so, I first have to introduce to you the alchemist. The first chemists were Africans. As you know, the alchemist is a scientist, concerned mainly with chemistry.  His magic lies in his ability to turn base metals into gold or to find a universal elixir or divine mix. His uniqueness is in his paradoxical ability to combine apparently incompatible elements, and out of them make gold. The instruments he uses are also important. The alchemist used crucibles.

Various business writers now use the word crucible, today, to explain points of intense, often traumatic experience and circumstances that serve to transform an individual or a community – and often catapult them to great heights of leadership. So, these are moments of concentrated experience that transform the traveller. These are defining moments. The word crucible comes from the vessels medieval alchemists used in their attempt to turn base metals into gold. So, it has connotations of metamorphosis or fundamental transformations and of purification – as a preacher’s son I dare to add that it has connotations of a baptism of fire that leads to sanctification.

For our purposes, tonight, a crucible is a situation of severe trial in which different elements interact and produce something new. I shall argue that many of the defining moments in Mphahlele’s odyssey were also crucibles of great transformation for South Africa. Let me start at the beginning of this great life. So I will take you way back to Marabastad in Pretoria where into a home this son was born.

Prof Mphahlele is known to have declared: “to be born black in this country is a political event”. His birth was indeed a political event. This is a life that from the start defied the then status quo. Otherwise how could it be, that this herd-boy of Marabastad, who only learned to read and write at the age of thirteen, went on to become the first black person ever to obtain a Master’s degree in English from the University of South Africa, cum laude.

The mid-1950s in South Africa saw a mini-renaissance of sorts. This time can be likened to a great melting pot of ideas, philosophies, music, art, politics and all that jazz. The 1950s were a South African crucible. This time was also a crucible of the Mphahlele journey.  Great black newspapers edited by sons and daughters of this soil mushroomed in the cities of this land, as did printing presses. Journalism flourished in this era, giving us Can Themba, Casey Motsisi, Sancho Panza, Arthur Maimane and notably Es’kia.

This time gave us the distinctive and definitive South African Jazz – Kiepie Moeketsi, Gideon Nxumalo, remember the syndicate – RT Caluza, Ben Tyamzashe, the writer Walter Nhlapo. You see, when the alchemist mixes base metals we get gold. Is leadership not created by moments in history – points when time and place eclipse? Before the crucible of the 1950s there was another defining moment in the history of the black intelligentsia.  This moment culminated in 1948. In order to put a lid on the rise of talent and intellect, the Bantu Education Act was passed. The aim of the Act was to anaesthetise the collective black brain.

Es’kia attacked the Bantu Education Act with the zeal of a man condemned. He criticised the Eiselen Report on African Education, showing how it was going to divide black education. He and a string of excellent black intelligentsia because never again did we achieve such a high concentration and abundance of dedicated educational talent. The contributions that followed were few, novel and far between.

Then came the “Wanderer”. Es’kia tried to give expression to the scattered soul of the “Wanderer” in his book entitled The Wanderer. The people of South Africa in the post-Sharpeville era entered a phase of dispersion. Many entered the wilderness of exile. It is important for the artist, activist or intellectual to find meaning in the wilderness. For if he or she does not, surviving the empty howling nostalgia of exile becomes impossible.

Many South African artists have been consumed and perished during long, bland and sterile years of exile. But for Es’kia and others, the wilderness was the crucible. Like him the movements of the people of South Africa traversed the globe in search of assistance to turn this experience into meaning and freedom we all yearned for. Far from home in societies never dreamed of by our forefathers, they put down roots. Perhaps they did so because Es’kia had said: “In fiction, as in drama, you work with diversities, conflict and you need an intimate familiarity with the world you depict. You need a locale, its smell, its taste, its texture. In the process of composition, you are tied to the place that contains the experience.” And so he plunged into the Nigerian experience, and emerged with Ballad for Oyo and the Barber of Bariga. He wrote these in the tongue of the urban Yoruba – pidgin English. And thus he entered a brilliant constellation of African writers and he took his place among the greats, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Ayikwei Armah, Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Mazisi Kunene, Alex La Guma, Camera Laye and Kofi Awoonor.

