Opinionista Bonang Mohale 3 July 2020

Let’s start to reimagine and repurpose our institutions of higher learning

When fisherwomen and fishermen cannot go out to sea, they repair their nets. Covid-19 has given us an amazing opportunity to repair our nets as institutions of higher learning. We must grab this opportunity to both reimagine and repurpose institutions of higher learning.

“The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth.” – Old African adage. 

The Freedom Charter, the statement of core principles of the South African Congress Alliance, which consisted of the African National Congress and its allies, the South African Indian Congress, the South African Congress of Democrats and the Coloured People’s Congress, is characterised by the preamble: “We, the People of South Africa, declare for all our country and the world to know that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white…” It’s opening demand states: “The People Shall Govern!”

The eighth, of 10 demands, declares: “The doors of learning and of culture shall be opened!” And, it is further accentuated thus: “The government shall discover, develop and encourage national talent for the enhancement of our cultural life; all the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands; the aim of education shall be to teach the youth to love their people and their culture, to honour human brotherhood, liberty and peace; education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit; adult illiteracy shall be ended by a mass state education plan; teachers shall have all the rights of other citizens and the colour bar in cultural life, in sport and in education shall be abolished.”

The Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, Section 29(1) states: “Everyone has the right to basic education, including adult basic education and to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.”

It was Martin Luther King Jr who reminds us that protest is the language of the unheard. An old African proverb rings true that until and unless lions have their own storytellers, stories about hunting will always glorify the hunter. History is up to the temporary occupants of the corridors of power. South African history, as taught in most institutions, still starts in the year 1652 with the Drommedaris, Reiger and De Goedehoop.

Too many people are still poor, marginalised, unable to reach their potential and on the periphery. And yet, we have come to know and understand that no people can be helped by, nor benefit from, institutions that are not a direct result of their own character.

To have a full appreciation of poverty, racism, sexism, men perpetrating gender-based violence, men committing violence against children, men raping women and babies, toxic masculinity and patriarchy, one must understand power dynamics. To understand power dynamics, one needs to listen and believe the stories of the survivors and the powerless!

The misogynist is a person who dislikes, despises or is strongly prejudiced against women. Racism is the belief that groups of humans possess different behavioural traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another.

A racist is defined as one who inherently believes that one is superior, has the power and uses that power to exclude. I and many black people are products of that exclusion when, not long ago, 1981, we needed a “Special Ministerial Consent” to study at The University of the Witwatersrand. We were carted every morning and every afternoon, to and from Glyn Thomas House, inside the then Baragwanath Hospital, Soweto and Braamfontein because of the Group Areas Act.

The country’s greatest resource is its youth. We must treat South Africa’s children as our very own! We need to own the strength in our name.

What Covid-19 has done, is to expose these deep, systemic and systematic structural inequalities. It has merely removed the gloss and veneer to reveal that we have successfully transitioned into a new political epoch, but have not yet fundamentally transformed both the economy and society. In terms of just the three inequalities of income, wealth and opportunities, we are very far from being broadly reflective of the demographics. Our institutions are simply a microcosm of these broader socioeconomic fissures and fault lines.

Therefore, we are called upon, not to maintain the status quo nor be assimilated, but to be social justice activists, systemic change agents and defenders of democracy.

The law without an analysis of power is tyranny! The law is not a moral compass. The people who hid Bantu Steve Biko and Anne Frank were breaking the law. The people who killed them both were following it (at least 73 political activists are thought to have died in South African police detention between dsf1963 and 1990 – eight of them during or as a result of their detention on the 10th floor, of the then John Vorster Square). 

Our whole history is not only peppered, but shaped by a very painful and hurtful past of exclusion, subjugation and oppression. Twenty-six years into democracy, we have not, collectively succeeded in eradicating the legacy of apartheid.

