When I sat to jot down my thoughts about what to say today, I remember thinking: “Mabuza, it needs to be relevant. Relevant to the graduates, relevant to our country and relevant to the time we live in.’
Being relevant is one of the values I cherish. It was while I was mulling over what to say that I received a text from a friend. This friend knows my passion about education. The message he sent me was relevant enough for me to strongly consider including it in my address. So strong was my consideration that I am today starting my address by reading his message out loud.
“The African education system has surprising outcomes, it says. The smartest students pass with first class and get admissions to medical and engineering schools. The second-class students get MBAs and LLBs to manage the first-class students. The third-class students enter politics, and rule both first and second-class students. The failures join the army and control politicians who, if they are not happy with, they kick out or kill. Best of all – those who did not attend any school, become prophets, and everybody follows them.”
I started with this message because it best sets out the challenge ahead.
Before I delve into them, it would be remiss of me if I didn’t begin by congratulating the Class of 2016. You did it against all odds.
Yours is a good example of “courage under fire”. It is my wish that there be no repeat of the “fees must fall” campaign like we experienced in 2016. I hope the lessons learnt will help us circumvent a repeat of the violence and disruptions we experienced.
Now that I have congratulated you, I would be even more remiss if I didn’t tell you that it’s tough out there and getting even tougher. As if it’s not tough enough, we are scoring “own goals”.
I was tempted in my pondering to enumerate the challenges we face as a nation. When I travel this land, the length and breadth of our beautiful country, and around the world, people ask me a range of questions.
South Africans ask me questions, sometimes, just to look at my facial expression, to assess if I think we have reached a point of no return. They ask me questions of hope. They ask if they should resign to the fact that we are a Third World country whose stats will continue to worsen as it limps from one crisis after another.
They ask me if it true that there is an investment strike orchestrated by banks to punish or attempt to topple the ANC government.
They ask me if the corruption reported in the media is real or another attempt by white-controlled media to scare the electorate from voting for the ANC if they vote at all.
They ask me if we are headed to a civil war where merit won’t count and everything will be race-based. I am asked these questions by South Africans irrespective of race, gender, age or religious affiliation.
People around the world ask me if what happened in 1994 was literally a miracle. And like a true miracle it passed and now what they are seeing is the real South African fibre.
They ask if Nelson Mandela took us by surprise and we are now tearing ourselves apart in the absence of his magic.
They ask me how we are even going to grapple with the fourth industrial revolution – when jobs as we know them today will be substituted by automation; surveillance and deliveries substituted by drones; we have practical examples today – through an app accessible via phones, Uber is practically annihilating the metered taxi business around the world. $75 billion (about R1 trillion), is being spent in Silicon Valley each year towards the fourth industrial revolution. There is no value chain spared. Everything from growing chickens to education is being turned upside down.
Already writing of codes is being commissioned and implemented with no regard to national geographies. Trying to protect jobs through work permits is being rendered obsolete.
My answers are dependent on my trust in you the graduates. In you lies the answers and responses not to the threats but the opportunities that result from the fourth industrial revolution.
In you lies the answers of an incorruptible bureaucracy to replace the patronage approach that is hampering delivery of services in ways that obstructs participation by the full citizenry in the economy.
In you lies the entrepreneurs eager to innovate and fill the gaps in the market. In you lies the social entrepreneurs committed to uplifting communities doing “God’s work” in the not-for-profit sector.
You however need to take your rightful place. It is not going to be given to you. Especially when the levels of greed are at an all-time high.
When I say this to people they ask me: “How exactly?” Well, let me start by admitting that it is not easy. Having said that let me add that it is doable. It requires some key ingredients that I know you have although you might have parked some of them off.
The first of those is courage. Right now, it is being demonstrated by those who seek to derail our collective progress.
I learnt way back that winners play the cards they are dealt. They do not waste time decrying the unfortunate deck they received.
I also want you to always remember that every single citizen has a sphere of influence. This is what active citizenry is made of. When we abandon our active citizenry, we get trampled.
With your education, you graduates bring an added benefit to active citizenry; you bring knowledge and an ability to research, analyse, deduct and solve. To help us not make the mistakes our forebears have made before or others have made.
You are going to help us modernise our solutions. It is not helpful when we continue in our attempts to solve today’s problems with 50-year old solutions.
I would not be here today receiving this great honour had it not been for the opportunities provided by this nation that has allowed me to serve. To South Africa: I whole-heartedly thank you.
I thank the great University of the Witwatersrand for finding me worthy of your honour by conferring this degree on me today it means a great deal to me.
30 odd years ago, I was a hopeful young law student in the University of Limpopo (Turfloop) – but only for a very short while. I lacked the funding and so I had to give up my dream of studying law to drive taxis and put food on my table.
It was a gut-wrenching decision at the time, but it turned out okay – and not just because I ended up with this honorary degree.
I honed my life skills, my business acumen, and my entrepreneurial edge on the job. I learnt that in business, as is in life, it is all about people. People have aspirations, have fears, have desires but more importantly people have resources – talents.
More importantly I had people who gave me a leg up. They took a chance on me, they saw potential in me.
A final thought: as you launch into your careers out there in the real world, please don’t get weighed down by populism or by pessimism.
Equally don’t get wrapped up in the corporate jargon. Be authentic. Be genuine. Be yourself. But above all Be engaged and be relevant. Care about people. And make your impact on our country and the world a positive one. Those values, of please, am sorry, thanks will see you through.
• Mabuza is a businessman and president of Business Unity South Africa. This is his edited acceptance speech that he delivered at Wits University last night when he received an honorary doctor of commerce degree.