Change the world



A speech given by the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Derrick Swartz at the George Campus graduation ceremony on Thursday, 7 April 2016.

"This is obviously quite a big day in our calendar. We look forward to this day because, after many years of work, I’m sure inside you is a fire burning with joy and excitement – perhaps some anxiety for what lies ahead, but nonetheless, a feeling of internal happiness that you’ve achieved something significant in your lifetime.A huge congratulations from my side and on behalf of the University. We all worked towards this; your pride is part of a collective pride that we share with you.

You are going to carry the name of Nelson Mandela on your certificates. All over the world, wherever you may find yourself, whether for work or leisure, people will recognise this iconic name. I have travelled routinely for the last few decades across the world and I don’t have to explain where the University is. They may not know the city in which the University is located but they certainly know where we come from and after whom this University is named: We are exceedingly proud to carry the iconic name of our first democratically-elected State President.

To have been bequeathed with his name comes with a great deal of responsibility. We have to live up to his creed, the values that he stood for and eventually passed on to us. He sacrificed a great deal of his life, as you know – 27 years in incarceration and then also several decades of public service.

I’m really proud that our University is named after him; he carries the values that are enshrined in our constitution – those great, romantic ideals about a better world in which all of us on the planet will have a place under the sun. A democracy that is completely inclusive of all of us, regardless of our differences; in fact, drawing on our differences as a source of strength, inspiration and rejuvenation.

Far from seeing our amazing diversity, as I see here in front of me, as a source of detraction, Nelson Mandela saw it as a story of inspiration, a wellspring of different types of talents, cultures, histories, languages and all of the colours of the rainbow that Archbishop Tutu speaks about so often. I think it’s quintessentially about celebrating our amazing diversity as a wellspring of inspiration and rejuvenation.

Homogeneous societies in the world are the ones that are on decline economically. For a period, I worked in Japan and still visit this country often.   But when I speak to my contemporaries (these are academics and scientific establishments; Japan is a very vast industrial society with great scientific and technological achievements), the one thing that they bemoan is that their society is too homogeneous. They say: “We do not have the diversity that can stimulate new ideas because everybody tends to think and conform to the same norms.” That’s not very good for the evolution of any species.

For those of you who do natural sciences, [you know] it’s about diversity and new things coming, mutating all the time in an organism, and it’s the same with the reinvention of our society. It really draws on this important quality about heterogeneity, versatility, diversity, and differentiation. “Vive la difference,” as the French say. That’s an important quality to have and I believe that we have that quality, at least embryonically and potentially at the university.

Madiba was a great supporter of this idea, the confluence of different traditions and so on, as a source of strength.

He was also a great believer in social justice and equality. We live in a world that is marked by new fissures, by new lines of division between rich and poor (different from 20 to 30 years before), as a function and as a product of globalisation, of the integration of global, economic, financial, industrial and trading systems that have created a planetary economy very different from its 19th and 20th century predecessors.

Economic sovereignty no longer depends on what you do inside the country. Our sovereignty is not the same as what it was barely 20 years ago. It has been eroded and the stability of our economy – the value of your pension or retirement annuity that you will now be building up for the next few years, the value of the salary that you will be earning – is dependent at least in part on what you do in the global economy, the impact that it makes, and also, conversely, the impact global events make on our own country as an economy. So we precariously stitch together this global economic system, the rules of which are still being negotiated, still being fought over.

It’s a very unstable system and a lot of people are falling through the cracks. There is no other equivalent in the economic history, the closest is perhaps the industrial revolution that swept through the agrarian countries in Western Europe some 250 years ago. That threw a lot of people out on the streets and rural people didn’t have work. They had to come to cities during the Victorian age and there was great misery. Thousands of people starved and it took many decades for the European economies (which at the time were moving from the agrarian system to an industrial system, during the first industrial revolution) to recover and absorb the new working classes into the economy.

This instability is a big challenge for this new system, which is still cranking and evolving. There are lots of cracks and fissures into which millions of people at the moment are falling, and many of them often have no chance to find a space to live as well.

They eek out a living right on the margins of the economy; even people with qualifications are battling today to find work. Education is not necessarily a guarantee that you will be successful economically, in life. It gives you a chance, a fighting chance, a good chance ahead of those who have not had the privilege of a university qualification. 

But a qualification on its own will not be sufficient. You’re going to have to think about this in new terms as well; this idea about interdependence (that we are depending on what happens in the rest of the world and vice versa) is a crucial dimension of the world that you’re going into.

Hopefully, the values that Madiba left behind for us to cherish and to inculcate in the next generations through education, will give you a reference point wherever you go in the world. If you work abroad, that will be great. I would encourage you to do that; it’s amazing, it gives you a whole new sense of world and meaning and you’ll be able to come back one day and plough new ideas back into South African soil as well. For those who want to stay, whose roots are here, I hope that you’re going to have an amazing personal journey and that you give back, like Madiba did, to the very communities that spawned you, that created you, that formed and supported you during those many hours, days, weeks and months of swotting and studying.  

