Cooking the rice inside and outside the pot: a clarion call for trading rationally

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Last week, the University of Johannesburg hosted the Mzala Nxumalo Lecture, in honour of one of the leading intellectuals of the 1976 generation. At the time of his death, Nxumalo had just finished writing his PhD thesis at the University of Essex in England and was planning to take a postdoctoral fellowship at Yale University. At Yale he intended to write a biography of ANC President O.R. Tambo. Mzala was a formidable and dedicated writer. I was introduced to Mzala’s work in London when I was 17 years old, in 1989 while attending the London International Youth Science Fortnight.

As a young black boy who was dreaming of how I shall take the African continent from underdeveloped to a developed state, I was inspired by Mzala’s writings. Mzala was a leader and those who do not know, read and write should not lead. Mzala was a scientific socialist and was skilled in Marxist tools of analysis. A revolutionary internationalist of note, one of his celebrated work was a paper titled “Cooking the rice inside the pot”, in which he postulated that the war against oppression be fought at the home front. He also emphasised the need for international solidarity in fighting oppression in South Africa.

Mzala was not a physicist and, therefore, was not well versed on Max Planck’s quantum theory which bombastically states that an object can occupy two states at the same time. Quantum theory is an antithesis of scientific determinism which states that everything can be analysed by a chain of causes and effects. Mzala was interested in the national question which is an antithesis of quantum thinking where an individual can occupy multiple identities at the same time. So in quantum thinking, you can “cook the same rice inside and outside the same pot at the same time”. This is what scientists call the dual nature of being. For example, we now know that light as a dual entity exists both as a particle and as a wave. Science is beautiful and we should study it to liberate ourselves socially, economically and politically.

Why is “cooking the same rice inside and outside the same pot at the same time” an important concept in our times? Few weeks ago, the media reported that the embassies of the UK, Netherlands, Germany, United States and Switzerland wrote to our President to complain about corruption in our country. What is startling about this incident is that 75% of our foreign direct investment depends on these five countries. This means that our economic growth and ambition are being “cooked outside the pot by outside cooks”. For example, we assemble cars such as Mercedes Benz here is South Africa, but the parts of these cars are manufactured outside South Africa. So to use Mzala’s allegory, “we are serving the rice that was cooked outside the pot”.

As we move forward in our long march towards economic emancipation, we ought to find ways and the right economic policies that will move us forward. There are two ways we can use to mobilise resources to invest in this economy and these are internal and external investments. It is said that the South African corporations are sitting on a cash pile of R1 trillion. At the same time, the South African economy is very dependent on outside investors for its economic growth. For this reason, South Africa is extremely concerned about how it is viewed by the international investors.

When the Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping was modernising China, he realised that for China to succeed it would have to open to the outside world. The story that is often told is that when the Chinese leadership was deciding on how they were going to open up to the world, Deng Xiaoping had a map and he took a pen and circled around a rural area of China called Shenzhen and called it a special economic zone to serve as a magnet for outside economic investment. In addition, Deng realised that there was a need to capacitate China internally. 

He invested in education, which was virtually closed for 15 years during the Cultural Revolution. He also invested in strong leadership. In this regard, Deng stated that China’s leaders should be younger and technically trained. Today, Shenzhen city, with its 12 million people, is a $640 billion economy richer than South Africa – with a population of 55 million people. At the same time, South Africa is also introducing special economic zones, but the question is whether these economic zones will have enough economic gravity or innovation to attract investments and economically transform our people.

The first thing we need to do is to invest in our people. For us to be able to attract investments, whether domestic or foreign, we will need to overcome certain obstacles that stand in our way. The first obstacle is the crisis of high level skills. To transform South Africa, we need technical skills. In this regard, according to the Engineering Council of South Africa, one engineer in South Africa, 227 in Brazil and 543 in Malaysia service 3166 people. Furthermore, in South Africa half of trained engineers leave the profession for other professions such as finance. Often, the argument that is put forward is whether it makes sense to increase the number of engineers if they are not getting jobs. This is a circular argument because without skills we will never produce sufficient jobs, whereas without jobs we will never have sufficient interest from our people to study these subjects. Whatever the circumstances may be, let us educate our people.

Mzala lived in a different era to ours. There was no internet and the Soviet Union still existed. We are in the era of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR). Mzala understood objects in their totality and would have cautioned us that as we prepare for the 4IR, we should not forget to contextualise it within the broader framework of industrialisation. To paraphrase Mzala, he would have firmly understood that the 4IR should be cooked inside the broader industrialisation pot. He would have understood that the aim of any technological change is to modernise the productive forces. He would have understood that education is the only motive force that would capacitate us to participate in the 4IR and eliminate poverty, unemployment and inequality. He would have understood Deng Xiaoping when he said: “To uphold socialism we must eliminate poverty. Poverty is not socialism”. He would have understood that modernising our productive forces requires skilling our people to build scientific leadership. 

In order to build leadership in our people it is important to look for viable international examples. In England most of the politicians go and study a degree called Politics, Philosophy and Economics. This course allows graduates to be skilled in the art of political wheeling and dealing, understand the economic and financial systems and have adequate philosophical training to understand the big issues of our times. The world has changed and the leaders whom we must train should understand politics, economics and technology. In this regard, the University of Johannesburg is introducing a course in Politics, Economics and Technology to prepare our leaders for the 4IR. To paraphrase Deng Xiaoping, our leaders must be innovative and must understand politics, economics and technology.

Professor Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg and author of the book Artificial Intelligence and Economic Theory: Skynet in the market.