UNISA Alumni's Leadership Challenge Saving and Sustaining our Democracy

Address by Dr Reuel J. Khoza (Chairman of Nedbank Group Limited, Aka Capital  and author of several books including Let Africa Lead and Attuned Leadership) to “Nedbank Group Technology Leaders”  I  5 October 2013

Congratulations are in order, clearly called for: Your alma mater, UNISA, is 140 years old! It is time to celebrate. Of even greater importance for you, both institutionally and individually, it is time for you to reflect and reposition for even greater challenges which will inevitably face this continent and the globe in the next century.

We commend you, UNISA alumni, on your dedication to ensuring the University continued success of UNISA in its cardinal objective of becoming “the African University in service of humanity.” We applaud the ubiquitous presence of UNISA graduates in all walks of life: professional, corporate, cultural, educational, political and so on. This imposes an awesome challenge on you to be catalytic development agents in a country and a continent sorely in need.

Lord Henry Brougham, speaking in 1828, four years before the reform bill opened the franchise and changed the face of England, said the following to the House of Commons: “Education makes a people easy to lead, but difficult to drive, easy to govern, but impossible to enslave.”

This observation has a few telling lessons to South Africa’s graduates today. Lord Brougham could very well have added that education makes a people easy to lead but difficult to mesmerise and swamp with populism, easy to govern but impossible to put to sleep through the revolution of socio-economic transformation and globalisation. How awake, alert and responsive are we as graduates to stark challenges currently facing our political system? Inter alia, lack of moral authority among our leaders, erosion of our value system, fraud and corruption, plundering of national resources, misappropriation and maladministration of national budgetary resources, disgruntled unemployed youth in mounting numbers, patients dying unduly due to grossly inefficient health facilities and lethargic staff, children dropping out of our schooling system as frightening statistics and those resilient enough graduating to joblessness. As we look around in fervent search for sound wholesome leadership what do we see? We observe, inter alia:

  • A nation with no clearly articulated compelling vision; a country with only a fuzzy sense of destiny. Perhaps we had a vision of a united, tolerant, hardworking and innovative nation when the democratic settlement of 1994 was fresh. But the inspiration of those times has dissolved as the rich-poor gap in our society continues to grow, xenophobia stalks the land, and we face the threat of global recession. Have we become a rudderless, desperate nation? I wonder… and where is the courageous, human-centred leadership to rescue us from the morass?
  • Our political leadership’s moral quotient is fast degenerating, with cabinet ministers embezzling, wasting, maladministering and abusing their fiduciary duty with impunity, a leadership without compunction – no pricking of conscience. Even Gwede Mantashe, ANC general secretary, laments the painful reality that “we have allowed thieves and thugs to run the country”. You cannot have good governance if you allow gangsterism to run riot in the institutions of the state.
  • Our national leadership, bent on propping up mediocrity to the status of virtue. We observe putative national leaders who actively suppress excellence and brush shining professionalism aside with gusto, simply because it is at variance with their corrupt view of the world. The same questionable leadership is also preoccupied with the warped logic that would have us believe that the superior wisdom and expertise of independent institutions such as the judiciary is inferior to that of the party; fragmented, ill-informed and chaotic as it is.

Before we get carried away on what may be misconstrued to be a socio-political lament let us pluck a leaf from Dr Grayson Kirk, a Columbia University educationist, on the responsibility of the educated person.

The first responsibility is to endeavour to achieve clarity and precision in his spoken and written communication.

The second is to develop a sense of values and the courage with which to defend them, “good taste’ which can be used as a yardstick in making 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 to 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 not with fear and rejection.

Using the guiding principles suggested by Dr Grayson Kirk, please allow me to share with you some thoughts on challenges South Africa’s contemporary graduates should grapple with if they are to be relevant to the situation.

Given the background sketched above, how can we make UNISA alumni more germane and helpful in present day South Africa? Well, as members of the elite group of South Africans who were fortunate to acquire education we are obliged to do several things, including developing tough minds, and transforming ourselves into creative non-conformists.

We are duty bound to act, heeding Stanley Kings admonition that “Democracy is threatened by the inertia of good people by the selfishness of most people and by the evil designs of a few people.

Let us consider first of all the challenge to adopt courageous personalities and develop tough minds, characterised by incisive thinking, realistic appraisal and decisive judgement. To gain greater relevance, UNISA alumni, all graduates, need to develop minds that are sharp and penetrating, breaking through the crust of false legends and myths (including the myth that behoves us to pay a perpetual liberation dividend) and sifting the truth from the false. Today’s South African graduates need a strong austere quality that makes for firmness of purpose and solidness of commitment.

One of our greatest needs is to be lifted above the morass of false propaganda, fragile rationalization masquerading as explanation and the legion of unfulfilled promises. Dr Martin Luther King jnr warned that a nation or civilisation that continues to produce soft minded persons purchases its own spiritual. (and I daresay political and socio- economic death) on an instalment plan.

The message is clear: unless you as the enlightened few in South Africa develop tough minds that will help explode the huge drift and hopelessness this country is moving into, you are in fact paying instalments for the political and socio-economic death of this nation.

Let us consider next, transforming South African graduates into creative non-conformists. Asking South African graduates not to conform is not an easy request to make since massive doses of propaganda and morbid intolerance for discordant views have conditioned our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo.

As graduates you have also been subjected to the intellectual disciplines which persuaded you of the need to conform. Some psychologists proclaim that mental and emotional adjustments are the reward of thinking and acting like other people.