Just think about those moments when you were really battling with a particular assignment or studying a particular chapter. There is always a module that is a chink in your armour, isn’t it? Mine was Statistics by the way, and I really said to myself that I’m going to focus on this one until I master it. It wasn’t my pet subject, but I began to like it after a while. I think you too probably struggled and your mom and dad, or maybe your spouse, supported you through that period. Just think back about that when you come up on the stage; about who made it possible for you to be here.

In African culture, individuals are not as recognized as in Western Culture, which is why I was quite happy that they played the drums and they sang afterwards as a way to also bring in different cultures into the ceremony. This graduation ceremony is a confluence of different cultures; you can see I am wearing, as you are also, these medieval cloaks that were designed during the time of the 18th century. The oldest universities are 2 000 years old, and this was really based on what the Pope and his papacy were wearing. And, of course, Europe is quite cold – it’s  nice to snooze wearing these clothes – I mean, it’s really not designed for an African environment, so I’m going to ask my team to look at livening it up, making it a bit more hip and contemporary or cool.

I often complain about the paraphernalia of our civilization and what they mean and how we can reinterpret that which we have inherited against the backdrop of where we’re going, because we are shaped not just by our past but also by the destiny we’re travelling towards.

I hope that you’ll be able to draw on these inspirational values of Madiba and what you’ve learned (in terms of technical skills in your area as educators and people in business and economic sciences) and that you will use them to help to change the world. The older you get, the more skeptical, and even sometimes cynical, you become about that proposition but there is no natural reason, no prior reason, why we cannot change the world.

All of this, from the clothes that I wear, the food that I eat, the hair products that you use, to the shoes that you wear: all these inventions are products of the human mind, your imaginations.  

There’s no reason it has to stay the same; you have to reinvent the world. You have to change the world so that it can become a place more inclusive of all people so that they don’t fall through the cracks.

Remember that people who fall through the cracks become desperate; they’re unmoored and they’re drifting on a vast turbulent ocean and they become desperate. They resort to all sorts of things, from crime to alcoholism to terrorism, as you can see, for example, happening in the Middle East.

Millions of people that are being excluded from their countries because of globalisation and warfare are linked to that as well. We have to find answers for this so that we can create a more equal world, a more inclusive society. I hope you’re not going to see your role simply as getting a job or creating an enterprise but that you want to use that enterprise, or use that job, to change the future of a whole generation of people.

Perhaps you have a great idea (you may have buried it in the last few years because you were so busy studying), but something, an invention, an innovation that you really think can make a change to the way in which we conduct work, school, business, transportation, energy generation, food production, housing construction, and so on.

Remember we’re living on the cusp of a great revolution, which is much more unprecedented, much more potentially mind-shifting than the industrial revolution. I’d like you to see your role as custodians, pioneers, as revolutionaries, to change the world so that we can make our society more equal, more fair, more non-racial, more multi-cultural, more inclusive. If we create that world, I guarantee you a far more stable one than the one that we currently live in, because even the rich can surround themselves by walls but they can never completely insulate themselves from the contradictions of a society of inequality.

It comes back to visit you in awful ways. Those that are inside the tent, inside the warm house, have the duty to invite those who are not there into that space, to give them a place under the sun. They have a duty to empower them with the ability to change their lives.

Our brains are exactly the same, black and white, men and women, rural and urban, it doesn’t matter. But why we have those performing differently is because some lack opportunities and we need to create opportunities.

I hope we have provided you with an opportunity to excel and I hope it was an inspiring one. I’m now pleading with you to make an opportunity for the next generation, particularly those who are vulnerable and need that helping hand – just to touch them and create possibilities of renewal in their own lives.

I really implore you to look beyond your own self-actualization on this particular journey.

As for the university, for the next few years, there are many changes coming after the #FeesMustFall movement. There are a great deal of changes coming in Higher Education, some difficult, some perhaps even unsustainable. Despite this, one thing is quite clear, that 10 to 20 years from now, the nature of our universities will be profoundly different from how they are now.

They are going to be exciting places with new ideas, much more diverse than the one you are sitting in right now. We hope that universities can go through this period, and come through it much stronger, much more international, much more cosmopolitan, much more diverse and much more socially-just to make sure that we can emulate the values of Tata Madiba. That’s what I want for the university as well, to truly emulate Tata Madiba.

That means, at NMMU, we cannot have racist, sexist, homophobic and other anachronistic prejudices existing. That means that my students, black/white, men/women, rural/urban must live up to those values. We must live by the creeds of the constitution. That means that the parents that send their children to this university must know that when they come to NMMU, it is a university that stands for the values of Madiba.

Uncompromisingly and as difficult as it is, we must hold those values high up. I hope that you will become custodians of that and I really want to congratulate you on having achieved this personal dream. For those of you who want to study further, I really would welcome you back to the university; the gates will always be open. For those of you who are working out there, many congratulations and I hope only the very best for you, on the road that lies ahead. You’ll now be joining the alumni of the university. It now gives you a chance, when you earn a bit of money, to give something back to the next generation.

I really appeal for you to see this as an opportunity. Giving back is a liberating experience. Even if it’s R50, it can have a life changing impact on someone else. When you spend that as a tip at a restaurant, it can actually change the life of an individual."

Thank you

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057