Joel Netshitenzhe- University of Venda graduation ceremony

17 September 2005

17 September 2005

Can the new middle and upper strata sustain the civilising mission of revolutionary democracy?

Mr Chancellor;
Chairperson and Members of Council;
Members of the Interim Management Team;
President of the Convocation;
Members of Senate and all Academic Staff;
President of the Students’ Representative Council and all Students;
Distinguished Guests;
Parents, Sponsors and Graduandi; Ladies and Gentlemen;

Two contradictory emotions have played themselves out since I was informed of this singular honour to become part of the family of the University of Venda, through the conferment of this Honorary Ph.D Degree in Political Science.

I had sought with little success to decline the offer which is an attestation, my friends told me, of both the wisdom of age and recognition of a contribution to South Africa’s body of knowledge in the field of political science. On the other hand, these court jesters as any genuine friends should be, told me that such honour is accorded those who have little prospect of acquiring a Doctorate through the normal route!

And so pride, on the one hand, and a sense of challenge once more to burn the midnight oil, on the other, form the cocktail of emotions with which I stand before you today.

Above everything else, I feel truly humbled because this honour represents recognition of the diversity of tributaries through which knowledge is acquired and dispensed. This depth of feeling is made the more intense because the honour comes from a community in which my own life evolved; fellow progenies of the soil that spawned me.

In the final analysis, what persuaded me to redeem an offer beyond my own achievements was a recognition that this is an honour to Oliver Tambo, Yusuf Dadoo, Florence Mophosho, Chris Hani, Solomom Mahlangu, Zweli Nyanda, George Ramudzuli, Nomkhosi Mini and many others – the sages from whom we learnt the tools of analysis, the practicians who taught us about seriousness of application in whatever we do, the fighters whose bravery left us in wonder, and the revolutionaries who taught us about humility of personal conduct. If some of us do get noticed today, it is because we glow in the reflection of their halo.

These heroes taught us about politics as a science and as an art; that it is as much about concepts as it is about praxis; and that ultimately, it enjoys respect and sometimes resentment because it is about the real life of real people. They taught us that, in as much as we suffered privations in the crucible of revolutionary politics, ours was a mission of pride and joy, because we sought to assert in a country of ignominy, a new civilisation of national democracy.

That civilisation, as with any truly revolutionary change in the evolution of human society, lies in the modernisation of the means of production and a more humane management of social relations.

Mr Chancellor Sir;

It is in this context that I wish to pose the question: are today’s leaders in all fields of life capable of sustaining the civilising mission of revolutionary democracy!

Centuries ago, great kingdoms adorned the hills and plains of the Vhembe valley, representing a unique civilisation of socio-political organisation, production and trade. Their prowess and ingenuity are only now starting to be afforded the recognition they deserve. But much of their essence remains a mystery still to be fully explored. What we do know though is that Mapungubwe, Thulamela and Dzata perished and with them a unique body of knowledge lay in ruins.

To the extent that we know not fully how they rose and fell, to that extent we are justified in being possessed with doubt about whether the civilising mission of national democracy will endure.

Here we are today in a journey that has drawn from the best in human civilisation – liberty, non-racialism, non-sexism and pursuit of shared economic growth – and we still wonder: what is it that the masters of the foundries and other artisans, the priests, the prophets and prophetesses, the generals, the poets and the musicians crafted that made these civilisations so great!

Here we are, in an institution that has risen from the tombs of the great settlements of old, and we still have to find answers to the question: what is the complex of riddles that the citizens of these kingdoms failed to unravel that led to their ruin!

I pose these questions to assert a simple truth: that any civilisation contains within itself the possibility of its own sustenance and advancement, as it does the seeds of its own destruction. At the core of that destiny is the task of forging intellectual capital – with the correct tools of understanding social reality, the ingenuity that goes with seriousness of application, the irreverence that lays bare the truth in its splendid and repulsive self, and the intellectual focus that breeds a confident humility.

Where is the system of knowledge-management that joins the revolutionary intellectuals of modern-day South Africa to raise the trajectory of civilisation to new heights? In what ways are today’s artisans, priests, prophets and prophetesses, generals, poets and musicians path-finders in a journey of creation?

This then is the challenge to the emergent middle and upper strata of a changing South Africa – to the intellectuals, the manufacturers and the traders – today multiplied in number by the attainment of freedom!

We may be justified in lamenting the pace of their propagation in the social structure of the nation. But we do know that while black ownership of ‘public companies’ was only 3,9% in 1997 it had grown to 9,4% in 2002. While there were only 14 Directors of these companies in 1992, by 2002 the number stood at 438.

The rate of their expansion may be too slow for comfort; and it should concern us that black professionals and middle managers grew by a measly 3 percentage points between 1996 and 2001. But this is a debate for another day. The point at issue is one about quality rather than just quantity.

Are these artisans, manufacturers, traders, priests, prophets and prophetesses, generals, poets and musicians committed actively to change social relations in line with the civilising mission of revolutionary democracy; or are they getting transformed by the very system that they seek to change! Are they the brains trust of a new social order or have they succumbed to the intellectual indolence that comes with glorification of material benefits!

