In a statement to be admired, the President of South Africa reminds us of our responsibility as scholars and educators.
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[when school resumes in mid-January, the volume of postings will reduce to let you all focus on other things]
Address by the President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, on receiving the honorary doctorate from the Africa International University, Khartoum, Sudan
2 January 2005
Chancellor, Professor Omer Al Simani,
Vice Chancellor Mohammed Ali Hussein,
Members of the Senate,
Distinguished faculty members, students and workers of the Africa International University,
Ladies and Gentlemen:
It is an honour and privilege to receive an honorary doctorate from this distinguished university. I have been told that this university has students from many countries mostly from Africa and the Middle East. And I am happy that we also have some students from South Africa and hope that more would have the opportunity to come and study at this international institution.
As Africans, we have declared this 21st century as an African century. Accordingly, I accept this award with humility and as an affirmation that together as Africans, we are prepared and ready to do whatever is necessary to ensure that the 21st century will be a period of peace, stability, development and prosperity for all the African people.
I am confident that the knowledge and experience gained at this cosmopolitan university would contribute to the success of the on-going process of the renaissance of our continent.
Accordingly, I have decided to use this opportunity to speak about what the intelligentsia, such as is represented here and other African universities, can and should do to assist the process of the renewal of the African continent.
This is particularly important because we meet in an important institution of learning located in a place where over thousands of years humanity traversed the vast expanse of this ancient land. Their fortunes altered as the changing course of the waters of the Great Lakes meandered through the southern swamps, giving birth to an amazing ageless flow of the Nile, whose solitary trip goes through the shimmering, shifting sands of the merciless desert.
We have to work for the renaissance of Africa inspired by the fact that for millennia the Nile, on whose banks this city rests, watered many civilisations which were possible because of the presence of an army of an extraordinary intelligentsia which engaged in advanced medical techniques, used their knowledge to revolutionise formal farming, introducing among others, an irrigation system, an intelligentsia whose engineering creativity and feats gave humanity the gift of the pyramids.
The pyramids of Nubia, the technological advances of the land of Kush, the majestic palaces of the great city of Meroe remind us of the golden eras when Sudan was the epicentre of civilisation and the hub of trade and commerce that brought together Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.
All of us know that our continent has for many years faced enormous challenges of poverty and underdevelopment, conflict and instability. We know that many African economies have either stagnated or declined in the last four decades making it impossible, in their current state, for Africans to reclaim the glorious legacy of the civilisations of Nubia, Egypt, Great Zimbabwe, Mapungubwe and Timbuktu.
These challenges confront all regions of our continent.
Our continent bears the scars of an imposed human-made curse, the millennium-old burden of subjugation in the form of slavery, colonialism, apartheid, neo-colonialism and autocracy. Poverty, lack of infrastructure and under-development is the legacy of this history and is self-evident throughout our continent.
Indeed, as intellectuals we have made countless analyses of the nature, form and content of the grave situations that have and continue to define African life. Repeatedly, we have proffered what we believe are the most appropriate and legitimate solutions to these challenges.
Further we have, as intellectuals, stated boldly the source of conflicts and how to solve them; we have written extensively about the nature of famines on the continent and ways of improving food security; we have offered suggestions on disease control and how to improve health services. We debated and proposed ways of ensuring democracy and good governance in our countries.
Yet, our continent is littered with half completed or failed projects in part because the intellectual discourse has remained within the confines of the hallowed halls of universities, where only a select and fortunate few, among the Africans, have the privilege of creating and obtaining knowledge.
In this critical period, when Africans have embarked on the renewal of our continent, universities are faced with a challenge to ensure that their search for ideas and their ideas are grounded in the realities of ordinary Africans and contribute to the sustainable development of our countries.
Among others things, universities need to forge linkages with government institutions as well as with other organs of civil society such as women, youth, business, workers and communities so that together we can collaborate for the reconstruction and development of our peoples.
Of importance, universities should forge working relations with continental bodies and through the AU and its programmes such as the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), utilise our combined strengths and abilities actively and practically to address the many problems facing our continent.
Today, more than ever before, universities have a duty to work purposefully to help eradicate the perennial African problems of internal and inter-state conflicts and civil wars and the resultant displacement of millions of Africans always with serious human tragedies, as well as the poverty and underdevelopment that both dehumanise millions of Africans, and inform many of these conflicts.
