Inspiring management students and MBAs to be future stewards of our democratisation journey

2013-04-26 11:40

Despite being one of the most unequal societies in the world, many local management scholars and political leaders display an uncritical, conforming attitude towards the Western economic system as a standard to follow. And even as we bear witness to a major economic downturn in the West and consequently increased joblessness and the destruction of its communities, we remain in awe of their technological prowess and material affluence. To safeguard our democratisation journey we need to challenge conventional wisdom and create a new conceptualization of management education. The intention here is to mobilize intellectuals, academics, students, open minded managers and corporations to deliver hope in gloomy times. Unless we tackle the crucial problems posed by conventional management education, any hope remaining in South Africa’s democratisation journey, may simply vanish soon.

Academic Activism

One of the fundamental tasks of educators in South Africa remains working towards constructing a more socially just nation. Many of us will need to interrogate whose “interests” we are serving by the way we have been serving up management education to our students. We also need to interrogate how it might be possible to understand and engage the diverse contexts in which management education has an influence – including those communities in our society that have been excluded in the past. Furthermore, we should view the role of management education as a public good. We also need to be directly involved in activism by re-positioning our scholarly publications so that they are accessible to popular outlets, or by publicly addressing contentious subjects. For instance, we need more case studies that critically analyse morally dubious arrangements between the state and corporations. Lastly, we should invite our students to critically interrogate the transformative capacity of management practices in shaping our democracy.

Flexible Perspectives

Scholars should be mindful when advocating profitmaking as the only essence of democracy. Convincing students that the “good life” is one’s ability to accumulate material wealth is too simplistic. We should not be unreasonable when rebuking sentiments that promote government intervention and notions of a welfare state – especially when they are defined in a just and balanced way. We should also not rigidly contest the need for adequate representation of labour via the trade union movements. After all, despite the recent economic meltdown and corporate scandals such and Enron, Parmalat, and locally Saambou – interrogating the reasons behind corporate and recent market failures are often ignored or glossed over in our classrooms. Students must be exposed evenly to the interplay between the tensions of the dogmatic free market ideologies on the one hand with radical socially democratic ideals on the other. What is certain is that handing over power to either the managerial elites or state bureaucrats is not the solution to our problem. Therefore we need to expand our conceptualization of management education with notions of human rights, economic justice, and civil liberties and participation.

Ethics as the cornerstone

While the need for better business ethics education seems obvious, standalone ethics courses are giving students a false impression of what ethics is all about. Given the stop-gap treatment of ethics in our curriculum, students are unable to draw a link between the seemingly neutral topics in management and their inherent ethical problems. One of the culturally chauvinistic response one encounters in academia and in many organizations for treating ethics rather cosmetically, is the belief that ethics cannot be taught. Yet the same naysayers will profess that students are able to grasp leadership, conflict management, negotiations – and other arguably more complex behaviorally-based management skills. Unless we act more decisively by packaging ethics more holistically within the curriculum, students will believe that practicing managers have little or no legal and ethical responsibilities to society.

Contextually Relevant Research

Despite the need for us to apply our minds to contribute towards our democratization process, local management educators prefer to conduct “politically arid and morally vacuous” research. Mainstream local research is largely led by fads from the West. The challenge of addressing issues pertinent to global and local management as it relates to furthering our democracy – which relies on explaining, understanding and transforming our unequal social context – are largely ignored. We need to shift from research that focuses on narrow corporate needs towards those that will meet the demands of research for the public good of the country. Management research should pay more attention to addressing sticky problems such as how we should repackage the post-apartheid economy, and address unemployment and poverty.

Community Engagement

Although community engagement is one of the core responsibilities of higher education, and despite clear policy mandates that community engagement is an important task, some higher education institutions continue to abandon this pillar. Service to the community is the ultimate responsibility of the future stewards of our country’s people and resources. Management education must strive to use community projects as an engaging method of learning. Community projects can be an effective approach for holding management students responsible – for reflecting together – on their experiences, so that they broaden their personal view of their role in our democratization journey.


Management education in South Africa requires a painful re-examination. We need to craft an approach that is more sensitive to our historical legacy, and social and economic challenges – and in the process enhance our prospects for consolidating our democracy. This approach should involve students directly in the challenges facing our country. It should expose students to the knowledge, skills, and ethical vocabulary necessary for modes of critical dialogue, and civic participation – when performing their duties as stewards of the country’s human and natural resources. Since our problems and consequently our solutions are unique, we should be developing educational conditions for our management students, to come to terms with how to take responsibility for their own ideas, take intellectual risks, develop a sense of respect for different perspectives, and learn how to think critically in order to shape the conditions for democratisation.

Our democratisation journey still requires enormous work and an equal abundance of optimism. American philosopher and educator, John Dewey was correct in arguing that “struggling for democracy is an educational task”. We should start with the appropriate education of the future stewards of South Africa’s resources – its management students.


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