Professor Piet Naude;
Students of the Business School and university;
Ladies and Gentlemen;
Thank you for inviting me to address you on this auspicious occasion: the first annual lecture on leadership at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB).
Today, I have the dual honour of supporting this initiative with my patronage and delivering its inaugural address.
It is my sincere hope that this annualised lecture series will contribute valuable insights and critical thinking to the intellectual canon on leadership, and ultimately influence towards the democratic development of our state in visible and measurable ways, as it endures.
In offering my own leadership insights, within our national context, I begin with a statement by your own Director, Professor Piet Naude, who asserts:
“From a business school perspective, social development in South Africa happens through empowering students to understand their role as responsible leaders when they go back into society.”
I commence with this statement for two reasons.
Firstly, it is crucial to comprehend the school’s foundational telos, in making sense of the establishment of such a lecture.
The mission and values of the school, design an understanding of responsible leadership around well-grounded business education and research aims, as well as critical commitments that include integrity, inclusivity, innovation and sustainability, among others.
Secondly, contained within Professor Naude’s understanding of the role of this institution, are the broad brushstrokes of my address today.
His words densely encompass multiple ideas that provide a basis for considering the role and place of leadership within South Africa.
Over the course of this lecture, I will unpack: the context of present day South Africa; in establishing a basis for thinking about how social development must be central to cross-sectorial, ethical leadership, as well as considering the place of the university within such a conceptualisation of society, and the role that innovation can play in addressing the present and future challenges that persist.
Before launching into the substance of this lecture, I offer a proviso.
National leadership can be narrowly conceived of. Such a thin perception confines it to the domain of governance, failing to recognise and account for the simple fact that leaders are found in every part of society.
Part of the rationale that supports this idea is an elitist philosophy that believes that leaders are solely located within the most powerful ranks of the social order. A further contributing factor is the jettisoning of responsibility for our societies, through holding governments singularly accountable for the state, function and development of our democracies.
Perhaps, this is a neat segue into a brief reflection on the context of present day South Africa.
Reflecting on the advancements in the economy since the inception of democracy, earlier this year, Pravin Gordhan said:
‘We now face the challenge of effecting further changes in the economy and society, through the next or second phase of this profound historical transition, to a society premised on social and economic justice. We must judiciously use the powerful levers of the state, in partnership with communities, trade unions, with schools and tertiary education institutions, and importantly with the private sector, to prosecute the next set of changes.’
What he deftly elucidates is the incomplete transition to democracy, and the growing pains incumbent to radical transformation. Such challenges find their contemporary echoes in the conditions of multiple modern states.
This compels us to appreciate the processual nature of change, adjoined to the agency, common mandate and unity of leadership and vision required to affect such transformation.
Conceiving of innovative solutions to democratic dilemmas must appreciate these preconditions.
It becomes necessary to ask, then, towards what end do we seek to define leadership?
In politically, socially and environmentally uncertain times, the founding ideals of our state deserve insistent repetition. We journey towards the strategic goal of building societies founded on united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist, non-classist, just and prosperous foundations.
The fissures in our society remain all too visible, particularly for the people for whom this manifests as material concerns with body, bones and blood – those who have to find ways to stay alive, fed and healthy, before considering the possibility of succeeding and indeed thriving.
For many, the conditions of our post-colonial and post-apartheid state remain stifling, narrowing the possibilities of a future that is ceaselessly beyond their grasp. As such ensuring universal and decent access to education, employment, healthcare, dignified housing, and other freedoms form the domain that leadership is required to operate within.
While social challenges are historically rooted and inherited, in the absence of ethical leadership they are sustained by a society declared to be free, equal and just – resulting in a democratic contradiction that has global manifestations.
Failure to address contemporary challenges, even as they were not entirely shaped by our hands, cannot excuse our collective complicity in their continuation.
In creating more prosperous, democratic societies, every leader must be held accountable, every citizen has a role to play, and across our borders, every country is responsible for following the mandate set out by democracy. These are the ethical imperatives and standards against which we can measure what we mean when we invoke concepts like ‘good governance’, ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘responsible leadership’.
What, then, is meant by the concept of change within this milieu?
In the contemporary epoch, it is not uncommon to hear the word ‘crisis’ affixed to our present condition. In thinking about its meaning and etymological origin, Political Analyst Steven Friedman further complicates the idea of change that Gordhan refers to.
‘The Greek word “crisis” means “turning point” and so a sense of crisis means not only a realisation that the country has a problem, but an acknowledgement that solving it requires change.’
The kind of change Friedman calls for is systemic in nature. It involves altering the unequal bases of our institutions and their functions, modes of thinking, ways of being and material conditions. While we look forward, however, we maintain focus on our past – a necessary Janus-faced perception, as we tend to the present.
In looking to the recent past, the substance behind the concept of ‘unity of vision’ rests in our Constitution.
Speaking on freedom at your school, Business Leadership South Africa CEO Bonang Mohale stated that we must collectively ‘find solace in, and draw inspiration from, our 1996 Constitution’.