Even though he had immersed himself in the Nigerian reality, even though he had taken to writing in pidgin English, he was still distinctly ours. His hallmarks were still the bright vigour of the 1950s. The vivid forcefulness of one whose soul had been touched by Sophiatown and Soweto still lived on in his work. The lucidity of thought gained in the social debates of the Johannesburg of his time was always evident. The social commentary was typically Mphahlele.

This is a wonderful evening, Es’kia; together we’ve been to places that our ancestors’ long shadows could never reach.

Then, he took on the Western world as his opinions were aired in publications such as The New Statesman and The Harvard Educational Review.  He featured alongside Henry Kissinger in Foreign Affairs. He engaged the black American literati, comparing notes on the Harlem renaissance and Negritude, while the mind remembered and longed for Sophiatown.

Hail the spirit of Es’kia Mphahlele, and we must begin the reconstruction of a derelict countryside, cities and souls.

The crucible of hope and reconstruction must be on the boil.

The alchemist awaits the outcome with bated breath. As an ancient soul of impeccable memory, he longed for the greatness of the old Mombassa.  The recesses of his long memory held on to those staircases of gold and goblets of silver. He was impatient for the hustle and bustle of international trading activity that once characterised the East Coast of Africa.

He suffered from nostalgia for the intellectual rigours of the past – the centres of learning and excellence on the banks of the Nile, he yearned for the cultured entrepreneurial flair of the lands of Kush and remembered the libraries of Timbuktu and longed for the return of indigenous science. The alchemist awaits a return to greatness.

This is all well and good, but it questions why the former Chairman of Eskom Holdings and Nedbank Group and current PIC Chairman would rise and speak of him in this fashion?  Why would a corporate citizen like Eskom, Nedbank and PIC care to celebrate and preserve the legacy of Mphahlele?

We care because the sheer energy and vitality of his intellect resonates with who we are.

We care because we believe that when a writer has a voice, his people do as well. We are committed to listening to and hearing the voices of the people of South Africa and have invested deeply in this democracy.

The notion of his work and in the work of other black writers at home and in the diaspora, as well as the music of Shalati J Khosa, that rivers are a source of life, have meaning for us. It is by dipping into the great rivers and lakes of this continent that we shall be able to electrify the continent, lay down the basic infrastructure of modernity in Africa, and be worthy active participants in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

We believe that to re-orchestrate a renaissance, pure golden African leadership is required. We have begun a programme to develop and nurture African leadership at the Institute of Directors, BMF and beyond.

Mphahlele, was the friend of other writers. Always collegial, he nurtured the fraternal aspects of working for this continent. He was forever creating networks and partnerships. These too are our values, we value the collective and it is only through nurturing partnerships that we can develop one single power network for the continent and thus achieve the NEPAD goal of an African Renaissance and Pan Africanism.

Energy, discipline, purpose, enlightenment, love for this continent, were your credo. We cherish these also.

Catalytic elements are beginning to form and the chemistry is right – could the time be now? Thabo Mbeki asks: “When, at the end of the century, historians cast their eyes back on this moment, what will they see?”

Then he says: “They should see that Africa emerged from a long period of darkness and fear… They should see that through our persistent efforts we have redefined ourselves into something other than a place of wars, a place of oppression, a place of hunger, disease, ignorance and backwardness.”

I believe that they will see a new African, proud, golden. An African who has squared up to racism, apartheid, colonialism and slavery. Africans, distilled masters and mistresses of their own destiny. And as Thabo Mbeki dreams, these shall be Africans who “sing their own songs and dance to their own tune”, Africans who think their own thoughts; and having defined themselves at this moment, seize this century as their own.

The battle formations are crystallising, Es’kia. The leaders of this society, made stoic by various testing moments, must take their rightful places on this new battlefield. A crucible moment is upon us. The diverse elements are stabilising. I see the political column with Thabo Mbeki, Joaqim Chissano, Ollusegun Obasanjo, Cyril Ramaphosa, Uhuru Kenyata, Paul Kagame leading the charge. I can see the business formation led by men and women who subscribe to the tenets of investing generationally – men and women of great ability and stature. Hope has returned to the canvas and artists have begun to sketch a new reality. Along with Mbulelo Mzamane, Mazisi Kunene, Zakes Mda, Wally Serote, Antjie Krok, Andre Brink, Dike Martins, Nadine Gordimer, Gcina Mhlophe, Achmat Dangor, define us now.