We have a duty to take-out of the lecture-room and into the African fields the good research projects and solutions on peace, conflict resolutions, democracy, human rights, solidarity, good governance, poverty eradication and development that emanate from the intellectual discourse at our universities.
Indeed, in considering our response to the many and varied challenges facing us, it will be useful to look at some questions posed by the Nigerian writer Ben Okri, in his epic poem, "Mental Fight". Because of their relevance, I will quote at some length the different options that we may look at with regard to our situations. Ben Okri writes:
"What will we choose?
Will we allow ourselves to descend
Into universal chaos and darkness?
A world without hope, without wholeness
Without moorings, without light
Without possibility for mental fight,
A world breeding mass murderers
Energy vampires, serial killers
With minds spinning in anomie and amorality
With murder, rape, genocide as normality?"
Okri offers a second option of looking at the challenges facing us, and says:
"Or will we allow ourselves merely to drift
Into an era of more of the same
An era drained of significance, without shame,
Without wonder or excitement,
Just the same low-grade entertainment,
An era boring and predictable
'Flat, stale, weary and unprofitable'
In which we drift along
Too bored and too passive to care
About what strange realities rear
Their heads in our days and nights,
Till we awake too late to the death of our rights
Too late to do anything
Too late for thinking
About what we have allowed
To take over our lives
While we cruised along in casual flight
Mildly indifferent to storm or sunlight?"
In the last option Okri writes:
"Or might we choose to make
This time a waking-up event
A moment of world empowerment?
To pledge, in private, to be more aware
More playful, more tolerant and more fair
More responsible, more wild, more loving
Awake to our unsuspected powers, more amazing."
(PP14-15, Published by Phoenix House, 1999)
The perennial question facing the intelligentsia and universities is whether or not with regard to African challenges we allow ourselves to descend into universal chaos and darkness, and whether we allow ourselves to descend into a world without hope, without light and without the possibility for mental fight.
Undoubtedly, this world where there is an absence of critical thinking, where many refuse to confront difficult questions would bring about a situation where the genius of the nation is stifled and the wisdom of the people is not harnessed to propel society forward. In this situation, our project of regenerating the continent will fail.
Similarly, we cannot advance the cause of African development if we allow ourselves 'merely to drift into an era of more of the same, an era drained of significance, without shame, without wonder or excitement'.
I think we need to, in the words of Okri, 'awake to our unsuspecting powers, (and be) more amazing' if we are to move our countries forward faster. A South African would urge that it is important for us to use our unsuspecting powers to help the process of building a non-racial, non-sexist society in South Africa after 350 years of colonialism and apartheid.
A Murundi and an Ivorian would ask Africa to help the people of Burundi and Cote d'Ivoire build a better future based on unity. Clearly, to do so we would need fully to utilise our powers, our talents and skills.
It is perhaps appropriate for us to look at two important African countries and their immediate regions, which are facing critical processes of transformation and ask ourselves as to how we can use our 'unsuspecting powers' to make a difference in the unfolding processes in these countries. These countries are Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
I have chosen these two countries because of their strategic place on the African continent but also because they share a remarkable number of features, both natural and man-made. The DRC and Sudan both share borders with nine countries; they were both subjected to some of the most brutal colonial experiences.
These are among the African countries well endowed with rich natural resources - Sudan with oil and gas deposits and great agricultural potential, and the DRC with oil, gas, diamonds, a host of other minerals and abundant water resources. Yet, despite their rich natural resources, the two countries are among the poorest on the continent. Both countries have suffered under autocracy as well as debilitating civil wars.
Today, as we meet, they are engaged in very important processes of transition and transformation. Undoubtedly, they both need the support and the encouragement of all their African brothers and sisters. Sudan and the DRC have neighbours that are engaged in their own processes of transition from instability to peace and democracy.
In these situations, the question is what is the role of the intelligentsia and our universities to help these countries and others to accelerate the process of change and ensure that change is irreversible. I think we would agree that it is important that a university such as this one should help not only to analyse and contextualise the challenges faced by these countries as well as others such as Burundi and Cote d'Ivoire. We need an active university and intelligentsia if we are going to make a rapid change from the negative conditions under which many Africans suffer.
Clearly, these countries cannot fully address the challenges of multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious communities and use their diversities to avoid civil strife and other internecine conflicts when the intelligentsia and universities have chosen to remain aloof, having descended into a world without hope or light for their continent.
