Human Development and an Ethical Life – Lecture by N Barney Pityana

The text of a lecture by Professor Pityana at the University of Mpumalanga, Mbombela, on October 17:

HUMAN DEVELOPMENT and AN ETHICAL LIFE: The Challenge of the Modern University

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba and family, through the Archbishop Thabo Makgoba Development Trust, are to be commended for establishing this endowment fund for the purpose of a series of lectures on the subject of moral leadership. It is even more so that in doing so the Makgobas have dedicated this lecture to a partnership with universities across the country. Among the beneficiaries to this largess is the University of Mpumalanga, one of the newest of our national institutions of higher learning. As such this university has the luxury of innovation and creativity, blazing a trail in higher education never before traversed. It is nonetheless a daunting challenge, and it brings with it raised expectations.

The challenge of higher education has never been faced quite like it is happening in our day. Since the Commission on Higher Education was established in 1995, and whose report findings and recommendations informed the then new Higher Education Act 1997, and gave form and shape to the system of higher education in South Africa. Of necessity, the new Act as well as the higher education system which it founded, were crafted with a backward glance, but with clarity about the way ahead. It was informed by the experiences under apartheid so as to create an education system compatible with international practice. The Separation of Universities Act 1959, tribalised or ethnicised South African universities. The white universirties were not left untouched. They too were separated into English and Afrikaans universities. Language was meant to create barriers to access except for those prepared to abide by the cultureal determinants associated with the language. Thus the political stranglehold of apartheid affected the entirety of the university system.

Unashamedly, this transgression was not merely about language, religion or culture, it was ideological. It sought to entrench a system of ideas and knowledge, that essentialised whire, European, Reformed thinking into the fabric of the South African politics, and to ensure the domination of and hegemony of the politics of the country for the foresseable future. Over the years, this put South Africa on a path, then considered irreversible, but that parted ways not just with the norms of higher education and scholarship the world over, but also with Africa, with Africa’s rich and exciting history of knowledge and scientific advancement. For all intents and purposes Africa was wiped out of the slate of the knowledge endeavour.

Universities then like the new University of Mpumalanga, have the exciting prospect of charting new ground, walking the paths of scholarship as they are being made, and redefining what the nature and character of a university could be in the South Africa as we envisage its future. Thus, inasmuch as 1995 was ineluctably about undoing the damage visited upon this nation by apartheid, in 2015/16 it was now time to face a bright and bold new future. It is a future of re-thinking the idea of the university, laying the foundations afresh on an idea of our own making. It was, I believe, about re-building a new future. It may be easy to assume that this task was easy, but it was not to be. It was not easy in part because it carried with it the burden of experimenting, devoid of certainties and smart solutions that one has come to expect. It requires the courage to make mistakes and to learn from them. It also means that we shall have to operate with a mood of suspicion, taking some entrenched ideas with a pinch of salt, and by trusting our instincts as we forge towards the future. In other words, the very idea of the university itself must be the subject of fresh thought, its purpose must be investigated afresh, and its ideal has salience not so much because of the ideology it carves that causes it to be binding on others, but exactly because it is an idea whose time has come. The psychology of oppression is such that it is capable of causing the victim to truly believe that one cannot survive without it, or if one does, one can only use the oppressive system as a reference point for ideas. We become dependent on the oppressive system itself to free ourselves from it, so the wisdom goes. That cannot be.

Such a University must be founded on the principles of truth, justice, innovation, creativity, and to set out on a venture of discovery. That requires more and not less freedom. The bedrock of such an institution will be curiosity, passion, with vulnerability and humility. That is a combination of being bold to try new things, test unknown vistas of knowledge, and the courage to forge ahead in full knowledge that history may prove one to have been wrong. There is no point in being right and do nothing. Above all, staff and students, with the community they serve are buoyed by the love of learning – culture, litearature, the arts, religion, the sciences, technology and all that makes for human flourishing.

So understood, what matters is no so much the walls and portals, the architectural wonder tat good universities can be, vital as all that may be, not just students and professors within it, however essential they may be to the task of a university. It is rather at all times the people who ultimately are the beneficiaries of the knowledge that is hammered out betwixt the hammer and the anvil of the university. Debates about anti-colonialism, the struggles against imperialism, or even Africanisation, may have a limited lifespan in the fashions of learning and scholarship, but more vital is how we are to confront the problems, possibilities and challenges of the present to shape a better future.

