Where are the Eric Molobis of the fourth industrial revolution?

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This photo was sourced from www.sahistory.org.za.

The polarising narrative of racism that sought to dampen the outpouring of euphoria that followed the Springboks Rugby World Cup victory refuses to die – a fortnight after the global showpiece. Concomitant with the specter of racism, peddled mainly via social media platforms, were sentiments of tribalism that ascribed the Springboks victory and other milestones in the country to a particular ethnic group. This was evident on Monday night when Luyolo Yiba was crowned the 2019 Idols SA winner. These narratives – albeit in a minority and petty – should not be taken for granted, especially in a country that is considered one of the most unequal in the world. They are a stark reminder of the enduring, deep-seated prejudices that blight our society.

What is needed is a generation of rational thinking and righteous citizens who are guided by the principle of the national or public good, and not narrow racism and tribalism. In this regard, I am reminded of martyrs like Eric Molobi, who, despite constant harassment by the apartheid regime, used the power of education to unite people. After 1994, Eric and his wife Martha bought a house in Observatory, Johannesburg. It was a world away from where they came from. Unlike the communality of the townships, there was a coldness as families remained sealed off by high-security walls. Eric, not one to conform, organised a party and went from door to door, inviting the entire neighbourhood and slowly forming a united community, and thereby contributing towards social cohesion initiatives.

As Molobi’s namesake, Eric R. Pianka once wrote, “ignorance can be overcome by education, but arrogance is more difficult to combat.” Or even better, he observed: “When combined, arrogant ignorance is virtually impossible to defeat.. people in denial refuse to examine the evidence, often adamantly.” Eric Molobi’s courteous yet effective strategy proved just the tonic to bring people with indifferent attitudes together ignorance. It is in this context that when the University of Johannesburg recently hosted the third Eric Molobi Memorial Lecture – delivered by Professor Jane Knight from the University of Toronto – the tile was “The role of education in international relations: knowledge diplomacy versus soft power.” In the obituary of Eric Molobi, which was published in the Guardian in 2006, he was described as small, soft-spoken, and an unlikely revolutionary.

Eric Molobi’s legacy has proven to be anything but small. On thinking about Eric Molobi’s physical stature, one is reminded of the Austrian economist Leopold Kohr who is known for the statement “small is beautiful.” UJ honoured Eric Molobi partly because of the instrumental role he played in shaping the development of education policy for post-apartheid South Africa. Eric envisioned a future for education that few could dream of two decades ago. Eric’s legacy can be described as a contribution to community development, education, and social responsibility in business.

One is tempted to ask, therefore, where are the Eric Molobis of our times to unite our people, especially as we live in an era where we are grappling with the digital advancements brought about by the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). As universities, we should ensure that our graduates are armed with the necessary tools to deal with the reality that is imposed by this change that the 4IR is bringing. If Eric Molobi had been a university student, he would have excelled in this area and defied the chauvinism that was so rampant at the time. After matric, he worked as an electronics technician, and he encountered racial discrimination, and this led to his politicisation. Eric Molobi was the only black technician in a team of 18 people, and sometimes the foreman would inform him to disappear for a day to evade being seen by a visiting inspector who did not appreciate seeing a black person.

It was only when he visited the local trade union offices, that he realised that it was illegal for any company to employ black people in skilled jobs. This incident spurred him to action. At the age of 31, he was jailed on Robben Island for six years for his political views. Never to waste time, he used this time to study and obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree through the University of South Africa. According to the 25 Year of Democracy Review, 25% of white students proceed to earn a bachelor’s degree after matric compared to 15% for Indians and 5% for Africans and Coloureds. In light of this damning statistics, what lessons can we learn from Eric Molobi about self-motivation under great adversity? At Robben Island, partly due to the education he received there, his narrative changed. He was released in 1980 and later employed on the Education Aid Programme of the South African Council of Churches under Dr Beyers Naudé.

The 1980s were a pivotal time in South Africa. Mainly spurred in part by the 1976 Soweto Uprisings when students took to the streets, the country was in the mayhem, on the edge of a full-blown war, and international pressure had increased with trade sanctions at their peak. The 1980s are often viewed as the most violent years of apartheid, as the government tried to hold onto its illegitimate power by any means necessary, but the fight had become more united than ever. Eric Molobi was instrumental in the formation of the United Democratic Front in 1983.

His role as a revolutionary in the sphere of education also evolved. He was elected the national coordinator of the National Education Crisis Committee (NECC), an alliance of high school and university students, as well as youth and labour movements. The NECC was created as a response to the crisis in black schools. It was here that the vision for education policy after democracy materialised. His work in education did not stop there.

In 1990, Eric joined the Kagiso Charitable Trust as its chief executive. At Kagiso, he had the responsibility to raise funds from international development aid agencies and to channel these into educational and community development projects in South Africa. Most of the money raised went to support black students as bursaries and also invested in rural development and housing projects.

In 1994, he cofounded the Kagiso Trust Investments (KTI), which is an investment organisation that supports the effort of the Trust. The KTI model of financing development activities produced by a share of the profits derived from KTI was a unique way of financing social investment. His work with the KTI earned much respect in the business community as more and more; his advice was required. Consequently, he served on many company boards and held directorships in several leading South African companies.

Eric’s legacy as an educationist and struggle stalwart was cemented in the way that he conducted himself as an ethical leader and always contributing to the process of dynamically shaping the future. As we live in the “post-truth” era of 4IR, where technologies are increasingly used to deceive people, we need new leaders of the mould of Eric Molobi, who can make sense of our present and craft new paths to the future that is just and fair. When China began modernising in the 1970s, the leader of China at the time Deng Xiaoping was often quoted saying that Chinese leaders must learn to “seek truth from facts.” In the 4IR era, where the means of confusing and misleading people is no longer to deny them information, but to give them so much information that they are so confused that they can no longer “separate truth from facts,” how do we capacitate the new Eric Molobis so that they are able to extract coherent stories from vast and largely irrelevant mountains of information?

To paraphrase the poet TS Elliot in his Stanza “Choruses from the rock,” we need to produce leaders who can find the wisdom we are losing in knowledge, the knowledge we are losing in information, and by contextualising this within the 4IR, the information we are losing in data. As Professor Jane Knight put it in the Eric Molobi Memorial Lecture, we will be able to achieve these if we can position our educational system, particularly universities, as instruments of knowledge diplomacy rather than soft power. Knowledge diplomacy is about global mind-set, collaboration to tackle global challenges as well as connecting people to develop shared values. Soft power is about positioning oneself in a non-threatening manner using deceptive mechanisms such as nudging to extract values from other people. While knowledge diplomacy is a win-win situation, soft power is a win-lose or zero-sum game where one party gains from another’s loss.


Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is a professor and the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. He deputises President Cyril Ramaphosa on the South African Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.