Traversing turbulent tides: Challenges facing the contemporary graduate

SpeechesBy Dr Reuel J. Khoza  I  18 July 2017  I  Delivered on the occasion of the Warwick University Degree Congregation

Cicero opines that “gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues but arguably the parent of all others”. St Ambrose proclaims, “No duty is more urgent than that of returning thanks.” It thus behooves me to commence with expressing my deep sense of gratitude to Madame Chancellor - The Right Honourable The Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Cathy Ashton; Vice Chancellor and President - Professor Stuart Croft, members of Council and Senate, staff members – both academic and administrative, Warkwick University Alumni and members of the Class of 2017. For this rare occasion to congratulate graduates at this, my alma mater, my gratitude knows no limits.


Brexit. Trump. North Korea. Bell Pottinger. South Africa’s state capture by the Gupta family. Rob Kardashian versus Black Chyna. It’s been a challenging year to say the least; a year where political and socio-economic turbulence has left us at many a time, lost for words. Granted, as the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus so astutely opined, “The only constant in life is change”. But over the last 18 to 24 months, viz a viz during the time when this graduating cohort has worked so diligently to grow its knowledge of the world, the world as we’ve known it has veered away from a largely steady and predictable ideological orbit, to what increasingly feels like a rollercoaster of regressive rhetoric and rebellion.

Today is your graduation day. But you walk into a world whose complexities are no longer predictable. For all the studying, planning and troubleshooting you’ve been equipped to do during your respective academic journey’s, navigating this life is, at its best, an exercise in hopeful speculation.

Contemporary tides are turning and the key question for the contemporary graduate is no longer simply, “Where am I going”? but rather “How do I traverse these turbulent tides with some semblance of direction, diligence and dignity?”

And so, this afternoon, I offer my humble musings on traversing turbulent times in the form of five challenges facing the contemporary graduate.

1. Defiance of the Conventional
These are unconventional times. I recall my sense of disbelief when the results of the Brexit referendum were released. More recently, I recall my eyeballs being firmly affixed to the gratuitously animated CNN coverage of the US election and doing a triple take as Trump completed his victory lap. Before these instances of defiance of the conventional, one could have easily concurred with the notion that there is a sense of security that presides within the realm of predictability. And unpredictability offers the very opposite. But as iconic Briton Winston Churchill proffered:

“The element of the unexpected and unforeseen is what gives some of its relish to life and saves us from falling into the mechanical thralldom of logicians.”

Relish. Connoted with enjoyment, enhancement, pleasure, positivity.

But on the contrary, the looming prospect of Brexit has already led to 8% of employers cutting their UK recruitment numbers. In the same vein, 15% of academics and 125,000 students in the UK are EU nationals and this number threatens to dwindle significantly in the face of proposed reforms.

Similarly, many have anticipated massive repercussions for the graduate recruitment market, which would arguably manifest themselves in two ways. Firstly, firms and multinationals who rely on tariff free access to the EU might look to relocate to the continent if the Brexit settlement removed this free access.  Several large firms, particularly in financial services, have signaled their willingness to relocate should the terms of Brexit make it harder or more expensive to trade with the EU, and cities such as Paris and Frankfurt are lobbying hard for the attentions of these companies.

So, you cannot, contemporary graduate, be blamed for asking yourself, “In an increasingly separationist world, “How can I begin to relish the unexpected; to relish change?”

My humble but emphatic submission is that the onus is now on you to leverage the unexpected to your individual and collective benefit. Defy the conventional by unconventional means. The American Civil Rights Movement, The South African youth uprisings of 1976, Tiananmen Square, The Arab Spring. It has been done before, and we can do it again. By no means am I calling for mass protests or condoning an anarchistic approach. But rather I believe there are crucial lessons pertaining to defying the conventional in these iconic historical moments. Here, the words of Historian Thomas Arnold are most apt;

“Two things we ought to learn from history: one that we are not in ourselves superior to our fathers; another, that we are shamefully and monstrously inferior to them, if we do not advance beyond them.”

So again, contemporary graduate, do not feel defeated. Do not feel directionless. As individuals, as a collective, you can, must and will advance beyond my generation by unashamedly defying the conventional.


2. Alternative Facts
Bernard M Brauch, American financier and advisor to US Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D Roosevelt once opined;

“Every man (or woman) has a right to his opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.”