In 2015/16 we are confronted by a crazy world of Donald Trump, Un Jun Kim of North Korea and others whose blinkered preoccupation with power and narrow nationalisms on the brink of the precipice. They carry on regardless in a new venture of “greatness” as defined in narrow nationalistic terms. These new nationalism pose dangers to the peace and prosperity of the world and are not much different from Hitler’s Nazi ideology! But even more, they cast a pall on the idea of ideas, the exhileration of knowledge and the excitement of scholarship. In their vocabulary science is a tool for mutual destruction – and no more. Or watch the madness of modernist identity politics that is tearing Europe apart as we speak – whither Spain without Catalan, or Ukraine or Brexit! We now face a world where the finger is on the nuclea button dangerously poised at the slightest sign of defiance by North Korea.

But nonetheless, science now explores the vastness and the depths of the oceans, the galaxies of the stars, and exploring new planets for signs of life and human sustainability. The environment and the climate change, with the ecology thereof beckon towards new and expanded ways of understanding how our world functions. Land and sea, and sky and all that is in them, with the human curiosity, are all that make human intelligence and sustainability vital. We live in a world where viortually anything has become possible. Our sons and daughters no longer just sudy philosophy but artificial intelligence and robotics have so advanced technology that informations travels vast spaces at the speed of light, and drone-technology now showes us that we could have driver-less (meaning self-drive) motor vehicles on our roads in no time. Such is the brave new world withon our grasp. For that a new university is called for. Africa has the hisdtorical possibility of now being one with and equal to anyone as the creators and developers of new knowledge. Africans are there among the best in the new science and technology.

This is the era of the fourth industrial revolution. The dark satanic mills of Charles Dickens may be no more, having given way to exploration of the minutest detail of the cosmos and particles of matter. We are facing a future not just of uncertainty, but where new know ledge gives humankind the capacity to explore some hitherto unknown reaches of the universe, and to stretch into the deepest recesses of the human mind. However, that knowledge carries with it the resurgent idea of what it is to be human. The being of humanity has taken centre stage, both about the span and extent of human knowledge, but also the freedom to think the hitherto unthinkable. The fourth technological revolution is an invitation, an invitation to explore, to search, to discover, and it is the promise of even more freedom, and greater knowledge. As human beings we are poised between the knowledge of human agency, and the recognition of human limitations in realising what we desire. Universities therefore are challenged to shape new ideologies and structures of belief and engagement. That is because universities must now serve masters different from and set apart even from much that we have known before. I have the idea that the recent FeesMustFall Movement that swept through our univsity campuses in the last two years simply scratched the surface of the challenges of our age, but failed to realise this moment of destiny, a time when the prospect of shaping a new university was tantalisingly close, but needed the partnership of all social and intellectual forces and partners for change. This is more than ‘free higher education’, and even more than pronouncements about being black and made to feel insignificant at our universities and experiencing hardship and alienation, important as all that must be. It my view, the challenge is to establish a developmental university.

A developmental university, therefore is shaped by an intelligent understanding of how human nature finds development and sustainability within and beyond a world that is forever changing. A developmental university is not stand-still, waiting for the inevitable to happen. It creates and it anticipates; it defies at times the laws of nature and makes new laws and reality possible; and it seeks to advance the common good. As a site of learning it is alive to the opportunities and prospects for developing and discovering knowledge. It is developmental in that it is not confined to or discouraged by the limitations and inadequacies one finds, but has the insight to discern new possibilities and prospects. It embraces the mission to extract value out of potential. And it dares to believe in a better world. It accepts that the world as we have it is both finite in that it does not last forever, and it is changing in the sense that it will not remain unmoved for ever. Humans in that environment are not the unmoved mover of philosophy, but seek that which sustains human wellbeing and betterment.

Sustainability is not and can never be about living with changelessness. Rather it is as former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams (2012:235) says, living with a future that may not be yet, but that which can be imagined. That which can be imagined, can become appropriated already, it has a place in our hearts and minds, and it raises a commitment to work towards its realisation. It traces continuities and discontinuities with the present. Sustainability entails solidarity, ingenuity and continuity. Sustanable environments put on the present generation both an appreciation of value, and a responsibility towards what we already have, in order that a future pregnant with meaning can unfold. Sustainability is to trace a thread of meaning and value from the present to a distant future.

