Address by Tshwane Executive Mayor Cllr K.D. Ramokgopa
The following speech was delivered by Tshwane Executive Mayor Cllr K.D. Ramokgopa at the 10 Years of Student Leadership at UKZN and the 3rd Annual Student Leadership Academic Awards Celebration:
Please accept our sincere acclamation on distinct and illustrious ten-year milestone of cultivating finer traditions of student leadership and nurturing elevated standards of academic excellence.
It is without a single shadow of doubt a high privilege and an interminable honour to deliver a statement on the occasion when the University pays homage to those of its students who distinguished themselves in the broader sphere of leadership and academic performance.
Given the role that the institution played in my formative stages of personal development and those of others who played and continue to play a significant role in building the South Africa that we know today, we had no trepidations or reservations in accepting an offer to be here with you today.
With your kind permission, Programme Director, I wish to make a few remarks on the significance of superior student leadership and academic excellence to not just life of a university, but that of society as a whole.
The role of universities in a changing society
Notions of superior student leadership and academic excellence are vital for the nature and purpose of universities in a changing society.
In their modern form, universities are modern products of the Enlightenment process in Europe and evolved and came to be defined by three key focal areas: tuition, research and outreach.
In their early days, universities were elitist institutions preserved for the exclusive access of the sons and daughters of the ruling classes to the exclusion of the working classes and the poor.
Conceptualised in this way, these were repositories of wisdom and custodians of knowledge in the service of the wealthy minority to the exclusion of the majority.
It is in this context that notions of ivory towers emerged; with varying historical and societal adaptations.
With the passage of historical time, universities, like other institutional forms, became objects of struggles to bring about a humane, just and egalitarian social order.
On account of such contestations a lot has changed and university education has since become accessible to those from lower strata in society.
In this context, scholars like Paolo Frere and other critical pedagogues, called for education to play an empowering and emancipatory role, in which communities play a central role in shaping the role of institutions of learning.
With the massification of education and opening of access to the poor and previously excluded, universities and institutions of higher learning became sights of struggle to resolve substantive developmental and transformational issues facing society.
Student leadership and academic excellence
It is in this connection that progressive students rightfully declared that ‘we are members of communities before we are students.’
By so declaring progressive students were drawing a solid line between their conception of a university and that of the elitist tradition detached and indifferent from their conditions of existence in poor communities.
This was the coming to fruition of the insights of the American philosopher, political scientist and a educationalist John Dewey who argued that ‘education is not about preparation for life, it is about life itself.’
By implication, educational institutions should not be conceptualised as though they are external to and exist outside of society; they are an inextricable part of societal life and can thus not be understood outside of the nature of such societies and their dynamics.
Henceforth, students were determined to use their experience and advantages of location in universities to draw attention to and strive for lasting solutions to problems of poverty, deprivation and exclusion.
From that point onwards the struggle to transform institutions of higher learning into ones that are not only responsive but that assume a leading role in changing society had begun in earnest.
From then onwards, the history of student leadership and academic excellence became inextricably linked with societal efforts to bring about justice and equality for all.
Institutions of learning can only be meaningfully functional to the needs of society if they put at the centre of their existence the lived experience of society itself.
It is in that broad historical context that your 10 years of student leadership and academic excellence is firmly located.
As society, we will evaluate your exertions on the extent to which they contribute towards solving the burning social and economic problems of the day.
For those of you lucky enough to know or remember the strategic choices being debated in the educational struggles of the 1980s in South Africa, you will recall that at some point the youth put forward two binary logic captured by the slogans:
‘Education before Liberation or Education after Liberation!’
From the vantage point of posterity, although not entirely conclusive, it is clear though that by and large students located within universities had resolved, implicitly or explicitly, that this is a false dichotomy!
And that instead what was required was the development of a strategic perspective that guides the use of the higher educational terrain to advance broader societal goals of liberation and development.
In the words of the commanding historical figure of John F Kennedy’s stature: ‘leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.’
In other words, there should be no separation between your role as leaders and your performance as students; the two condition each other and are, if you like, a pre-condition for success of the other.
To be dependable and worthy leaders, you need to excel and be exemplary in your academic responsibilities!
Gone are the days of student leaders who excel in fashioning sophisticated arguments about transformation and only to emerge with less than five credits for the five years or so they spent on campus.
Naturally that should raise serious ontological questions about the very nature of their leadership; that is if it exists at all.
As students, we should roundly denounce such leaders as sending a wrong message to society and refuse to be guided by their example.
You must strive and aspire to be led by the very best among you and obdurately snub those whose conduct might send contrary signals about your societal goals and aspirations.
Academic excellence and student leadership in the service of humanity
Our clarion call and rallying slogan should become: striving for academic excellence and exemplary student leadership in the service of humanity.
To become authentic descendants of generations of student leaders who propelled institutions of higher learning to where they are today, we need to emerge at the forefront of ongoing debates on how best to transform these institutions to make them relevant to the societal challenges of the day.
As Franz Fanon has long thrown the gauntlet in The Wretched of the Earth:
‘Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it, or betray it.’
The previous generations, on whose broad shoulders we stand, discovered their mission as influenced by their conditions of existence and dependably fulfilled it to the best of their abilities.
Your challenge today is not to mimic them and simulate their circumstances; but rather to exert your analytic abilities to approximate the nature of your condition and devise appropriate strategies for intervention.
As already alluded to, to be equal to this task we need to cultivate the intellect of the utmost quality and systematically make the culture of excellence a defining feature of our academic life.
