This address will be of interest to educationalists and skills development practitioners, and all those attempting to make a positive contribution to current South African issues.
Address by the Deputy President, Kgalema Motlanthe, at the Magubane at 80 International Conference: An Intellectual Celebration. Unisa, Pretoria.
27 August 2010
UNISA Pro-Vice Chancellor, Professor Mandla Makhanya;
Freedom Park Trust CEO, Dr Mongane Serote;
HSRC CEO, Dr Olive Shisana;
Intellectual Heritage Project leader, Professor Jimi Adesina;
Professor Bernard Makhosezwe Magibane and family;
Distinguished guests; and
Ladies and gentlemen:
I am honoured to be invited to this launch of the international conference celebrating the life and works of Professor Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane. I want to thank the organizers for pulling together their resources to make this conference possible. To Professor Magubane’s wife and family, I sincerely thank you for the honour that your presence bestows upon this important occasion.
Allow me to say happy belated birthday to Professor Magubane and may you continue to share with us elevated insights for many years to come! This international conference is something that should be duly commanded since it is not often that a giant of African scholarship is recognized during his lifetime. It is more often the case that we pay tribute to our heroes and heroines when they are no longer with us. As such, this symposium, which has assembled leading researchers, international scholars, policy makers and members of civil society, is opportune and welcomed.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I am informed that yesterday and today, part of your discussions deliberated on pertinent questions that deal with:
• The production of knowledge by Africans and the production of knowledge on Africa: and
• The contributions of human and social sciences to innovation and development in Africa.
These are seminal questions touching on matters that have a bearing on overall societal development and continental improvement.
For Professor Magubane, present social phenomena cannot be adequately comprehended if we do not understand the historical specificity and period in which they emerge. This is what Professor Magubane had in mind when he said: “the struggle for a decent future for the people of South Africa in general for the oppressed in particular is in the last analysis a struggle to understand the lessons of history”. 1. ‘Reflections on the Challenges Confronting Post-Apartheid South Africa’, Management of Social Transformations, UNESCO, Discussion Paper Series – No. 7, 1994
We are gathered here today to celebrate the 80th birthday of Professor Magubane as friends, colleagues, students, admires and comrades. As we know thinkers, researchers and writers do not carry out the craft in a theoretical vacuum. Material realities that shape their lives will most likely incline them to certain orientations as they interact with society at large. Professor Magubane is no exception. One can confidently say the time and place of his birth conspired to dispose his intellectual learning to forms responsive to his material experiences.
The socio-economic formation, into which he was born, capitalism, had interrupted communalism, whose values still lingered with vigour in African communities. The result of this was stark contradiction, whereby communalist values in which he was steeped were overlaid with crude forms of racism and unrelenting economic exploitation.
This triggered an acute consciousness in his mind about the embedded racial injustices in the character of the South African economy. In this regard, this intersection between capitalism, along with colonialist racial attitudes, prepared the young Magubane for future espousal of a Marxist world view – the material basis of societal organization. From early on, therefore, Professor Magubane developed an incisive grasp of the contradictions embedded in his society. I make so bold as to contend that we do need these insights into his origins to fully appreciate the theoretical apparatus he came to adopt in order to make sense of the South African political realities.
I concur with the viewpoint postulated by Professor Ntongela Masilela in his keynote address this morning that:
“Bernard Magubane’s political imagination was imprinted by the radical political tradition promulgated in the pages of Liberation magazine by outstanding figures such as Govan Mbeki, Duma Nokwe, and Daniel Tloome. It is very odd that our imagination today in relation to the historical recollection of the 1950s has been colonized by Drum magazine when it can no way compare with the intellectual seriousness of the Liberation monthly and the Fighting Talk weekly.
Govan Mbeki’s (book) South Africa: The Peasant Revolt may have been more fundamental in influencing the political orientation of Bernard Magubane than has so far been acknowledged.” 2.”Positioning the Scholarship of Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane within the Intellectual Traditions of the New African Movement”, Magubane at 80 International Conference, UNISA 21 August 2010.
In the pages of these liberation publications, the writers were concerned to define the conditions of oppression and chart the historical basis of discriminatory practices. To these intellectual activists, it was not enough to simply describe the social circumstances without appreciating the structural conditions that deprived the majority of people of their human rights. The materialist conception of history which Professor Magubane embraces also draws to the fact that in every generation intellectuals emerge who manage to interpret the social conditions under which they live and accordingly, develop a clear vision to a better future.
We learn from them the basic fact that we are both makers and products of history. Therefore, from him we have learned the importance of employing education for societal benefit rather than the other way around.
Without doubt, this has been Professor Magubane’s mission: to use his wide-ranging learning to enlighten and inspire progressive discourse.
Ladies and gentlemen
On an occasion like this, I would be remiss if I did not venture a few thoughts on the challenge of development, which is an area of primary concern to our nation.