The country’s greatest resource is its youth. We must treat South Africa’s children as our very own! We need to own the strength in our name. The problem today is not people being uneducated. The problem is that they are educated just enough to believe what they have been taught and not educated enough to question what they have been taught. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn accentuates this notion: “It’s a universal law, intolerance is the first sign of an inadequate education. An ill-educated person behaves with arrogant impatience, whereas truly profound education breeds humility.”

We would have succeeded when we, collectively, can imbue these institutions of higher learning and, by definition, the next crop of leaders with a higher purpose, palpable ethical leadership, a demonstrable set of values and thereby create an unambiguous cohesive culture. A culture in which they feel needed and wanted. In which they feel free to speak their mind without any fear of retribution or reprisals. 

Imagine if we changed our paradigm and could all be successful in unleashing this potential in all our students as, not the future, but present leaders. Not as rebellious, operating mostly on the periphery of our institutions, but positing them firmly centre stage. We need the creativity of free young people to run the heart of a productive knowledge-based and digital economy. Giving them space to have crucial, critical, but nonetheless, courageous conversations because woman’s/man’s greatest accomplishments is through talking and woman’s/man’s greatest failures is through not talking. Giving them our support and resources to not only conduct rigorous research in management knowledge, champion business education and to be a leading influence on management thinking and best practice, but to describe, define and shape their own new world that is co-crafted and co-created in their own image and brand. 

A brand of multiculturalism with no one dominant culture and no prevalent dogma. Developing their own leadership intuition. Mindfully taking a resolutely unorthodox approach that views the current unrelenting and periodic unpredictability and uncertainty as a prime opportunity to press the reset button.

Every step toward the goal of social justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Not everybody can be famous, but everyone can be great. Greatness is as a result of serving. We are simultaneously the most evolved species on the planet and wholly unprepared for the demands of modern life.

Even against this disturbed backdrop, to be the integrator of the best minds and a catalyst to creating innovative and challenging ideas. Challenging preconceived conceptions, breaking down mental barriers, bringing depth and substance to empirical attempts at organisation and sharing across cultures. Demonstrating respect and openness to other views in addressing today’s strategic challenges, building a shared vision and a common language – the language of change, creating value through action and accelerating innovation. Accessing an extraordinary and unique experience to clean up themselves from anxious setbacks in order to discover new unlimited perspectives on their own leadership capabilities. Informed by interdisciplinary learning for thinking strategically, complemented with practical tools and frameworks to aspire to a different and better kind than we have today.

#FeesMustFall and #Decolonisation were amazing acts of demonstrable leadership worthy of the respect of the quadruple helix of academia, business, government and civil society. Surely the expectation is not that these young leaders will simply be the next rung in the ladder, but a different rung? A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not on the branch, but its wings.

We have to start by extending trust to these young leaders that they are intellectually capable; that they have to survive Covid-19; that they must retain focus; that they get it; that they are the ones on whom stuff is going to land; that they must walk the very delicate tightrope between being radical and respectful as well as internally assertive and externally loyal; that they have to understand self more deeply; that they must be themselves and authentic. Be you, do you, for you; that there is beauty in identity, grace in legacy and courage in resilience; fall in love with your roots; learn more, share your stories, speak your language, own your truth.

Master enough courage to develop beyond; be grounded in principle and purpose; drive engagement and performance; better leverage technology; map out progress and movement; develop a muscle for pause; be more thoughtful and long term in orientation; make a more systemic difference and have a meaningful over-sized impact in society and know that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

We therefore must be more intentional in sharing our accumulated wisdom and wise counsel in the full understanding that leadership cannot be anything but ethical, that one can buy knowledge, but never wisdom. That knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.

It is the Dalai Lama who reiterates that when you talk, you are only repeating what you already know, but if you listen, you may learn something new. Education can be thought of as the transmission of the values and accumulated knowledge of a society. In this sense, it is equivalent to what social scientists term socialisation or enculturation. Children are born without culture. Education is designed to guide them in learning a culture, moulding their behaviour in the ways of adulthood and directing them toward their eventual role in society. The unenviable task of connecting people, changing lives and creating possibilities, is now theirs. 

