Rebuilding Carthage

2010-09-11 11:58

As students, you have a ­historical responsibility not only to understand ­African society, but to change it – to play an active role in what Nelson Mandela described as “the rebuilding of Carthage”.

You should take action to promote the birth of that new Africa, especially as such action relates to what I ­describe as the renewal of the African university, and the expansion and accumulation of Africa’s intellectual capital.

Wisdom J Tettey, in his 2006 ­paper titled Staff Retention in African Universities, says: “Africa is ­losing, in significant numbers, a ­fundamental resource in socioeconomic and political development, ie its intellectual capital.

“As the processes of globalisation take shape, it is becoming abundantly clear that full, effective and beneficial participation in the world that is ­emerging will depend, in no small measure, on the ability of societies to build and take advantage of their ­human resources capabilities.

“In the absence of such capabilities, African countries cannot expect to compete, at any appreciable level, with their counterparts, not only in the ­industrialised world but from other ­developing areas that have made the ­investment and developed the relevant capacities . . . A solid higher education base is crucial for (social) transformation to take place.”

All of us are aware of the parlous state of the African university, the institution without which it is not possible to produce the intellectual capital we need.

Perhaps of greater concern is the ­difficulty the African universities are experiencing to recruit and retain ­qualified teaching staff.

This is compounded by the declining number of post-graduate and doctoral students, which means that our universities are not producing the adequate numbers of graduates empowered to serve as lecturers and replace those lost through retirement.

Add to this the enormous brain drain of which Africa is the ­victim.

Tettey noted that by 2000 Ghana had lost 42.9% of its total educated ­labour force.

In 1998 South Africans constituted the largest group of foreign dentists in the UK.

Only 50 out of 600 doctors trained in Zambia since ­independence were still practising in Zambia.

More Malawian doctors were practising in the city of Manchester in the UK than in the whole of Malawi.

One estimate said that Africa lost $1.2 billion of investment in the 60 000 professionals who left the continent between 1985 and 1990.

All this tells the truly frightening ­story that even as we are confronted with a weakening capacity of our ­universities to generate the new ­intellectual capital Africa needs, our continent continues to lose much of this capital through the brain drain caused by the emigration of our university and higher education graduates to the developed countries of the north.

All contemporary demographic ­projections point to the reality that ­developed countries will depend on ­ever increasing numbers of foreign workers – professional and skilled workers – to meet their economic and social needs because of the ­“ageing” phenomenon.

This means there may very well be an even higher demand for the ­services of Africa’s professionals as the loss of ­intellectual capital so vital for the ­renewal of our continent ­intensifies.

Our continent arrived at this juncture not by accident, but by design.

The structural adjustment programmes of the international financial institutions insisted on the reduction of the role of the African state in higher education and therefore transformed education into a commodity that could be sold by ­private capital for a profit.

This was accompanied by the then growing hostility of the ruling African elites towards the universities, which they saw as centres of opposition to their predatory rule.

Centres of resistance had to be ­destroyed as focal points of progressive thought and activism, as Carthage was by the Romans.

It was this pincer movement that ­produced the crisis in African higher education we must now address.

In the context of my own upbringing, that ­crisis manifested itself in the virtual disappearance of eminent centres of learning, progressive thought and ­action, such as the Universities of Fort Hare, Ibadan, Makerere, Khartoum and Dar es Salaam.

I believe that, as young leaders, you should realise that:

» Education, including higher ­education, is a public good and higher education should be equally ­accessible to all on the basis of ­potential and ­demonstrated academic merit;

» Governments have a responsibility to finance education, consistent with their ability;

» ?Beyond this, other means should be found to supplement government ­funding without turning education into a commodity;

» Higher education should be transformed sharply to enhance its relevance and responsiveness to the political, social and economic realities of ­African countries, and should focus on the eradication of poverty and underdevelopment as well as the ­development of the ethical citizen;

» The system of higher education must address the challenges relating to gender and racial inequality, academic freedom, the brain drain, the dropout levels and the lack of graduate preparedness for the labour market;

» Greater attention should be paid to original research as well as the ­expansion of the cadre of post-graduate ­students; and

» Students should be included in the governance systems of the universities, enjoying the right to organise and to ­express their opinions.

African intellectuals need a new self-definition, as many of our finest writers have argued.

Our student leaders must position themselves as allies with the masses in the struggle for the progressive transformation of our continent.

It was obviously not a pleasant thing that more than three decades ago the African university lost its privileged place as a pampered home of a young elite.

That loss of privilege provided our students with the opportunity to look more realistically at their place in ­society – no longer part of a predatory caste, but a specially empowered segment of African society.

This means that one of the tasks of our student leaders and the students they lead is to finally break the mould in which the university is defined as an “ivory tower”.

The African university must be seen in the eyes of the African masses as a critically important part of the common patrimony they should value – positioned to help the masses rid ­themselves of the ills that afflict them, including illiteracy, poverty, ­underdevelopment, death from curable diseases, and exploitation and abuse by a self-seeking elite.

The regenerated African university must be the principal driver of an ­intellectual awakening that will ­empower the people of Africa to ­remake our societies and our ­continent.

You – our student leaders and the ­students you lead – must, through your actions, place yourselves among the principal architects of the new African university.

» Mbeki is a former president of South Africa. This is an edited version of an address he gave at the All Africa Students’ Union conference at University of Cape Town recently.

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