He further maintains:
‘The most potent words for me are the…part that says ‘united in our diversity’. Here it talks about the collective conscience of the nation…It declares that success in life should depend on people’s choices, their effort and talents not their circumstances and birth. 23 years into democracy…the economic power patterns have been set for generations to come – unless ‘we the people’ do something absolutely interventionist to change this script.’
There is much to take from these words.
The Constitution functions as a moral, social, political and legal guide for an ethical society – containing within it the critical prerequisites for responsible leadership. But, as identified, it requires the participation and intervention of all who make up ‘we the people’ to function optimally.
When South Africa made the hard-won shift to democracy, we were faced with several societal expectations from the global democratic community. Primarily, there was an expectation or promise that South Africa would be better placed to deal with the global dilemma of racial discrimination. In doing so, it was hoped that our country could serve as an instructive example on how to create social cohesion and nation building.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can now say that we have not lived up to this promise and even regressed – for multiple reasons. Calling attention to this point is critical, as the question of national leadership operates precisely within the contours of this domain.
I turn now to reflections on business and the university, in conceiving of their functions in our democracy, before considering the role of innovation.
Mohale states: ‘Business is a societal and social force for greater good’.
This understanding of business is not commonplace in a sector that is increasingly concerned with bottom lines, investor interests and remaining competitive in a hostile marketplace. Business people concerned with societal impact are often affixed with a label that identifies them as ‘social entrepreneurs’, revealing a chasm in the way we think about social businesses and other models.
Hilde Schwab identifies social entrepreneurs as
‘Visionaries, but also realists…ultimately concerned with the practical implementation of scalable solutions through partnerships with governments, companies and other entrepreneurs’
The mode identified by Schwab is often consigned to corporate social responsibility interests – rather than being infused into the totality of business’s identity and agenda.
The possibility, however, exists to reframe both the way we think about business, as well as the kinds of collaborations that would be possible across sectors.
Such a reformulation does exist in some respects, however it needs to be strengthened and institutionalised, in a manner that allows systemic issues to be sustainably addressed while making capital gains and ensuring the security of our future.
Any foray into confronting social issues requires research, data and its interpretation and other knowledge resources to operate optimally – which is fundamentally, but not exclusively, the domain of the university.
As Coker-Kolo and Darley identify:
‘In a global environment characterized by continuous social, political and economic changes, the universities of Africa have a vital role to play in helping with the socio-economic development of the continent. The answer to many of the challenges facing the region can and should be found at the universities. Because a significant portion of a developing country’s gross national product (GNP) goes to support its universities, it behooves African universities to engage in activities that will aid in development without detracting from their teaching role and scholarly activities.’
Increasingly, the functions of universities are entangled with the market.
We see the growing corporatisation of institutions in ways that create challenging conditions for teaching and learning – and their primary role is devised around preparing students for jobs. While this is not a superfluous aim, it is fundamental to note the multiplicity of functions that the university can play in our societies.
This is what makes Professor Naude’s framing of the role of the University of Stellenbosch Business School integral to thinking about the objectives and institutional intentions of all bodies within the tertiary education sector.
The importance of knowledge reaches out in multiple directions – and should ultimately strive to create wholesome human beings with a compassionate moral conscience.
We are accordingly invited to imagine the university as a dynamic space that contains manifold objectives in growing our personhood, critical mind-sets, historical awareness and invitations to envision the future and our role in producing alternate, more humanist realities.
Present times call for innovation.
Technology is bringing major changes into our lives – affecting patterns of behaviour, labour, modes of production, and the kinds of goods and services required. Geopolitical and environmental changes ask that we design our future around sustainability. In concert, these challenges require greater collaboration and greater unity.
A question then emerges: In South Africa and throughout the continent, how do we mobilise academia and give the sector the resources to come up with innovative and creative answers to contemporary challenges?
Innovation and invention is often thought the domain of technical and scientific pursuits, while creativity is consigned to the humanities or liberal arts. However both spread over every field. This requires that we think in more interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary modes, while recognising the potential for collaboration that is not dissimilar to the partnerships necessary across sectors.
We are invited, then, to think about business, governance and investment in higher institutions of learning in an integrated manner. As Zia Khan, the Vice-President of the Rockefeller Foundation stated, social innovations are defined as a revolutionising force that:
“actually changes the status quo, is sustainable over time, and has a big scalable impact on a large group of people, particularly poorer, vulnerable populations”
As the USB gestures towards innovation, responsible leadership, ethics and accountability suffused with social consciousness, it is clear from Khan’s statement that our common humanity needs to be placed at the centre of pursuits.
Social innovation cannot simply be relegated to niche business interests, but can animate every model.
Consequently, we are not speaking about an explicitly named enterprise or label to affix to specific models – but about a state of mind, a consciousness, an ethos that can inform the way we think about doing business, governing or fighting for social justice, in an cohesive manner.
The spirit of this ethos becomes then, a unifying set of principles that outlines the way different and intersecting sectors operate, and a moral guide for responsible leadership.
