Engaging with great minds

2014-03-18 00:00

DURING February, I had the privilege of attending my second South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) national council meeting at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg.

This year, SAIIA is celebrating 80 years since the institute’s founding in Cape Town. Its establishment was linked to the Paris Peace Conference held in 1919 at end of World War 1. Attendees at the peace conference recognised how important it was to establish forums where international affairs could be discussed by ordinary citizens, rather than just by the aristocracy and, in essence, began a process of democratising international relations.

The national chairperson, Fred Phaswana, started proceedings by saying that attending the council meeting is a highlight on his calendar, and I couldn’t agree more. It’s an opportunity to engage with incredible minds about fascinating subjects. It’s like receiving knowledge and inspiration intravenously for a whole morning, and the best bit is, you are permitted to ask whatever you like — there are no holy cows in the room. Above all, I value and treasure the frankness of those discussions.

In his statement last year, Phaswana said: “The wonder of a democracy, muddled as it is, lies in its frankness, its encouragement of candid dialogue, and its interrogation of situations without fear: we learn from our mistakes and build on successes. These factors permit democracies to rejuvenate themselves. We should have the courage to stand up to our shortcomings in order to emerge better. Denialism is the province of the weak and the refuge of the insecure.”

SAIIA’s mandate is to provide debating forums, to produce quality and relevant research, and to encourage greater awareness of global issues and to foster discussion about what we could still be.

SAIIA has just been named sub-Saharan Africa’s top think tank (for the fifth year running) in the annual University of Pennsylvania survey of global think tanks. This is no small feat. This annual survey is considered to be the most comprehensive ranking of the world’s top think tanks. Based on a global peer and expert survey of more than 1 950 scholars, policy-makers, journalists, and regional and area experts from 120 countries, it covers 6 603 think tanks across the globe, 554 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, SAIIA is ranked 81st in the world (45th outside of the U.S.), 46th for outstanding policy-orientated research programmes, and it has been rated as the top international development think tank in Africa (27th in the world).

Think tanks like SAIIA not only provide valuable insight, they also play a critical role in policy formulation and debate. We should make use of the valuable intelligence that they provide, but more than that, we should embrace them, help them to become sustainable, and respect, support and treasure their independence. We should engage with them and become active citizens in our democracy.

Pietermaritzburg is the only city in KwaZulu-Natal that has a branch of SAIIA. The branch is linked to our chamber and I am determined to give the Pietermaritzburg community access to the intelligence that SAIIA gathers on our behalf. I would encourage you to have a look online at some of its recent work, like the survey of external foreign-policy practitioners on South Africa’s Africa agenda, or the work on constraints facing business in the Southern African Development Community. There has also been valuable research done on the foreign policies of Brics countries, with a view to identifying ways in which we can optimise our membership of Brics.

I am equally determined to give you the opportunity to enjoy some of the frank discussions that I am privy to.

Our first SAIIA function this year is a breakfast, which will be held on Thursday. We are hosting the deputy chairperson of SAIIA, renowned author and political analyst Moeletsi Mbeki. He will talk about recent developments in labour-ANC relationships. If you’d like to attend, please contact Lorna Jones at 033 345 2747 or at function@pcb.org.za

• Melanie Veness is the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.

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