I dare assert, in the conjecture that attaches the riddles of Mapungubwe, Thulamela and Dzata that an intelligentsia that hypnotises itself gazing at its navels breeds inertia and stagnation in a civilisation, and commits the crime of precipitating its steady but certain decline.

And so in today’s South Africa, Mr Chancellor, we slowly acquire the instruments to reshape production and trade; and yet confine our intellectual horizons to maintaining the configuration of a capitalism inherited from the robber-baron culture of the erstwhile colonial masters.

We stand at the pinnacle of political power but draw pride merely at managing macroeconomic realities in a manner that seeks to perpetuate rather than improve what we inherited. We evince the syndrome of models on a catwalk – satisfied with ourselves only when the supposed connoisseurs applaud.

How do we otherwise explain our inability to shape a manufacturing sector that takes advantage of the profound shifts in class structure brought about by freedom and people-centred development, let alone cutting edge technology that combines advanced manufacturing and objectives of sustainable development?

Facts tell us the tale of the buying power of black communities growing apace, a consequence of improving living standards that derives from the attainment of democracy. And yet we adopt an attitude that laments growth driven by consumer demand, and fail to see the systemic shift in social structure that will endure for many years to come.

For instance: at best we fail appropriately to expand capacity to manufacture large quantities of white goods of the lower middle strata, electronics and furniture in line with growing aggregate demand; and at worst we continue to run down such capacity. At best we accord unproductive shareholding the rank of ultimate status symbol; and at worst we scoff at productive activity even when new mega-projects cry out for a variety of inputs such as cement and other supplies, as well as project management, engineering, artisanship and other skills.

I dare surmise, drawing on the cursory knowledge of the dynamics of Mapungubwe, Thulamela and Dzata, that sustaining and advancing a civilisation depends on propensity to assert the intellectual authority of that civilisation, and at the same time having the courage to question its internal logic. Pride and satisfaction among intellectuals are of value only if they contain within themselves the sense of self-doubt that impels a search for new and improved ways of doing things.

Indeed, the emergent middle and upper strata of a democratic South Africa are challenged to lift themselves above what they have inherited, in lifestyle and frame of reference.

Having invaded the living spaces where under apartheid black angels feared to tread, we tend to adopt the culture of conspicuous consumption, such that keeping up with the Mukwevho's takes precedence over a steady progression on the social ladder. As such, drawn to living above our means, we fall prey to the temptation to accumulate prized possessions, by fair means or foul.

This is not a plea to resurrect a mystical African vhuthu (ubuntu) which would otherwise represent glorification of conduct that belongs to an outmoded social system. But we have to tackle the battle of frames of reference in which social conduct is informed by the avarice and self-centredness of sections of European and North American societies.

Should we allow, like the intellectuals of Mapungubwe, Thulamela and Dzata, a situation to develop such that the children of our children are only able to wonder at what impelled the generations before them to do what they did? Where is the African writer who has put down on paper the experiences of Robben Island or Barbeton Prison or Soweto or Gugulethu or Congoa in Tanzania or Katenge and Kashito in Angola! Where is the African producer who has put together a film that lays bare the rationale, the emotions and the contradictions of revolutionary struggle!

Instead, we still debate, without shame, whether the nation’s flag should adorn public school-yards and receive due recognition by pupils and teachers alike! We resort to sophistry, to explain a history curriculum that, we are told, is meant to encourage debate; but which in actual practice avoids value judgements on this civilising mission of revolutionary democracy! And we encourage children to devalue artisanship and fear entrepreneurship, believing that qualifications of status are those that render us employable by others!

In other words, Mr Chancellor, we have to ask ourselves whether we have gone far enough in avoiding the pitfalls that may have beset the civilisations of Mapungubwe, Thulamela and Dzata!

If the artisans, the priests, the prophets and prophetesses, the generals, the poets and the musicians of the current age do not assert the values of the civilising mission of the new South Africa, they shall, as possibly happened in African civilisations of yore, be consumed by petty jealousies that lead individuals in positions of power to subvert a whole social edifice; the ethnic and sub-ethnic chauvinism that pits citizen against citizen; and the indolence of mind that befalls an intelligentsia possessed by the comforts of political and economic power. And, steadily but surely, the national democratic project will lose its way.

This then is the challenge for today’s graduandi as you go out into the wider world, an appeal to the intelligentsia of a changing South Africa: you must let those who sit in the hallowed chambers of political and economic power, as well as the media and other institutions of ideology, hear your voices asking difficult questions.

Let your irreverence fill them with uncertainty enough to set their minds to creative work. Save their brains from intellectual atrophy.

And, as the community of UNIVEN debates the possibility of renaming this institution after Mapungubwe – and indeed if you dare take such a decision – ensure that your creative zeal, your rebellious search for the truth, and your irreverent application to complex social issues earn this institution this sacred name.

Thus, future generations will not marvel at the ruins of a civilisation that failed to sustain itself; but enjoy the beauty of a revolution that continually redeems its tryst with destiny.

Thank You.

Joel Netshitenzhe
Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)


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