Former president Thabo Mbeki.

THABO MBEKI

FIRST of all I would like to congratulate UNISA, including its Council, Senate, the SRC and the Trade Unions for the bold step they have taken to establish the Thabo Mbeki African School on Public and International Affairs. Indeed I am humbled by the decision to attach my name to this important School.

A College Library at Dr es Salaam University has a number of Doctoral Theses and Master’s Dissertations produced by Tanzanian scholars. It is important to note that these scholars graduated at Universities in various countries including Tanzania, South Africa, China, Germany, the UK, the United States and so on.

Here are a few examples of these Theses and Dissertations:

  • one is about “Early Career Academics’ Professional Experiences within a Neoliberal Context: A Case of the University of Dar es Salaam”;
  • another concerns the “Employability of Higher Education Institutions Graduates: Exploring the Influence of Entrepreneurship Education and Employability Skills Development Program Activities in Tanzania”;
    yet another concerns “Perceptions of Climate Change, Environmental Variability and The Role of Agricultural Adaptation Strategies by Small-Scale Farmers in Africa…”
  •  another is a “Taxonomic Study of Selected Aloe species of Tanzania and the Associated Indigenous Knowledge”;
  • one is an “Analysis of the Factors in Soil Water Management Practices of Small Holder Farmers in (a District in Tanzania)”;
  • another concerns “Modelling Optimal Control of a Threatened Prey-Predator System: A Case of Wildebeest-Lion Prey-Predator Relationship in the Serengeti Ecosystem”;
  • yet another is an “Assessment of Concentrations of Trace and Toxic Heavy Metals in Soil and Vegetables Grown in the Vicinity of Manyoni Uranium Deposit in Tanzania”;
    and one is about “Mathematical Modeling and Optional Control of Malaria”.

I have cited these Doctoral Theses and Master’s Dissertations because over the years many of our educationists have expressed grave concerns about what they said was the failure of our Universities to produce new and relevant knowledge.

For instance in 2009 the Association of African Universities published the:

“Abuja Declaration on Sustainable Development in Africa: The Role of Higher Education”.

The Declaration acknowledged that:

“The real challenges for sustainable development in Africa are the promotion of economic and industrial development, the eradication of poverty, the resolution of conflicts, and the optimum use of its natural resources.

“The African Higher Education research agenda tends to focus on purely academic and scientific objectives in order to ensure publication in refereed journals, with little regard to developmental needs because of the “publish or perish” syndrome,

“Most of the research works in Africa are rarely relevant to the search for continental solutions to health, education, water, climate change, energy and food security – all sustainable development indices.

“Where research has been conducted in relevant areas, the findings have remained largely on shelves and unavailable to those who need to take action or implement the often useful recommendations…”

In 2011 the outstanding scholar, Goolam Mohamedbhai, former Secretary General of the Association of African Universities, former President of the International Association of Universities, and former Vice Chancellor of the University of Mauritius, wrote:

“Most faculty undertake research for personal gain, with the aim of publishing in internationally refereed journals for promotion purposes.

The chosen topic is often not appropriate to national development. Most faculty do their research as individuals; there is insufficient multidisciplinary research, essential for solving development problems. Much of the research is externally funded, and being determined by the funders, the topics may not be of direct relevance to national development. Research publication comprises another challenge. Most of the research results end up on university library shelves—in theses and dissertations or advanced research journals. They are, thus, not accessible to or understood by policymakers or communities.”

While I respect the comments by the Association of African Universities, Professor Mohamedbhai and others who have made similar observations, we must draw inspiration from the fact that nevertheless, as illustrated by the Doctoral Theses and Master’s Dissertations produced by Tanzanian scholars, new and relevant knowledge is being produced by African scholars.

However it will be vitally important that our African School on Public and International Affairs, the TM School, takes seriously the critical remarks made by African scholars about scholarship on our Continent, thus to avoid the negative tendencies that have been identified.

Yet another African scholar, Emeritus Professor Eldred Durosimi Jones of the University of Sierra Leone, has pointed to one of the challenges facing our Universities.

Writing in 2004 he said:

“On graduation…in most parts of Africa, our students are faced with unemployment. This is a social problem which has already resulted in a growing class of dissident disaffected citizens ripe for disruptive anti-social action. It is our business in our tertiary institutions to look into the causes of unemployment and see how we can counter them.”

It would seem obvious that in examining this matter as suggested by Professor Jones, the TM School would be well advised to look at experiences on this matter from elsewhere in the world.

Immediately I am thinking of comments made five years ago, in 2015, relating to the well-known Duke University in the United States of America.

These comments were made in an article by a US professional economist, Bryan Williams, who had studied at Duke. The article was headed: “Elite Universities Are Turning Our Kids Into Corporate Stooges!”

