Linking the skill of persuasion with Stellenbosch University Senate decision

By sylviahammond, 7 May, 2024
Youth & laptop

This Editorial comment arises from three recent personal encounters: my reading of an article on how to persuade others to change their opinion; reflections on a robust interaction I had with a shopper in a queue; and watching an interview with Minister Blade Nzimande on the recent Stellenbosch University Senate decision to reject a call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

In the month when South Africans are required to choose between a plethora of political parties, it occurs to me that persuasion in order to achieve a mindset change is a critical skill. It is not, however, included on the updated critical skills list published by the Home Affairs Department - but maybe it should be.

Note that the Critical Skills List applies 2021 OFO codes to identify Job Titles, related qualifications, & professional body affiliation. Individual skills are not listed. I have not checked all the undergraduate degrees and diplomas, Masters and Doctoral degrees to verify whether the curricula include the skill of persuasion – I suspect not. 

Why Home Affairs, and why not the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET)? The Critical Skills List relates to applications for a Critical Skills Work Visa. The applicants must first be on the Critical Skills List before applying for a Critical Skills Work Visa, with additional requirements found at the end of the Regulations Gazette. In summary, the majority focus could be summarized as: director and senior management levels, with professionals, a few artisan and technician roles, with three main areas of engineers, academics, and specialist medical roles.

 The DHET, however, is responsible for the analysis that of the skills and critical skills required by the economy. The department does recognise the importance of the 4th Industrial Revolution (4thIR), where the skill of persuasion would qualify alongside skills of critical thinking, and problem solving – the new skills as identified by the World Economic Forum.

“Around the world, demand is evolving toward adaptable social, behavioral, and non-repetitive cognitive skills, and away from routine tasks and narrow skills tied to specific jobs.”

Equally the Presidential Commission on the 4th IR (PC4IR) includes reference to Artificial Intelligence (AI) in forward-thinking strategic intent for the contribution towards economic development.

Pertinent to my point here, the DHET is responsible for all Post-school Education and Training (PSET), which includes tertiary education – and universities.

We talk of PSET and skills development in terms of providing the ability to obtain employed work, or to achieve self-employment, and to advance economic inclusion. Certainly, we do require - especially young - people to be suitably trained to find employment, although, I would argue that the ultimate purpose of education is develop the skills to think, to think critically, and to solve problems – both people and technical. Certainly, if we are to implement advanced technology such as AI then the participants need to be able to persuade people to go along with them in supporting new ideas and new ways of working. It does appear though, that when we use the word “skills”, I suspect we are probably often talking right past each other.

Now, to advance my story. 

Chronologically, the queue incident came first. Arriving to collect scripts, the lady in front was half in one queue and half in the other, so I opened the conversation. It turned out she was South African from Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN), but now lives in the United Kingdom and was in Cape Town on holiday. She made the mistake of saying something derogatory about South African politicians. Thereafter, we engaged in a full-on political debate, she criticized the country, and I retorted that the British colonial era was largely responsible for the problems we have and are trying to solve. She conceded that she did understand that. 

She then explained that with her British citizenship, she was entitled to a pension, health care, and a range of subsidies including for heating. I conceded that she probably was better off there as she would not receive that here. I was about to respond to her negative comment on South Africans at the International Court of Justice, when I noticed the young woman behind the counter – now free to serve customers and observing with wide-eyes the two grey-haired, elderly women having a robust political debate in the queue.

Why do I raise this incident? During the debate – although I may not have agreed with her political views, I did come to understand why she had made the choice she had made, and she acknowledged the impact of history on our current challenges. 

My encounter with the article on persuasion in the Conversation, it enabled me to reflect upon the queue incident. The author offers a perspective from their current research, namely: that rather than dismissing those with views other than our own, we should approach the other party by respecting their perspective and seeking information to better understand how they came to their position. The foundation is self-respect and that we all need to feel respected.

 Mature adults are able to acknowledge that they don’t have perfect knowledge, we all have knowledge representative of our past experiences. By treating the other party with respect, enquiring and listening to their point of view – rather than shouting them down, we increase our own knowledge and understanding. From that base of mutual respect, we are able to table alternative viewpoints.

Now to my third encounter. 

When Minister Blade Nzimande was interviewed on NewzRoom Afrika by award-winning journalist Xoli Mngambi, the Minister expressed his dismay at the Stellenbosch University Senate decision to reject the call for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

Minister Nzimande addressed not only his formal role as Minister responsible for Higher Education and Training, but also his personal experience growing up in KZN. In his formal role, he discussed the concept of academic freedom, universities are required to open minds to new concepts, new views, alternative views and for students and educators to be able to express views without penalty. 

Minister Nzimande supports academic freedom, however, he raised an alternative view – from his personal experience. During the apartheid era, he was in KZN. He clearly recalls the suppression of the local population by the apartheid regime. Today, in Gaza, the universities are decimated and many professors have been killed. Consequently, the Stellenbosch University Senate decision – he suggested – was reminiscent of that apartheid era. Minister Nzimande reminded that the Israeli government worked with the apartheid era government, including supplying arms, which were used against the population. Consequently, he interprets the Senate decision as racist. 

The Minister concluded by reflecting upon an incident early in his DHET role, under the presidency of Jacob Zuma, when he was to attend a meeting in Gaza to formalise the relationship with academics there. However, permission was required by the Israeli government and he was refused entry – although there were no further steps taken by the South African government, and the intended relationship failed to materialise.

Xoli indicated that right of reply to the Minister’s viewpoint will be offered to the Stellenbosch University Senate – and to President Zuma. Following the article on persuasion, questions need to be posed to further understand the factors that influenced the decisions and actions of both parties.

Finally, to bring this editorial reflection right back home again, local social media groups report on an incident where a peaceful demonstration in support of Gaza was violently attacked. We need to be able to ask: why use violence? We all have a Constitutional right to freedom of speech (within certain limitations), freedom of association, and freedom to demonstrate – peacefully. 

We certainly have a range of thought within our political parties. Maybe we should all proceed by more often asking: why do you hold that view, and what experience brought you to that conclusion? I would suggest that skills development practitioners have a role to play in advancing the skills of questioning with humility and listening to learn from the response.   

As Minister Nzimande demonstrates, our histories are near the surface; much as many would like to think that the past was somehow eradicated in 1994 that did not happen - and will not happen. We live with our past experiences and the legacies of violence and socio-economic exclusion. Certainly, violence will not provide us with the necessary answers on the way forward.  


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