Kelly-Anne Conway had us reeling in Orwellian disbelief with her “alternative facts” defence of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's false statement about the attendance numbers of Donald Trump's inauguration as President of the United States. But you, as graduates of this distinguished institution, will concur, that facts are facts. The sky is blue. Grass is green. And pigs do not fly. So, contemporary graduates, as academics, burgeoning professionals and future leaders, I put it to you that in the face of alternative facts, you are responsible for bearing the torch of truth and transparency.

In life and in leadership, if you hide from your citizenry by way of not facing them physically; if you create a distance (physical or social) you are taking your citizenry and their followership for granted. You are shirking off cardinal responsibilities bestowed upon you by dink of being a graduate.

In this regard, the observations of Dr Grayson Kirk (erstwhile) Columbia University Educationalist, on the responsibilities of the educated person are apposite:

  • The first responsibility is to endeavour to achieve clarity and precision in historic spoken and written communications.
  • The second is to develop a sense of values and courage with which to defend them; “good taste”, which can be used as a yardstick in masking moral, social and aesthetic judgements.
  • The third is to make every effort, honestly and objectively, not only to understand the nature and problems of our society, but comprehend compassionately the differences that separate it from others.
  • And the fourth, is the responsibility to look squarely at the world and its problems with courage and hope and not with fear and rejection.

Your responsibilities as Warwick Graduates can thus be paraphrased and emphatically stated as:

  1. To be lucid and precise in your spoken and written communication. Avoid ambiguity and NEVER mince your words.
  2. To develop wholesome values with attendant courage to defend them. Boldly apply them in making moral, social and aesthetic judgments in a world that is increasingly worshiping ethical relativity.
  3. To strive honestly both to understand global social problems and to comprehend compassionately how best to tackle and solve them as members of the intelligencia.
  4. To face world problems squarely and courageously, never allowing fear and rejection to deter you.

3. Globalisation and Climate Change
We are living in a globalised world where huge changes in production and consumption patterns have dramatically affected not only the economy and the environment, but also our social conditions. Even though economic transitions and growth have lifted some out of poverty, there are still some 1.3 billion workers, 43.5 per cent of all workers, who live below US$2 per day.

Globalisation has irrevocably altered labour markets around the world. While for some, the opening of national economies to international competition through trade and investment as well as information and communications has generated income and improved welfare, for others the process of globalisation has been a source of persistent inequality and social exclusion. Globalisation is changing the distribution of power and gains and has raised questions about legitimacy and sustainability. Inadequate attention to the human side of globalisation has created a gap in understanding its impact on life and work.

In a similar vein, climate changes such as extreme weather events, increased incidence of droughts and floods, variability in rainfall patterns and degradation of marginal lands will have an influence on the agriculture sector and its many workers. The agriculture sector is known for its growing job insecurity, low rates of pay, poor working conditions and growing levels of poverty.

So, having accepted that the world is a neighborhood, what might we do to make it a socio-economically cohesive and climate conscious sister or brotherhood? How do we live together, equitably, on a common planet? And how do you, today’s graduates, actively marshal society in that direction?

Global leadership needs to see itself in the mirror of global citizenships in order to becomes responsive to stakeholder demands. We are stakeholders in a common and depleting pool of global assets. That we have a common interest in survival with a decent quality of life should go without saying, in reality the people of advanced nations tend to score themselves higher on the human scale than those in emergent or underdeveloped societies. We are all equal, goes the saying, but some are more equal than others; or at least they think they are. The millionaire stock broker on Wall Street gives little or no thought to how his financial speculations may impact the world’s poorest. Our common humanness is simply overlooked in the race for advantage. The antidote to this denial of human fellowship has to be found in greater communication across economic, cultural and territorial barriers. By getting to know each other better, we get to share the sense of being equally involved in the project of human development: the quest that marks our progress as a species. We can maximise stakeholder strengths and benefits while minimising weakness by networking – across the street, the city, the state and the world. Networking, in the sense I use it, draws on caring relationships to make national and global citizenship real.

In 2006, Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist at the World Bank warned that investment of about 1% per year of global GDP over the next 50 years would be needed to stabilise greenhouse gases. By 2003, he was taking a bleaker view following the limited practical impact of the report. After visiting dozens of governments around the world to persuade them of the need to cut emissions and the low cost of doing so, he said his report should have taken a much stronger view on the drastic changes that would come about if greenhouse gas emissions were not abated.

We know all this: it is nothing new. But neither is it baseless alarmism. The evidence is there and the problems will not go away if we ignore them. Sustainability must be the watchword. We need a world that is networked around open and honest communication about the crisis that we face. Only by recognising that our problems are global in scope and common to all can we overcome them. There is no question that solutions serving only the elites or advanced nations will fail. It is no good carrying on as if there are two species of human on the planet: the ins and the outs, the rich and the poor, those deserving of full human status and those who are overlooked and sidelined.

