Tribute to Phuti Esrom Ngoepe on his 60th Birthday Anniversary

Address by Dr Reuel J. Khoza (Chairman of Nedbank Group Limited, Aka Capital)  I  8 January 2013

It is indeed very appropriate that Phuti’s 60th Birthday coincided with or marks the hosting of this august conference on PERSPECTIVES in MATERIALS SCIENCE AND PHYSICS at Limpopo University.

Phuti’s Tertiary and Professional Life captures and epitomises African scholarly participation in and contribution to the global field of Materials Science and Physics. Professor Ngoepe’s prolific research and publishing place us firmly on the globe in a manner that commands unconditional respect.

Phuti’s university life got off to an outstanding, even enviable start. During an epoch when Black Science students, particularly at this university, languished or were made to languish at first year B.Sc., Phuti emphatically exploded the myth long held and cherished by the then White academic establishment that you cannot be Black, scientifically talented and then proceed to deliver outstanding performance consistently.

Phuti’s odyssey through the territory of Mathematics, Materials Science and Physics has been a delightful cruise characterised by regular distinctions and awards. Phuti’s accomplishments as a professional and practitioner in Physics and Technological Innovation, fundamentally redefined such descriptive concepts as DEDICATION, DILIGENCE and DISCIPLINE, putting them unquestionably in the superlative.

When it comes to supervising and promoting Masters and PhD students and Post-doctoral Researchers; lecturing at various universities; leading collaborative work with other universities; countless scientific papers read at local and international conferences; numerous awards in recognition of your outstanding contributions; you have proven to be a man of infinite resource, drive and capacity. Your accomplishments boggle the ordinary mind.

In the professional life of this African man of superb stature, a towering figure in an environment where all too often mediocrity is elevated to a status of  virtue, Phuti commands commendation on numerous fronts. Allow me though to briefly focus on two and then conclude my congratulations.

First, your practically lucid definition of the African work ethic. Some four decades ago during my and your student days at this institution, one bigoted Prof Engelbrecht published a monograph of monumental prejudice, titled TYD EN NUROSE BY DIE BANTU. (Time and Neurosis Among Bantus).

This putative philosophical piece described Black people as essentially devoid of a sense of purpose, directionless, lackadaisical and generally lazy; neurotic about time in the sense that they perceive time as fluid; and punctuality was an alien concept to all Blacks as a sub-species of Homo sapiens. To Professor Engelbrecht, Blacks had no sense of obligation or responsibility. Whatever delivery could be delayed till tomorrow, a week later or later still, got so delayed.  To this venerable professor all Black people had no sense of  timelines and deadlines. Tasks and deliverable duties were not time-bound where Blacks were concerned.

We could have rebutted this claptrap with counter monographs and more respectable publications. But Phuti, in one packed professional life, blew this unadulterated twaddle to smithereens, and restored Africa’s dignity once and for all. Prof Ngoepe has amply demonstrated that hard work, smart execution and enduring application in pursuit of excellence can be manifest features of the African Work Ethic. Bravo Phuti!!!

Second, you have blazed a trail for what I believe South Africa sorely needs: a sense of efficacy. This is the key belief that one is master of one’s own destiny, as an individual as a people.

The lack of a sense of efficacy in people (so common among Black South Africans) means that, as a people we consider ourselves subject to the elements; subject to our environment; subject to fate; subject to the will of others; subject to providence.

A people without efficacy are reduced to desire without an understanding of how, much less the ability to satisfy this desire. In many 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 a people, a culture of poverty, a culture of no achievement, a culture of no self-esteem.
No dignity.
No pride.

Thus we observe a people that seek and expect hand-outs, donations and aims at every opportunity. We observe a people that seek survival and prosperity by stealing and looting. We observe a people with low standards of personal and public morality. We observe a people that expect to be taught rather than to learn.  We see a people who have perfected the art of blame. Even in twenty-first century South Africa, reality of democracy notwithstanding, they continue to blame colonialism, they blame imperialism, they blame apartheid, they blame capitalism, they blame the government, they blame nature, and they blame God!

This is blame mentality.

Regrettably this condition appears best to describe Africa – a victim of the elements, a surrogate of external powers, unable to provide for basic human needs, incapable of upholding, basic human rights and incapable of dealing with other nations as equals.

By contrast, you, Phuti, took charge of your destiny and proceeded to utilise your God-given talent to accomplish in one professional life what most would require three lifetimes to achieve.

Somebody with far better economy and choice of words summarised all that I had to say in one paragraph. It is a paragraph that the desirable African we speak of would commit to heart as a guiding philosophy.  In closing therefore, I borrow the words of James McCune Smith commenting on the success and contributions of Frederick Douglass, a 19th Century African leader of great stature:

“When a man raises himself from the lowest condition in society to the highest, mankind pays him the tribute to their admiration; when he accomplishes this elevation by native energy, guided by prudence and wisdom, their admiration is increased; but when his course, onward and upward, excellent in itself, furthermore proves possible what had hitherto been regarded as an impossible reform, then he becomes a shining light on which the aged may look with gladness, the young with hope, the downtrodden as a representative of what they themselves may become …”