On a personal note, to a cultural father, I wish to say immortality is yours Es’kia. For your life and enduring legacy we thank you. For these acts including the gift of an institute, we are indebted. Though the passing years may roll by, you will always be beautiful in our eyes and those of future generations. I must however make haste to conclude and allow the alchemist and all our ancestry to cry out – Mayihlome!  Mphahlele – the time for Africa to rise and command unconditional international respect is now!

Es’kia the teacher; Es’kia the poet; Es’kia the writer; Es’kia the thinker; Es’kia the African humanist; Es’kia the cultural activist; Es’kia the quintessential educator; Es’kia the perennial fountain of inspiration. We salute you!!


The Role that Institutions of Higher Learning Could Play to Produce Responsible Accountable and Ethical Leaders Within the Context of Transformation

About a week or so before Prof Es’kia Mphahlele made his transition to eternity, he had a brief but philosophically opportune conversation with Prof Muxe Nkondo – a close educational friend of long standing. With a laser-like gaze at Muxe, Es’kia posed this profound question: “What was it all about?”  and then lapsed into a coma, which was to be his transition into eternity.

We can only surmise what his own response to this deep question would have been. We can only imagine and speculate. Given Prof Es’kia Mphahlele’s great achievements as partly narrated above, I am inclined to guess that his was a scholar’s lament. Lamenting:

  • The paucity of serious scholarship in our institutions of higher learning.
  • The drastic drop in secondary / high school standards in a bid putatively to improve matric results.
  • The blatant corruption and rabid politicization of Teachers Associations.
  • Teachers who won’t teach, and lethargic learners.
  • The incompatibility of tertiary qualifications with requirements of the world of work.

What was it all about? Es’kia asked pensively. What is the role of institutions of higher learning? What is our role as contemporary leaders of Es’kia’s beloved nation? Might we ask with a lurking sense of guilt.

Given Es’kia’s life-long dedication to education, I guess the answer to that destiny-laden question can be partially answered by a fellow deep thinker and serious empirical observer in the same crucially important discipline of education, Dr Grayson Kirk (erstwhile), President of Columbia University, who crystallised the responsibility of the educated person as:

  • Endeavouring to achieve clarity and precision in spoken and written communication.
  • Developing a sense of values and the courage with which to defend them; “good taste” which can be used as a yard-stick in making moral, social and aesthetic judgements.
  • Making every effort, honestly and objectively, not only to understand the nature and problems of one’s society, but to comprehend compassionately the differences that separate it from others, and
  • The responsibility to look squarely at the world and its problems with courage and hope and not with fear and rejection.

These are as much the responsibilities of the educated person as they are the accountabilities of institutions of higher learning.

The cardinal demand is for a university administration and faculty which are committed to truth, intellectual integrity, and humanistic education which - in contrast to authoritarian education - intrinsically promote freedom of inquiry, of expression, of association, and of the creative spirit. This approach advocates an all-inclusive humanism that engages not mere cold intellect, but also the heart, and therefore inculcates an ethical value system that treasures human interdependence.

Any lecturer, or administrative officer who brings no such commitment to an institution must know that in the eyes of the nation and the international academic community he or she is utterly unworthy of the profession; and has no place in that universe for which the human spirit has been striving throughout history to emancipate itself.


Matching the Products of Institutions of Higher Learning and the Requirements of the World of Work

The task of education is to prepare students for life – a large portion of which is work. Yet in present day South Africa there is a profound mismatch between commerce and industry needs, even governmental administrative needs, and what institutions of higher learning are providing. So wide is that gap that corporations and the public sector organisations should feel compelled to enter the education arena in a big way. The insistence should be on designing curricular, starting with the end in mind. The end being the world of work. Syllabi should not be put together in limbo; theoretically.