It seems odd to say, but we need to humanise our world. Humans have proved very destructive to the planet so far, but once again, our better nature is the touchstone. We need to rewire the spirit of humanism with a new attitude to the self and its role in the community. Community consciousness, in a planetary sense, should be understood as an ecological principle linking us to the environment that is the habitat of all living species. We have only recently begun to grasp how fragile is our hold on life in a biosphere that is equivalent to skin thinner than that on an apple.

Balancing people, planet and prosperity imperatives is the cardinal challenge facing humanity. We dare not fail.

4. Cultural Relativism
The Oxford English Dictionary defines relativism as follows:

“The doctrine that knowledge, truth and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.”

In other words, are there any universal values that inform our conduct or are they situation or culture specific? Indeed, in ethics they say that the idea of universal truth, is a myth. There is no objective standard that can be used to judge one societal code better than another.

But I would argue to the contrary. The African tenet of Ubuntu is predicated on the belief that, you are who you are because of your interaction with the community around you, if the community thrives then you will thrive. Zimbabwean historiographer, educationist, journalist, author, and African nationalist Stanlake J.W.T Samkange defines the main maxim of Ubuntu as follows:

“To be human is to affirm one’s humanity by recognising the humanity of others and, on that basis, establish respectful human relations with them.”

Similarly, as I highlighted in the foreword of my book, Let Africa Lead, the relevance of Ubuntu in the context of commercial activities is beautifully expounded up by Nelson Mandela;

“Ubuntu in business can help bridge gaps between people in the workplace, stakeholders within and outside the enterprise, [between] businesses and the broader society in which they operate. As a uniquely African moral philosophy, Ubuntu belongs in business life on this continent, just as it does in our political and social lives. Ubuntu promotes cohabitation: the tolerance and acceptance of all races and creeds in the human household … Ubuntu reminds people in the household [and in organisations] that they are all part of the greater human family and that all depend on each other. It promotes peace and understanding.”

May I, by way of throwing down the gauntlet, state a few hypotheses that challenge cultural relativism:

  1. Facts are facts; alternative facts are lies.
  2. The end does not justify the means, the end is in fact pre-existent in the means. As a farmer, I cannot plant an avocado seed and expect to reap an orange. You shall indeed, reap what you sow.
  3. There is no such state as half-pregnant; one is either pregnant or not, honest or dishonest – not relatively honest.
  4. One either has integrity, or does not. Relative integrity is an oxymoron.

As graduates of Warwick University, I choose to believe that we understand that there is no distinction between private and public morality, no distinction between private and public behavior, that even our innermost thoughts are acts of leadership. We understand that each waking moment for each one of us, is an act of leadership. We understand that even our most private actions and thoughts are therefore based in principles and morality instead of expediency.

5. Technology
Here, I will be very brief. The rapid pace of technological advancement also certainly means that the intensity of the competition for talent will become increasingly aggressive, with the goal to attract, retain and heavily invest in employees who can operate optimally despite these pressure changes. This makes for a huge opportunity for savvy, forward-thinking graduates. Companies will need employees who can work in big corporations but who are also entrepreneurial, tech savvy, knowledgeable disruptors. They need future leaders who are great at scaling up big tech ideas whilst understanding the smallest details; people who can be creative, innovative in shaping the future.

In closing, I’d like to draw from a recent address I gave at South African University to a similar gathering of millennial academics and professionals.

Be master of your own destiny!

Whatever else I say to you today may or may not be useful, but if your purpose is to contribute to a preeminent, prosperous and respectable world, there is nothing else I could share with you that would go to the heart of my message as this does:

Take charge of your own destiny or someone else will.

In a very real sense, as millennial graduates, you stand on the verge of a beckoning future, a future pregnant with potential: great and abundantly rewarding if you choose to make it so; barren and painfully frustrating if you leave your fate in the hands of the ill-prepared, visionless to lead you. I sincerely believe that a sense of excitement and possibility can replace the fear and resignation that so often accompany a nation in crisis.

Amidst the gloom occasioned by lack of a compelling global vision, politics of patronage, creeping kleptocracy and much leadership devoid of moral authority and compunction, I believe it is possible to regenerate a sense of purpose, meaning and direction. I believe that you, today’s graduates, are enemies of entropy and zealous friends of creativity and innovation.”

Thank you.