The ancient Greek philosopher and the towering figure in the evolution of modern political philosophy, Aristotle, had the following to say concerning the culture, values and ethos embedded in the culture of excellence:
‘Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those [virtue and excellence] because we acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.’
There are three critical insights that Aristotle is alerting us to with respect to how to stimulate and nurture the ideal of excellence.
The first is that excellence cannot be understood as a temporal and ephemeral phenomenon but a feature that once acquired must exist in permanence.
The second is that the attainment of excellence cannot be a product of inadvertent or fortuitous acts. It can only result from focus, consistency, tenacity and discipline.
The third is that for excellence to become a habit and not an isolated act as Aristotle insisted, there is a need for each and every individual within our institution to embrace it.
In this respect, it is worth recalling the words of one of the Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy when observing that:
‘Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing him [her] self!’
In other words, entrenching the values and ethos of excellence within the university should be embraced as both an individual and collective project.
What is clear though is that engendering excellence understood in the Aristotelian sense will require unparalleled levels of obstinacy, determination, persistence and insistence from each and everyone associated with UKZN.
As you navigate the vicissitudes of habituating yourself to the ingredients of excellence, we need to disabuse yourselves of any illusions of a painless undertaking. In this regard, we will do well to heed the warning words by German philosopher, Karl Marx when he said:
‘There is no royal road to science and it is only those who do not dread the fatiguing climbs of its steep paths that stand a chance to reach its luminous summits!’
To the recipients of awards and those being honoured
To the recipients of various awards and those being honoured today, congratulations on reaching the luminous summits of excellence!
We sincerely hope that you will make excellence an enduring habit and not merely an ephemeral and temporal feature!
I respectfully implore you to remain stubborn, firm and single-minded in your attachment to distinction and superiority of effort in rendering your service to humanity!
Your individual brilliance and talents will ossify the foundational pillars of our endeavours to cultivate fine traditions of quality, superiority and distinction in our commitments to our people!
Your efforts make us truly believe that indeed one day UKZN will become synonymous with the fountainhead of excellence!
Assuming your rightful place in a changing society
Your graduation marks the end of a cycle of student life and the beginning of life beyond campus dynamics. Whatever the destination, society out there is anxiously waiting to reap the benefits of your superior knowledge and skills acquired through years of rigorous academic training.
Society is eagerly waiting for you to demonstrate that your achievement is not a mere academic certificate but a valid indicator of knowledge and skills to help advance social and economic development.
Our society is in urgent need of your knowledge and skills to help in the resolution of the critical problems in the reconstruction and development process.
As ambassadors of UKZN, from today onwards, you have a duty and obligation to remain a shining example of the essential values, traditions and ethos cultivated by your institution. Let the rest of society learn from your cardinal example the superiority of knowledge and skills in the service of humanity.
Whether you end up in the private sector or public service, please remain inflexible in your attachment to distinction and superiority of effort in rendering service to humanity!
Our government has made it known on several occasions when communicating policy matters that ours is a project to build a developmental state as a vehicle to propel our society towards a kingdom of a better life for all.
Experiences from elsewhere conclusively show that without a well-educated and highly skilled workforce and bureaucracy, the ideal of a developmental state remains at best a distant dream.
As you ready yourself to swell the ranks of both the private sector and public service, do so in the mould of what the Italian intellectual Antonio Gramsci called “organic intellectuals.”
In our context, organic intellectuals refers to people like you who are steeped in theory and practice; central to conception and execution of government policies and embodying intellectual and work ethics that are organic to our project of democratic system of governance.
The project of establishing and institutionalising a developmental state presupposes a bureaucracy at all levels and spheres of society that is central to the conception and execution of social and economic development policies.
You are thus challenged to take Fanon’s clarion call seriously and define your own place in the evolving process of transforming, reconstructing and developing our society.
By becoming an organic intellectual and by deciding to fulfil your mission in life, you will be putting your talents, skills and intellects in the service of humanity.
Once more to the illustrious generation of student leaders and awardees in this assembly, congratulations on reaching the luminous summits of science and knowledge!
We sincerely hope that you regard your achievements as triggers that ignite a life-long process of knowledge acquisition, and not its end.
Let the seed of reading and learning find a conducive ground to germinate and forever inhabit your world to help cultivate a culture of reading that is so critical for a modern nation like ours.
Please make learning an enduring habit and not merely an ephemeral and temporal feature of your life!
I sincerely hope the library hasn’t seen the last of you and that a book shall remain an ever-present item in your life.
I humbly recommend that you seriously consider building your own personal libraries at home so that the young ones can grow closer to books and thus help nurture a generation of readers!
Go on to become the vanguard and occupy the front ranks of our societal efforts to banish illiteracy and innumeracy to the dustbin of history.
Put your skills and talents in the services of our efforts to intensify the culture of learning and reading so that we can realise one of the pre-emblary provisions of our Constitution that urges us to ‘improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person.’
By so doing you will be helping in the establishment of a society based on democratic values, social justice and fundamental human rights.
With that, you would have contributed towards the creation of a society that is ready to take its rightful place in the family of nations.
I would like to leave you with the words of one of the giants of the South African literary scene, E’skia Mphahlele, when addressing a graduation ceremony at the University of Pennsylvania in the US in 1982:
‘My hearty congratulations on your success ... May I add to this message my sincerest wish and hope that in whatever service you render to humanity the self-fulfilment you find should at the same time be your community's own fulfilment in you’.
Please continue to make us proud in all your life endeavours!
We implore you to continue to be worthy ambassadors of your institution and your alma mater!!