But this idea of a developmental university draws partially from the concept of a developmental state. Such a state is one which becomes the driver of human capital and development. It is a strong and intervening state in public affairs. The state, however, becomes the servant of the people, draws its authority from the relationship with the people ultimately for the good of the people. The energies of the state, its intelligence and wealth have no other value apart from the people for whose benefit and in whose interest it seeks to serve. The development one refers to here is much more than “developmentalism” in political economic theory. Rather it is both a political and an ethical concept. It is so because it is about human well-being, or wellness, about human flourishing in a world that is in constant flux. It behoves to point out that what has been woefully lacking at our campuses through the “FeesMustFall” protests is the readiness to engage in a conversation whose purpose will be to hammer a new idea of the university. It may well be that the structures of the university shaped as they are by Eurocentric notions of organisation of knowledge systems and power relations may not have served this ideal of dialogue as equals. Dialogue is what we deserve as a people. Dialogue comes out of a recognition that none of us actually possess all knowledge, neither do we have all the answers, nor do we have the monopoly of solutions to problems. By dialogue we enrich one another, and we are freed in mind and spirit to be, out of a recognition that all of us have a stake in an enriched future.

The UNDP has developed the Human Development Index as a “statistical tool” to measure societal achievement not as a matter for individual achievement and satisfaction in the numbers per se, but as a measure of well-being of humanity as social, economic as well as the environment in which they exist and get fulfilment. It has thus been said that people and their well-being become the measure of society’s development. As such human development is not mere economic statistics but it is about people. There is an important principle about human development that is central to the literature on human development. Human development is about exercising and enlarging freedoms so that human beings can pursue their life choices that they value, to their own flourishing and cognisant of the well being of others. This freedom comes in two forms. One, freedom of well being, expressed in functionalities and capabilities in life – to enjoy longer and rewarding life,healthy life, education opportunities, a more decent standard of living, and a caring environment. Freedom of agency is about giving voice to matters of substance and that matter to you, and to be able to exercise human agency independently, as an autonomous being. A life lived under such circumstances gives people a confidence to believe that they are in charge of their lives, can make decisions and choices and can determine their future and their life circumstances.

Human development of the people is, says the UNDP Human Development Report, is “development of the people through building human capabilities by the people through active participation in the processes that shape their lives, and for the people by improving their lives.” Translated to a developmental universal then this becomes an idea (rather than an institution, as in buildings and walls!) that human flourishing and fulfilment is derived from human solidarity explored through a variety of knowledge systems so as to make for a better world. A developmental university places humanity at the centre of its mission for the advancement of knowledge. In a developmental university, I believe, students are partners and co-creators in learning and scholarship not for their own sake or benefit, but so as to extend the range of agency for the good of the people in society.

The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996) has some immortal words in the Preamble thereto when it sets as the intent of the Constitution, namely, “ to improve the quality of life of all citizens and free the potential of each person…” In putting it like this, the drafters of the Constitution make the point that human flourishing and well being are never just a products of the present, or what is. It is also about the potentiality that lies unrecognised in us, which once brought out to flourish will create a new human being. Every person, therefore, eevery situation, is capable of development. In a very deep sense that is just what a University stands for. It prepares us for the present, but that it also mines value out of that which is not yet seen. That statement must, I believe, be read with the Founding Provisions of the Constitution in s. 1 that the Republic of South Africa is “one, sovereign, dand democratic state founded on the following values…(a) human dignity, the achievement of equality, and th advanc meant of human rights and freedoms..” Like glove-in-hand this developmental task would not be possible without a commanding vision that is necessary to assure human sustenance, and the assurance of rights that makes human development to become fulfilled. The modern university in South Africa therefore is set within a premise of values of the Constitution that facilitate its developmental mission.