Today’s ill-prepared graduates become tomorrow’s corporate and governmental burden. A number of leading South African corporations teach remedial education and basic skills. An unnecessary and very costly exercise. This alone should thrust corporations into the role of educator activists, geared to ensuring the stoppage to churning out deficient graduate models by an ill-conceived education system.

Unless corporate South Africa and The Department of Education do something and do it in a hurry, companies and governmental organisations will face the prospect of employing graduates who are even more poorly qualified. This represents a far-reaching threat to the desired economic development so badly needed to ensure socio-political stability and economic progress.


Sense of Efficacy- Sine qua non for Empowered Products of Wholesome Institutions of Higher Learning

Of even greater importance is the idea of education for empowerment. If an ostensible education system renders you as a people incapable of dealing effectively with reality in your economic environment, in your political environment, in your social environment, then education can it be called?  It is not what you call it but by its nature and its effect that you describe an education system.

The central issue to explore in the concept of education for empowerment is the locus of action. I wish to address the issue of how and by whom empowerment comes to be. Key to our understanding of this process is the concept of efficacy.

Efficacy is the ability to direct and influence events, a measure of control over one’s environment and over one’s fate. However, more important than the ability referred to, is the belief that one possesses that ability. A sense of efficacy is not innate, one is not born with it, it is learned.

A sense of efficacy is a product of wholesome education. It is an understanding of cause and effect and the ability to achieve rational objectives and goals. A people without efficacy are reduced to desire without an understanding of the how, much less the ability to satisfy this desire. Thus, their existence is reduced to wishful thinking instead of purposeful action. In other instances they pursue courses of action that have no rational connection with or that are contrary to their stated goals. A culture of dependency develops in such people, a culture of poverty, a culture of no self-esteem. No pride.

Thus we observe a people that seeks and expects handouts, donations and alms at every opportunity. We observe a people that seeks prosperity by stealing and looting. We observe a people that expects to be taught rather than to learn. We observe a people that deprive others the opportunity to learn and then sanctimoniously gripe about the low levels of skills and the unfair burden they carry. We see a people stuck to hackneyed formulas and positions because they have no capacity to analyse or alternatively they refuse to apply reason to the challenges at hand. To cap it all they are genuinely stymied. They cannot understand why they cannot achieve their desired goals. They put the blame on each other, on foreigners, on imperialism, on communism, on fate, on providence.

Efficacy therefore is a crucial element of education for empowerment. Efficacy, very importantly is a process of self-empowerment because the power we refer to is that of mastery over the environment.

The role that institutions of higher learning could play to produce responsible, accountable and ethical leaders within the context of transformation, is to imbue students with a sense of efficacy, a can-do attitude to life, a sound appreciation of cause and effect, an undying desire for conquest over one’s environment – social, economic and political.

Efficacy is a process of thought application – a result of sound education.  Indeed wholesome education is a necessary ingredient of efficacy. Some achieve it early in their educational life because their cognitive skills are developed, they were taught or learned how to think. Others develop it quite late or may never develop it despite their so-called education, because they have assimilated facts without applying thought to them. They have never been taught nor have they learned how to think. Such are many of our graduates today who upon graduating expect to be given a job, and expect to be pushed up a corporate ladder and expect success to be bestowed upon them while they passively hold their hands outstretched, palms turned upwards. They tend to ascribe success or failure to luck or to a “god-father”, never to application or lack thereof on their part.


Application:  What might Institutions of Higher Learning Do? 

In terms of application:

  • The leadership of out institutions of higher learning must be imbued with a savoury sense of educational destiny, a compelling mission of education for genuine empowerment, pursued through exemplary leadership.
  • Our administrators must have clear wholesome policies, apply these strictly, particularly where budgetary and financial matters are concerned.
  • Academic staff must be dedicated to a culture of diligence and excellence – unrelenting in its pursuit, particularly where inculcating / imbuing students with a sense of efficacy is concerned.
  • Students must deeply appreciate that empowering education is the key to addressing their own personal challenges and those of the country, the region and the continent.

Institutions of higher learning must insist, without compromise, on the strict adherence to education that imbues students with a sense of efficacy, diligent and dogged pursuit of world-class academic and research standards, knowledge application.