I am inspired by Benjamin Zander’s book, The Art of Possibility that combines his experience as conductor of the Boston Philharmonic and his talent as a teacher and communicator with psychotherapist Rosamund Stone Zander. His genius for designing innovative paradigms for personal and professional fulfilment shines through as he starts every new class by extending a 100% pass to all his students and for more than three decades, he has never been disappointed.

In this new model of leadership, the conductor sees his job as awakening possibility in others. The orchestra is a group of highly trained individuals, poised to coalesce into an effective whole. Passion, creativity and the desire to contribute are basic human instincts to be released. Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable. 

Every step toward the goal of social justice requires sacrifice, suffering and struggle, the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals. Not everybody can be famous, but everyone can be great. Greatness is as a result of serving. We are simultaneously the most evolved species on the planet and wholly unprepared for the demands of modern life.

Changes in both external landscape and socioeconomic conditions put pressure on institutions to deliver greater quality and capabilities as well as increasing ongoing challenges in higher education; the cost of higher education drives barriers to access; both academic and financial disruptions hamper throughput; support from other higher education ecosystems is limited by reach and resources and the talent pipeline is not stable with only 13% of learners who start Grade one qualifying for university.

When fisherwomen and fishermen cannot go out to sea, they repair their nets. Covid-19 has given us an amazing opportunity to repair our nets as institutions of higher learning. We must grab this opportunity to both reimagine and repurpose institutions of higher learning.

Covid-19 has simply accelerated the seismic shifts shaping the future of higher education. Technology is changing both the teaching and learning process, thereby blurring lines between work and study; modular degrees are offering students greater choice and ability to acquire specific expertise; increased emphasis on creativity, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility leads to more applied learning and globalisation is leading to increased competition for talent.

The challenges facing higher education are linked to the wider challenges facing South Africa, namely, poor economic growth, high youth unemployment and the paralysing effect of the “nine wasted years”. 

The student protests were a symptom of many societal ills and failures. While government may have had the resources, financial and technical, to map a way forward for the higher education sector, its ability to implement is severely constrained by political leadership and insufficient capacity.

South Africa has 26 public universities with nearly one million students while 700,000 students are registered at the more than 50 Technical vocational education training (TVET) colleges. An additional 90,000 students can be found at various private institutions. University enrollment has increased from about 500,000 in 1994. Enrolment at the colleges has increased from around 200,000 in 2000. The vast majority of students are now Africans. This is a dramatic increase, although the number of students in the higher education system in relation to the size of the population of 58 million is still far too low compared to other middle-income, developing countries.

The government plans to increase university enrolment to 1.5 million by 2030. We may also, collectively continue along the present path without really being able to fix the undergraduate university and college system. This could also lead to increased division between, on the one hand, the bigger and more well-resourced universities (the top five or six) with relatively large postgraduate facilities and on the other hand, the majority of universities with poor resources and a decreasing quality of undergraduate education. 

A singular success is the creation of NSFAS, which, from end of March 2020 to date, received registration data for 614,986 students from universities and TVET colleges. 

When fisherwomen and fishermen cannot go out to sea, they repair their nets. Covid-19 has given us an amazing opportunity to repair our nets as institutions of higher learning. We must grab this opportunity to both reimagine and repurpose institutions of higher learning.

Former President Thabo Mbeki, in a letter to Ronald Suresh Roberts, dated 1 January 2006, reiterates: “One day I pray that I will find the time to write or otherwise address the issue of the calamitous retreat from the habit of thinking in our country, the atrophy of meaningful critical intellectual engagement and communication, and the occupation of the realm of ideas largely by dearth of originality, superstition, opinionated prejudice, stereotypes and a herd mentality.”

Not only did he implore us, but he mandates that, if we don’t think for ourselves, we place our future in the hands of others. It is up to us to create our own new world. DM

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