I have often argued that, in a rather perverse manner, we are indebted to President Jacob Zuma and his merry men and women meddlers, that South Africa has developed an amazing body of jurisprudence pertaining to good governance in a constitutional state. Were it not for that we would have been in a worse state, with an autocratic president, dominance by a supine parliament and a president who is more comfortable as a leader in a feudal state. If you like we would have to contend with a President for Life and a One party state. Of course, in saying so, one must give due regard to the vigilance and ingenuity of some in the Opposition benches in Parliament, and civil society organisations, including the churches, who have been relentless in calling the President to account, and stemming the abuse of power. Had it not been for the Constitution and the courts, among such groundbreaking decisions have been the insertion of the duty to ensure that any exercise of public power must be both legal and rational intended only to achieve the purpose for which it is intended. The Presidential prerogative in making appointments and making pronouncements must also satisfy the President’s duty to “uphold, defend and respect the Constitution as the supreme law of the Republic” (s.83(b)). There is also the added obligation that being the supreme law of the Republic, law and conduct inconsistent with the Constitution is invalid, and the obligations prescribed therein are binding. The protection of the independence of independent constitutional bodies like the NPA, and the Hawks and SIU have been protected, and the integrity of appointments made by the President have been tested and at times declared invalid where they failed the constitutional muster. The exercise of the powers of the Speaker of the National Assembly, and the of extent of the powers and privileges of Parliament in relation to freedom of speech, among others have also been tested. Last week, we had yet another judgment by the SCA pronouncing on the rationality of the decision of then Acting NDPP to withdraw the criminal charges against Mr Jacob Zuma. This happened ahead of his election as President in 2009. A succession of decisions of the Constitutional Court have opened the eyes of the electorate to the perverse effects of “state capture”. There can be hardly any South African today who does not recognise that so much is remiss in the affairs of state, thanks to the media and to a civil society that is consciousand vigilant about the limits of state power. That is what has made our democracy so healthy, less due to the conviction of our political leaders rather it has been through a vigilant media and civil society. Sadly, universities though guaranteed institutional autonomy, and researchers and scholars, “academic freedom and freedom of scientific research” (s.16(1)(d)) by the Constitution, have been subjected to aggressive encroachments to this prized autonomy.

Placed that against the commitment enshrined in the National Development Plan that by 2030 South Africa would eliminate poverty and reduce inequality, it is not hard to find that the government under President Zuma is bound to fail in its own objectives. The NDP has the proud endorsement of all the political formations and parties in Parliament. It reflects the greatest consensus there could be short of the Constitution about a common vision, and a shared future for our country. What the NDP fails to impose sadly is a rigorous system of good governance. With so much poverty, inequality and hunger defined in terms of black and white, women and men, as well as rural and urban, South Africa is arguably more divided today than it was even under apartheid. With a burgeoning and hardly regulated immigration, planning is at risk of becoming uncontrollable. With spiralling crime, sprawling non formal conurbations, an education system in crisis and under-performing in terms of expectations, and with official unemployment statistics at nearly 28% without any sign that the government has the intellectual means of arresting the slide, and where more than 50% of young people between the ages of 19-35 years in chronic unemployment, and into that cocktail of failure to govern, add corruption and you have a society at the point of ungovernability. The economy is in doldrums and society is not given any confidence that government plans will improve the dysfunctional performance of the economy, growth at doldrums, state owned enterprises serving no more than milch cows for the criminal enrichment of the political elite. Such a government fails not just itself in terms of what it had promised, it fails the people especially the young whose future is blighted.

Instead we have a Head of State facing hundreds of charges for corruption, an economy in doldrums, ministers serving only their own and their Master’s aggrandisement. In total we have a government that is classically the very anti-thesis of a developmental state, a I have defined it. As matters currently stand, democracy has become meaningless, and merely a prisoner of those whose career is stealing and looting from state coffers.

I make that detour only to state that a developmental university in a state is not always or just a silent partner, but that at times it is an adversary. It is a partner whenever the state seeks intellectual resources, research or training or ideas to enhance its provision of the public goods. However, whenever the state evinces conduct and practices inimical to the very idea of a University, it becomes the duty of the university to call the state into its mission and value in the interests of the mission of the university itself. Th university cannot be separated from the highest ideals of being human. When it does so, it fails in its mission.

Archbishop Thabo Makgoba Annual Lecture on Ethics and Moral leadership

University of Mpumalanga

Mbombela, 17 October 2017.

Prof Pityana is an adviser to the Thabo Mbeki Foundation; the retired Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of South Africa (UNISA); Professor emeritus of Law, UNISA; and Visiting Professor in Philosophy Department, Rhodes University.

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