In the regard, the first thematic area:
‘the production of knowledge by Africans and the production of knowledge on Africa’, places an onus on the African academic community to define itself, on its own terms! Accordingly, this vision places the African agency at the centre of development, thereby obliging Africans to identify and develop the necessary tools that will catalyse African advancement. As a continent, we possess the intellectual and institutional imagination to produce knowledge and training that will lift the lives of all people for the better. We have with us praxis which, if properly utilized, will help Africa break the knowledge/power nexus that defines it as the other. I want to believe that, as scholars and members of civil society, you have managed to reach some consensus on the need for Africans to produce knowledge that speaks to their concrete conditions. For Africa to sustainably progress and address the pressing needs of its population we urgently require an epistemological foundation based on African realities.
To his credit, Professor Magubane has, along with his generation and those before him, taken the plunge into this area when it was even harder to do so. Socially engaged and focused on elevated conceptions of an African development framed by the landscape of the African imperatives, he has started off by debunking colonialist approaches to the study of Africa. This he did by undercutting perceptions about the African condition, and sought to expose the scholastic shallowness of such prejudiced views on Africa. He has put his sharp mind to the service of ameliorating the African condition by questioning colonial assumptions about African history and the future of our continent. Therefore, our gathering to celebrate his fertile scholastic life today is a monument to his principled refusal to submit to the unipolar world view that has de-essentialised the African character.
Throughout his well-lived life he refused to give in to assumptions that Africa is destined to be the object of history, and not the subject at the centre of history. In other words, and correctly so, he has sought to reconceptualise Africa from the perception of being a receptacle of foreign ideas, to the one being a tributary to the confluence of the fluid universal knowledge system. I therefore submit that part of our obligations in honouring Professor Magubane, especially from the academic viewpoint, is to both produce and nurture African scholars geared to meeting this critical objective.
And so in reflecting on him as a teacher, a philosopher, a researcher, a writer, in a word, a polymath, we are agreeing to continue to seek ways to enable Africa to find its voice and identity. However, this viewpoint about African centredness in knowledge production is not arguing that knowledge is or can be socially determined.
It is also not implying that knowledge is embedded in racial conceptions, but that unless African scholarship addresses the question of African knowledge systems, Africa’s continued marginalization will not abate anytime soon. Unavoidably, it recognizes the reality which has been with us for ages that while no culture is pristine, successful societies tend to those who appropriate extraneous but progressive cultural influences to build on their indigenous cultural core.
On this account, I would also like to contend that at the core of defining knowledge systems from Africa as the centre is the need for the development of African languages. The linguist researcher, Beban Sammy Chumbow tells us that: “Linguists, psychologists, and anthropological linguists agree, however, that the use of the child’s ‘mother tongue’ as a medium of instruction in the school system has significant advantages over the use of … foreign language where ‘mother tongue’ is defined as ‘the language in which the child first learns to express his ideas about himself and about the world in which he lives’.(UNESCO 1953)”. 3. The Language Question and National Development in Africa”. Thandika Mkandawire (ed.) African Intellectuals: Rethinking Politics, Language, Gender and Development, CODERSIA Books, 2005. Pg. 170.
In fact, few would disagree that in the history of development across ages, indigenous languages have been the key pillar of cultural advancement. On this account, the African scholar does not only have the responsibility to scientificate but also to equip the African language with conceptual and philosophical vocabulary.
Understandably, this is an exacting but a necessary task.
Yet, as we know, language is a critical conceptual tool to engage the world and impose meaning of it.
While accessing knowledge through the medium of foreign languages does not on the surface sound ill-advised, it is a known fact that language is not an innocuous vehicle for knowledge transmission. Equally, it is a known fact that a child acquires elementary education in a foreign language tends to see themselves through the cultural prism foreign to their own culture.
We know that at a cognitive level, a language provides us with a conceptual framework for the perception of reality and our location in it. Put differently, to learn through a particular language is to equally internalize its cultural baggage which in turn becomes the foundations of our perception of reality.
In South Africa today many scholars in the field of education have stressed the need to use mother tongue instruction in the elementary years of learners. They have reminded us, based on research here and elsewhere, that cognitive development of early learners is best served when based on mother tongue instruction.
Language plays an important role in the formative years because children who are taught in their mother tongue in the early years gain cognitive advantage. Early Childhood Development (ECD) should thus be a foundation phase to empower our children to have a head-start in dealing with curriculum. At the same time, to call for the promotion and recognition of indigenous language during the foundation phases of learning is not to freeze out the progressive influence of other learning methods and pedagogies.
At the end of the day we will have to survive and progress within an economic system we inhabit while also nurturing our own modes of indigenous development. This approach to early learning holds out the prospect of effectuating positive changes in our efforts to uproot the exotic effects of apartheid education as we continue to strive for the pivotal objectives of development.
In conclusion, it was once again the admirable mind of Professor Magubane that taught us that for scholarship to have a lasting meaning, it should strive for programmes of social equity, economic development and environmental protection. This is the summation of the philosophical approach we need to espouse as the basis for the betterment of the African condition.
Once again, on behalf of the people and the government of South Africa, allow me to say to Professor Bernard Makhosezwe Magubane, respectfully, thank you. Happy birthday Nkomose, and may you see many more happy returns! I wish you well in your discussions and engagements.
I thank you.
Note: This address has been edited into paragraphs to ease of reading, these may not accurately reflect the original; and the references have been italicised.