Every generation has its own celebrity academics. In my time, the late professor Eskia Mphahlele was one. His famous book Down Second Avenue made him a hit among students.
Mphahlele came from the era before Mac-speeches, where a speaker uses the same speech everywhere regardless of the audience.
I heard the professor speak on two occasions. The first time was at the University of the North, to which he had been invited by the Azanian Students’ Organisation.
The apartheid-enforcing arm of the Special Branch police were all around the great hall where he was due to speak. The hall was overflowing with young minds eager to listen to the brave professor. Suddenly the electricity was cut off, but the students did not budge. They were prepared to listen to the good professor speaking, even without a microphone. After about half an hour or so the electricity was restored. His speech was electric. It was as if the newly restored power was running underneath the audience, exciting the students and shocking the Special Branch outside.
Mphahlele spoke about actors and reactors. Many leaders were reacting to the brutality of the apartheid system but not acting on building a nation, he said.
The second time I heard him speak was at a graduation ceremony at the University of Zululand, where he was a guest speaker and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi was the chancellor. Mphahlele reminded the graduands as they sat in the room that a graduation was only a celebration of the beginning, and so by inference the real work was about to begin, which would determine whether theirs was a life worthy of celebration or not.
Last week I attended a conference called the SuperLead Summit, which was started by a young leader who I’ve known for a few years now, Maanda Tshifularo. When professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, deputy mother and vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, entered the room, the audience went gaga as if a hip-hop star was about to begin a rendition of their favourite song.
Africa is rich in resources, especially intellectual resources, and Phakeng is an example of that. The hip professor’s speech, in effect, raised a giant mirror for Africans to look at themselves. She spoke about how when a new leader is elected in the Western world we are quick to ask the question: “What is their agenda for Africa?”
When Theresa May came to South Africa, under pressure for a Brexit deal, we wanted to laden her with our burdens.
The professor instead asks a crucial question: “What is Africa’s agenda for Africa?”
China, Russia and the US have publicly stated agendas for Africa. As China makes bold investments on the continent, many Africans react predictably – they complain of Chinese colonisation.
The African Union has proven to be a self-preservation club for walking fossils and dictators, instead of a vibrant organisation that plans the future of Africa.
Phakeng’s point is not an admonishment, but a wake-up call for young businesses. Even though your business may be small – a township start-up, for example – you must put in your business plan, your strategy for beyond the South African borders.
Many developed countries have geriatric markets and labour forces, yet Africa, which has the youngest population, is failing to explore its youth dividend.
Our ancestors failed to benefit from natural resources because of colonisation. It would be despicable if future generations fail to utilise human resources because this generation failed to develop an agenda for the future. But there is no reason to despair because there are young organisations such as SuperLead, which is setting the agenda for young Africans.
Kuzwayo is the founder of Ignitive, an advertising agency