Mandela Rhodes Scholars
Mandela Rhodes Scholars

Believing is seeing: Setting improbable goals as a means to social transformation

This post is in response to the recent Community of Mandela Rhodes Scholars (CMRS) “Conversations for Change” sessions held throughout the country in May. As a platform for constructive interdisciplinary debate and intellectual enquiry, the sessions sought to bring together academic institutions, public intellectuals, social activists, students, and community members with the intention of facilitating dialogue between these different stakeholders. The theme for this year was “The Role of Education and Entrepreneurship in Advancing Social Transformation”. Discussion history can be found on Twitter with the tag #CMRS.

By Noella Moshi

As a self-described pragmatist, the eagerness of idealistic young people is sometimes lost on me. There is, however, the rare occasion when I understand exactly what all the excitement is about. The “Conversations for Change” in Johannesburg was one such moment. I sat, part of an intently focused audience, listening to the beginnings of a plan to change South Africa.

Miriam Altman, (National Planning Commission) Yusuf Randera-Rees (Awethu Project) and Ayanda Khala (Mandela Rhodes scholar and educator) led our conversation at the Council Chambers of the University of Johannesburg. Each panelist approached education and entrepreneurship from a distinct and personal angle, leaving me with a sense of the multi-faceted nature of social change. By all three accounts, increasing the rate of social transformation is an urgent and difficult goal. As the scope of the challenge was unpacked, I felt compelled to question whether this goal is in fact attainable.

Social transformation can be described as movement towards a harmonious society; one in which reality is defined only by consensus. I don’t believe it is possible to have a completely congruous South Africa, as this requires a uniformity of will that contradicts our diversity. What is achievable, however, is a more rapid progression towards that model.

The improbability of achieving total social transformation does not cause Miriam Altman to lose sleep. She explained that one must set seemingly impossible goals, if only to have something to aim towards. For example, by 2030 the National Planning Commission intends to reduce unemployment by 21%. This may or may not be realistic; she argues that the point is to try. She’s right. One cannot save the world if one doesn’t get out of bed in the morning.

As I reflected further on our ambitious objectives, it dawned on me that the question of how high to aim might be a foolish one. South Africa is not in a position to quibble about good social transformation versus great social transformation. At the moment we just need to improve the current speed of change. Questioning whether we should try for a 10% employment increase versus a 20% increase is like a hungry man debating whether he should have caviar or tinned tuna. Food is food, and progress is undeniably progress.

However the assembly at the Council Chambers was not interested in the tinned tuna. The tone, the energy and the language used, reflected the question “what do we want?” instead of “what can we have?”. Idealistic or not, there was something quite potent in this demand. I began to hope that a widely held belief in the likelihood of reaching a goal could itself cause the goal to become possible. My inner cynic was silenced by the brave optimism of a roomful of people who wanted nothing less than mass change.

As to the question of how to affect social transformation through education and entrepreneurship: this requires as much considered action as it does enthusiasm.

Several approaches to accelerating social change were proposed at the Council Chambers. “Social transformation is the outcome of many events. It is not created, it is indirectly accomplished,” asserted Yusuf. Increasing employment is his particular means to advancing the goal. However, we were all painfully aware that there are not enough job opportunities in South Africa to accommodate everyone. According to Yusuf, the solution is not to help youth to find jobs, but to make jobs.

I was suitably impressed by the solidity of his opinion. But I couldn’t help protesting. Inventing a job for oneself requires a certain entrepreneurial flair; it necessitates creativity, a calculated-risk-taking personality, and above average intelligence. If all youth hoping to have jobs must posses these qualities, then some are doomed to fail. Aside from the personality-related criteria for entering the world of entrepreneurship, there is the not insignificant task of thinking up a good idea.

Does a job-generating idea just happen – is there some inexplicably timed visitation of a life-changing thought? Or is coming up with a good idea a process? According to Miriam, it’s a process. “If you want to find a good business idea,” she said, “get a nine-to-five.” It doesn’t have to be paid employment. The point is to expose oneself to an industry and understand it well enough to identify gaps in the system. These gaps are niches in which one can provide a service. Ideas are born from experiential research, added Ayanda. In order to find an answer, one must live in the question. The key question asked by entrepreneurs is: “How can I improve on an existing entity?”

A budding entrepreneur first concentrates on something she cares about, and figures out exactly why it is important to her. She then searches for a way to develop the object of her passion. Entrepreneurial skill is therefore unrelated to formal education – all it takes is a person who is willing to focus on something that already consumes them.

In order to learn how to augment an existing concept, one must approach it with an open mind. Entrepreneurs continually see life with new eyes. I have the privilege of working with Robert Brozin, founder of Nando’s. His constant wonder allows him to pick up the ideas that stroll unnoticed across the path of others.

In contemplating our surroundings with interest, we will finally notice that which is blindingly obvious. Ayanda, quoting Karl Rogers, stressed that “teachers must drop the mantle of expert”. Only then can they truly begin to learn, and to set an example for their pupils to do the same.

For me, the “Conversations for Change” in Johannesburg brought the goal of accelerating social change firmly into the realm of possibility, provided that everyone expresses faith, and a willingness to act. Despite my pragmatism, I am now sure that we must aim for great progress (not merely good progress), lest we fall short of what we are capable of securing. The conversation was itself part of the change it encouraged. Consequently our discourse continued, long after the doors of the Council Chamber had closed.

Noella is a 2011 Scholar who pursued her masters in biochemistry at UCT.

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