In order to gain greater relevance and usefulness, today’s UNISA graduate must contribute to ensuring that the citizens of this country, particularly the intelligentsia, become makers of history and not just continue to be made by history. Long fellow said “in this world a man must either be anvil or hammer”, meaning that he is a moulder of society or is moulded by society. Who doubts that today most graduates are anvils and are shaped by the hegemonic present day South Africa? Or to use another metaphor, most graduates tend to be thermometers that record the temperature of prevailing opinion not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.

This hour in South African history needs a dedicated circle of nonconformists. Our country faces challenges of catastrophic proportions: thousands of people die of hunger in a land of plenty – a land notorious for its maladministration of wealth, justice and opportunity. Wanton wasteful expenditure permeates our political landscape. Our country will be saved and put on a prosperous trajectory not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority but through the creative maladjustment of a non - conforming minority.

The well-adjusted life has its own dangers. We typically seek to be well adjusted. We must of course, be well adjusted if we are to avoid neurotic and schizophrenic personalities, but there are some things in the country to which people of goodwill must be maladjusted. It is high time we refuse to become adjusted to the evils of kleptocracy and the crippling effects of intolerant hegemony, to economic conditions that deprive people of work and livelihood. I refuse to be well-adjusted to the triple insanities of moral decadence, corruption and the elevation of mediocrity to a status of virtue.

As Robert J. McCradeen advised “The world is not perishing for the want of clever or talented or well-meaning men (people). It is perishing for the want of men of courage and resolution who, in devotion to the cause of right and truth, can rise above personal feeling and private ambition.”

I challenge UNISA alumni and all graduates to help move us from being merely “talented or well-meaning people, to people of courage and resolution, who in devotion to the cause of right and truth,” can lift our political economy, our beloved nation, onto a worthy, healthy, morally sound and prosperous cause. We owe it to ourselves. We owe it to prosperity.

We must make a choice as the few enlightened members of our society: will we continue to march to the drumbeat of conformity and false respectability? Or will we, listening to the beat of a more distant drum of a glorious destiny, move to its resonant sounds?

The leadership we yearn for should commit itself to listening:

Leadership should commit itself to listening: listening to its own heart and head, and listening to the appeals of the followership. I call this Attuned Leadership. I have written a book on the subject in which I explore the relationship between Africa’s philosophy of Ubuntu, and the principles of good governance. In my view, good governance is first and foremost a human rights issue. It cannot be otherwise, since only a moral leadership, committed to the good of stakeholders and citizenry will wholeheartedly commit itself to clean, accountable, responsible practices. Good governance is attuned leadership in action.

But instead of this approach – instead of seeking attunement and fostering consensus –  you have Chief Whips in Parliament spitting adversarial venom. You have a deleterious, ill-considered and vexed nationalisation campaign that corrodes economic confidence and deters foreign direct investment.

The political temperature in South Africa is heating up: anyone can feel it. The voices are more shrill, the sense of impending danger more immediate. Racism, which we thought had been buried, has resurfaced in virulent forms. When our first President, Nelson Mandela, in his swearing in at the Union Buildings pronounced that “never and never again” would the country permit the oppression of one by another, we heaved a collective sigh of relief. And yet now the threat looms again as national leaders set out to weaken state institutions and impose their designs, whether or not they accord with the wishes and the destiny of South Africans.

There can be no gainsaying that the integrity, health, socio-economic soundness of and prosperity of South Africa is the collective responsibility of all of us as its citizens, corporate or individual. We, therefore, have a duty to build and develop this nation and to call to book the putative leaders who, due to sheer incapacity to deal with the complexity of twenty-first century governance and leadership, or naked corruption and moral decadence, cannot lead.

We have a duty to insist on strict adherence to the institutional forms that underpin our young democracy. A duty to help define and clearly articulate our national vision based on rigorous analysis - a compelling sense of destiny that will serve as a national rallying point for our pursuit of excellence and prosperity. It behoves us to shun depravity and to diligently promote a nation built on moral values. We are duty-bound to guide, teach, develop and imbue our youth with a sound and wholesome value system.  We must stop creeping kleptocracy dead on its tracks.

Above all, following rigorous analysis and robust discourse, we must seek to help develop a comprehensive national plan designed to combat ignorance, ill-health, poverty and unemployment and to promote abiding respect for ethical behaviour, a sense of efficacy, a powerful work ethic, and active pursuit of excellence as we build our nation. As we implement all of these, we must bear in mind that without courage even supreme wisdom will bear no fruit.

There is tremendous depth and courage in this society. We have come through so much together. What we do now will brand us as soldiers of conscience rather than cowards and quitters.

There is courage in defiance. But let us dispense with bitterness and believe, with Mandela, that because we are all human we can sort out problems together.

There is courage in patient, sensible and sensitive argument. There is courage in demonstrating that there is a better way than following the mob or forcing solutions down everyone’s throats. There is courage in taking the steps that business needs to take to truly transform our productive lives. We cannot simply feather our own nests. We have to consider that overcoming poverty is the highest challenge facing us today. Youth are marginalized, the unemployed are desperate: there is indeed a revolution in the making unless we pull together. We must pay living wages, curb executive greed, improve the skills basis of the undereducated, seek new ideas and markets, serve our stakeholders honestly, and rise to the challenges of corporate, institutional and individual citizenship. That is at the core of our challenges as graduates, alumni of UNISA and those of other tertiary institutions.

“Our destiny is largely in our hands. If we find, we shall have to seek. If we succeed in the race of life it must be our own energies, and our own exertions. Others may clear the road, but we must go forward, or be left behind in the race of life.

If we remain poor and dependent, the riches of other men will not avail us. If we are ignorant, the intelligence of other men will do but little for us. If we are foolish, the wisdom of other men will not guide us, if we are wasteful of time and money, the economy of other men will only make our destitution the more disgraceful and hurtful.”