Mr Williams wrote:

“Duke is a business, as are all colleges, and everyone has their job. The professors cared more about their real job (publishing in academic journals) than teaching. The administrators were corporate types who spent most of their time fundraising…The students were taught, usually not very thoroughly and mostly by an overburdened set of graduate students and part-time instructors…And attached to it all was the basketball industrial complex, a multimillion dollar enterprise awkwardly selling itself as caring about the educational prospects of its athletes. It was a massive system built not around education, but status.

“Some university presidents are remarkably candid about how they’ve transformed their institutions to serve market imperatives. Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the former president of George Washington University, acknowledges that he worked to transform the school into a luxury brand. “College is like vodka, he liked to explain,” the New York Times reported in February. “Vodka is by definition a flavorless beverage. It all tastes the same. But people will spend $30 for a bottle of Absolut because of the brand.” The implication: All higher education is the same. Some schools are just cooler than others.

“The [2008/2009] financial crisis confounded most neoliberal beliefs about how the world works…It should have provoked serious philosophical thought about our society’s value system, and the university should be the philosophical thought center of society. But elite universities still largely initiate elite students into the corporate ruling class, and themselves embody the competitiveness and preoccupation with status that vex larger society.

“…we are letting our most talented students, who could be the next generation of thinkers, be drawn into jobs where they devise new ways to separate workers from their salaries or to help millionaires avoid paying taxes. We’re allowing the big business of college to dominate the real purpose of education, which is to learn to question everything, not make sure you’re on time to your Bain Capital interview.”

As Professor Jones had said, we are indeed faced with the challenge to help answer the question – what should be done to avoid or minimise the problem of unemployed university graduates?

But surely the TM School will have to avoid the consequence so graphically described by Bryan Williams of Turning (Its Students) Into Corporate Stooges!

I believe that in this context the School should pay close attention to some particular observations made by Mr Williams. Here I refer to his remarks where he says:

“the university should be the philosophical thought centre of society…

“…we are letting our most talented students, who could be the next generation of thinkers, be drawn into jobs where they devise new ways to separate workers from their salaries or to help millionaires avoid paying taxes.

“We are allowing the big business of college to dominate the real purpose of education, which is to learn to question everything…”

Professor Jones, whom we have cited, commented on these issues when he spoke on:

“African Academics and African Universities in the Twenty-First Century: Needs and Responsibilities.”

Here is what he said:

“…our (African) societies have been more inclined to take for granted as most desirable models, the thoughts as well as the artefacts of the dominant colonial culture – artefacts indeed which we cannot now do without: electricity, cars, telephones, television, western music and literature etc. We can adopt all these but will be only mimics if we do not adopt them fully conscious of our own history, culture and traditions, our social institutions and our arts. We must adopt a critical attitude both to what we have and what has been brought to us.

This should be a guiding principle in the selection of what we teach and how we teach it. African writers, the creators of the new literature, give us a useful lead into this area of critical thinking. Our aim in teaching should be to produce men and women who are both critical and creative. Our students should be encouraged to be thinkers and doers rather than accumulators of facts and received knowledge. This must be so if they are to be instruments of change, working towards the realisation of a just and consequently, stable society.”

The Abuja Declaration of the Association of African Universities we cited earlier says, among others:

“The real challenges for sustainable development in Africa are the promotion of economic and industrial development, the eradication of poverty, the resolution of conflicts, and the optimum use of its natural resources.”

Though incomplete, this statement goes some way towards identifying Africa’s central challenges. Over the decades of independence our Continent has learnt some lessons as it has grappled with the task successfully to respond to the challenges stated by the Association of African Universities and other challenges it did not list.

One important lesson is and has been that for Africa to succeed it requires, especially, Quality Leadership! Here I would like to mention:

quality political leadership; and,
quality intellectual leadership!
It therefore stands to reason that, as clearly stated by the Association of African Universities, the African University must play a strategic role in helping our Continent successfully to respond to its major challenges by producing the men and women who will provide the required Intellectual Leadership!

I am convinced that the TM School must position itself as a Home of Excellence in this regard.

To respond to the challenges stated by Bryan Williams, Prof Durosimi Jones and others, the School must strive:

to serve as a philosophical thought centre of society;
to train the next generation of thinkers who would learn how to question everything, in order to create new knowledge – men and women who would be critical and creative;

  • to produce thinkers and doers at various levels of learning, rather than accumulators of facts and received knowledge;
  • to add to the number of scholars like the Tanzanian scholars who have produced the Theses and Dissertations we mentioned; and,
    to ensure that the new knowledge does not, as the Association of African Universities said, “remain largely on shelves and unavailable to those who need to take action or implement the often useful recommendations.”

I therefore wish the UNISA TM School success as it establishes itself as a Centre of Excellence dedicated to the Pan-African task to produce some of the Intellectual Leadership Africa needs!

(This is the statement of the Patron of the TMF, Thabo Mbeki, at the Virtual Launch of the UNISA Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs: 22 September, 2020.)

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