I turn now to one such example that demonstrates how this kind of thinking can be instituted.
The University of Toronto Mississauga prides itself on specialising in innovation.
One of the institutional processes that facilitates this aim is the existence of a four level Innovation Complex that takes students through every stage of the invention process, from conception to market, offering industry specific business degrees and aiming to serve the city and region, province and country.
As identified by Saini, the purpose of this complex is:
“Educating the next generation of innovators with critical science and business expertise to help this city, region and nation compete in a challenging global economy… Graduates…with keen business acumen, scientific depth and an ability to translate creative ideas into viable commercial initiatives”.
With disciplines as diverse as business education, management studies, accounting, behaviour research, biotechnology – this provides one example of a leader in institutionalising responsible leadership, and a socially conscious model built on partnerships.
Our public universities have the potential to develop similar centres that think of innovation on both small and large scales – building on existing schools that embody these philosophies and rationale.
This need is born from multiple, interconnected challenges – which will change every landscape and impact our lives in totality.
One such example is the present drought and dwindling water resources in the Western Cape. South Africa, as we all know, is a water scarce country – hence this is a state-wide challenge that calls for our urgent, combined attention.
The impact of drought in the Western Cape calls for an understanding that we have very little control over natural forces. It is therefore critical to understand the laws that govern nature in order to ameliorate the conditions for our own existence. I signal this example as it is not a transient problem, nor one that can be addressed through the intervention of a single sector.
The National Treasury’s 2012 Budget Review estimates that our water demand will exceed supply in the next eight to twelve years. Developing innovative water infrastructure, as well as maintaining current infrastructure is therefore critical.’
Diminishing water resources have now seen the City of Cape Town institute ‘level 5 water restrictions and pressure management systems’. If we continue at the current rate, March 2018, will see us reach Day Zero – where dams can no longer provide for water needs. 
Such a crisis will correspondingly see the loss of an estimated R5billion in our agricultural sector, according to Western Cape Economic Opportunities MEC Alan Winde. This will further impact jobs, food supply, where certain crops are grown and the political economy of the province and state.
As we strive to find both short and long term solutions to a challenge that has resulted from climate change and its unpredictable weather patterns, mismanagement, collective bad behaviours and other factors, the opportunity has emerged for the Western Cape to be at the frontline of helping the country to deal with this kind of challenge through innovation. This will no doubt set precedent for the way we deal with similar social, political and economic matters in future.
One idea that is being presently researched, proposed and implemented, as part of the City of Cape Town’s water resilience plan, is the use of land-based desalination plants at Monwabisi, Strandfontein and Koeberg – supported by our state owned enterprises, and recycling plants.
Combined, these kinds of initiatives could contribute an estimated 200 million litres of water to the required total of 500 million litres that the city has curbed consumer consumption at.
As noted in a statement last month:
‘Dam storage levels are currently at 37.5%, with useable water at 27.5%. Collective consumption is at 622 million litres of water per day as at 22 September 2017. This is 122 million litres above the target…’.
The possibility exists for potentially innovative solutions that include capturing vapour produced at plants like Koeberg. Combining research, present infrastructure, modern technology and partnerships – this exemplifies the kind of innovation that is critical and possible.
In closing, across the world, these are difficult environmental, social and political times. They require resilient agency, fostering trust, encouraging partnerships and cultivating the next generation of responsible and ethical leaders to meet contemporary challenges – like the current water crisis.
Given its variegated nature, leadership has different types, including social, civic, religious, business, academic and many other forms. It may be true that even those other leadership typologies are as guilty of failing to uphold our values, yet, given the undisputed monopoly of the commanding heights of the political process, the political, that is, elected leadership, from the lowest to the highest rungs in that category, will be the most answerable to the bar of history.
Ethical leadership comprises first and foremost individuals who are rooted in social forms in the first place.
This point of departure is a wellspring from which a genuinely ethical ethos is brought into life, imbued with the capacity to reach across divides, and effect a more complete transformation. There is therefore a dynamic relationship between the individual as leader with moral responsibility and the pre-existing social experience and the general spirit of the era that frame their attitudes to society.
Ethically-minded individuals, from all sectors, can only lead within such a framework and even expand it through individual talent. Generally, business schools structure their understanding of leadership around developing pioneers within the corporate context. However, a greater purpose exists.
We therefore require a more humanist ethos to permeate such an environment, premised on mutual understanding of our interrelation and geared towards a common destiny.
For South Africa, addressing the complex interlinking of past, present and future challenges, will require several shifts in our modes of address, as well as the strengthening of present initiatives.
This must be deliberately designed to lift millions of South Africans from the bleakness into which colonial history and racial capitalism have cast them, with a renewed vision between government, business and labour.
Returning to the quote with which I commenced this lecture, I am confident that the University of Stellenbosch Business School is poised to rise to meet contemporary challenges, produce multiple generations of socially-minded leaders and continue to serve as a significant centre of teaching and learning excellence.
Thank you for your kind attention.