As Africans continue to seek innovative solutions to the problems which affect so many of our countries, Universities have realised that their role in society extends beyond the imparting of knowledge within the confines of their institutions.
We all agree that African universities as well as the African intelligentsia have to occupy the centre-stage with regard to the challenges of the regeneration of the African continent.
This university, like many throughout the world, specialises in the pursuit of knowledge, the constant development of ideas and rigorous interrogation of old beliefs and assumptions.
Some of those assumptions would be the ones on whose basis the history of Africa has been written. We need to define our own identity as Africans and the unique course we must take for our own benefit informed by the conditions on the continent. This is the basis on which our renaissance will succeed. The old adage "show me a people without a history and I will show you a people without a future" is most relevant.
We have to reclaim the right to define ourselves, to define our own criteria and our own conditions that would help us move forward. Some of these may coincide with others that characterise other regions of the world. That would not be surprising since humanity, which evolved on this continent, has always been and still is, interdependent.
I would like to suggest that if any African university is to have relevance to the challenges of our day, it should have in its curriculum and as part of its central focus, the processes that are unfolding on the continent and use its research work and teachings to give more content and direction to the challenges and work of the African Union and its development programme, the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD).
Further, there needs to be durable and strong partnerships between this university and others on the continent so that we move in step on the various issues that we are saying are at the centre of the African renaissance. We should do our work in these universities driven by the belief that the African university should be a full participant on the effort to rebuild our continent.
In whatever work we do as intellectuals and students let us use our talents and skills to:
* Help our people to find effective solutions to the problems of poverty, hunger and disease.
* Use research and teaching to improve food security dealing with issues such as improvements in food production, distribution and disease control;
* Use our skills to work comprehensively to defeat the serious diseases facing our continent;
* Strengthen our linkages with the industries and the productive sector, so that we can make a contribution to improve our agricultural sector, enhance the efficiency of the services sector and the capacity of our manufacturing industries;
* Strengthen our links with government and government agencies so that together we can increase the capacity and efficiency of the state so as to serve our citizens better;
* Contribute more actively to the removal of socio-political conflicts, civil wars and sub-regional disputes and the displacement of our people;
* Work effectively for a continent based on human and people's rights, a continent that is democratic and is based on equality and justice, including the emancipation of the women of Africa.
As you would be aware, since Thursday we have been guests to the government of Sudan and were privileged to witness the signing of the important Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Naivasha, Kenya between the Government of Sudan and the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement. We have also visited the Darfur region the better to understand what is being done to advance the peace process in this other part of Sudan.
I think the intelligentsia of this country should participate in working out solutions to the challenges thrown up by these processes, using their skills in conflict resolution, negotiations, tolerance that comes with the advantage of having engaged many differing points of views and knowing that, at times we derive our collective strength from the fact that we come from diverse backgrounds and have diverse customs and religions. The problems of Sudan, of South Africa, the DRC and all other countries cannot be fully resolved if we do not utilise the expertise of a resource such as this that has gathered here this morning.
Let me once again state my deep appreciation for the honorary doctorate your institution has awarded me. We agree that our common objective, as Africans, is to continue to stimulate our imaginations so that we can make the necessary contribution to ensure that the 21st Century becomes, in reality, the African Century.
We also agree that, as Africans, we need to harness our talents to ensure that we bring to an end the various factors that have divided us and pitted one African against another, without anyone benefiting anything, yet all of us enduring acute sufferings and our countries regressing into the morass of underdevelopment and poverty.
We further agree that we need to create space for all our people to have access to education and have the possibility to pursue their chosen careers in a peaceful and stable Africa, so that they, like their peers in the rest of the world, find joy and fulfilment as they experience their African identity through the literary, visual, and performing arts.
Together, let us make it possible for all our countries to enjoy the free movement of teachers, researchers and students across the African continent, transporting with them the rich diversity of cultures and wisdom that is necessary for our renaissance.
Again the Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, writes in his poem "Mental Fight", that:
"We are living in enchanted time.
With our spirits right
We can enchant the future.
With our love's might
We can give a truer meaning to our past."
Through the African Union and its development programme, NEPAD, we have the possibility to enchant the future and accordingly create a continent that is peaceful, developed and prosperous and which would make all of us as Africans to occupy our rightful place of equality with all other peoples of the world.
I thank you and wish you a happy and successful New Year.
Issued by: The Presidency
2 January 2005