I was recently part of a delegation from South African higher education to France that included eight vice-chancellors, the CEO of the National Research Foundation (NRF) and representatives from more than 14 South African Universities.
France has long been an exciting place that has fascinated me immensely. For example, in my book, Leadership Lessons from the Books I have Read, five of the 50 books I reflect on are about the French Revolution. I am deeply interested in French culture, intellectualism, history, science and politics.
As an undergraduate student at Case Western Reserve University, I was impressed by the work of Sadi Carnot, the son of Lazare Carnot, a member of the Committee of Public Safety that ruled France and oversaw the reign of terror with Maximilien Robespierre. Sadi was a founder of the field of thermodynamics and heat engines that we still use in our cars today. I was also impressed by the work of Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier, which is so central to data analysis today. The work of French thinkers is too numerous and significant for me to cover on this platform.
As I reflected on the French Revolution that led to the First Republic, I have been greatly interested to learn what lessons we can draw from that revolution. One outcome of the French Revolution is that it standardised measurements and gave us kilogrammes, kilometres, litres, etc. A lesson I can draw from this is that we must be bold in tackling contemporary problems.
In South Africa, the issue of nation formation is that it is incomplete, with many nations inside a nation. As a nation, we must set out our goal, which should be to become a first-world country and work hard in the political, economic, technological, and social spaces to achieve this. One of the difficult decisions we must make is building a meritocratic country where we only put forward the best talent.
The French Revolution was a bloody affair, and over 17,000 people met their deaths on scaffolds and the guillotine. Many of these people fell victim to political rivalry. The French Revolution, which began with noble ideals of liberty, equality and friendship, had been bastardised and ultimately was hijacked by Napoleon Bonaparte, who declared himself an emperor.
Reflecting on the French Revolution, Georg Büchner said, “Like Saturn, the revolution devours its own children.” South Africa is undergoing a political civil war that can derail progress. We are not sure how this political civil war will culminate. Some suspect it will usher in a genuinely multi-party democracy that will reduce the excesses of corruption and enrich our democracy. Some think it will lead to the Third Republic, where the virtues of democracy, economic prosperity and human solidarity will fundamentally become South Africa’s culture.
The First Republic started in 1961 when the apartheid government broke off from the United Kingdom, and the Second Republic in 1994, which ushered in democracy and saw Nelson Mandela come to power. The third scenario is that it might lead to a political malaise where South Africa is something akin to what we have witnessed in Zimbabwe at best — or Somalia at worst. Whichever scenario will play out, it is essential to note that in line with the thinking of the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte, “existence precedes essence”, and therefore, we are the masters of our destiny.
After Napoleon took over, he established the House of Bonaparte, which was replaced by the Bourbon Dynasty, then replaced by the House of Bonaparte and then the House of Capetian, then the Second Republic, which the House of Bonaparte overthrew, led by Napoleon’s nephew. The First French Republic lasted for 12 years, whereas the Second French Republic lasted for four years, within a period of almost 90 years.
Another lesson from this period of French history is that as we rethink the traditional concept of leadership and its place in a modern democratic state, we should appreciate that this will require patience, and we will make mistakes. In explaining the First and the Second French Republic, Karl Marx writes in the 18th Brumaire of Bonaparte that “history repeats itself first as a tragedy and second as a farce.”
As we reflect on the gains of the Second South African Republic, and there are plenty, such as our democratic freedoms, let us ensure that as we move to the Third Republic, we do not repeat the failures of the Second Republic. These failures are also vast, including the inability to offer a secure supply of electricity, failure to tackle inequality, and failure to sufficiently grow the economy to tackle unemployment. To paraphrase Marx, let the history of past successes repeat and failures not repeat itself.
Antoine Lavoisier was one of the many French scientists who contributed immensely to the world. He is the first person to identify the carbon cycle, which is essential in understanding climate change. He was the first person to understand acids and bases, combustion, identify oxygen and nitrogen, and is the founder of thermochemistry.
During the Reign of Terror, Lavoisier was arrested, falsely convicted and sentenced to death by the guillotine. Though there was a call to spare him because of his scientific talent, this proved fruitless. The presiding judge Jean-Baptiste Coffinhal, also ironically later guillotined, said, “The Republic needs neither scholars nor chemists; the course of justice cannot be delayed.” Joseph-Louis Lagrange responded, “It took them only an instant to cut off this head, and one hundred years might not suffice to reproduce its like.”
The lesson for South Africa from this is that we need scholars of great scholarship that advance social, economic, political and technological progress. Progress requires engineers and scientists to chart a route to economic development and secure, reliable energy and water. We must populate all spheres of influence with thinkers, doers, technologists and scientists. Africa’s underdevelopment can partly be explained by a lack of scientists, engineers and scholars in powerful positions.
France has some of the most impressive museums. The Louvre is the most visited museum in the world, welcoming almost 10 million visitors annually. The arts are the food for creativity and innovation. The Louvre is the product of the French Revolution and was opened at the height of Robespierre’s reign of terror.
Here in Johannesburg, we have the Johannesburg Art Gallery, the largest gallery on the African continent. It was established 112 years ago. Unfortunately, this gallery is in a sorry state, with significant collections stolen or left in disrepair. The lesson we can learn from this is that our Department of Arts and Culture must maintain galleries and museums, as the arts are excellent avenues to stimulate our creative spaces.
The last lesson we can learn from France is how to build educational institutions. The oldest university in the English-speaking world, the University of Oxford, was founded by monks who had fled the University of Paris more than 900 years ago. The Ecole Polytechnique, a globally leading university, has produced three Nobel Prizes and three French presidents. It was founded during the height of the reign of terror.
The University of Paris-Saclay is ranked the best university in mainland Europe. It has produced 13 Nobel Prizes and Fields Medals. The University of Johannesburg (UJ) is ranked second-best on the African continent according to the QS Rankings and the Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings. Yet, this should be viewed as just the beginning. It is imperative that universities in Africa pursue global partnerships with universities across the world. The collaboration between UJ and the University of Paris-Saclay is a good example.
In conclusion, we must study successful societies such as France to identify attributes we can emulate to advance the African continent. Importantly, this is not to say that there is no merit in creating African-based and led structures. Yet, where there has been success, we should adapt these tenets for our own cause.
Furthermore, we should build a global system of innovation, emphasising linking universities worldwide to each other and to other centres of influence such as industry, multilateral organisations and government agencies. We should create an ecosystem of staff and students to facilitate exchanges, mobility, research and tackle global problems such as climate change. DM