• 2013
  • 'When an old man dies, it's a library burning'

'When an old man dies, it's a library burning'

Professor Tan Sri Dato' Dzulkifli Abdul Razak
Learning Curve: Perspective
New Sunday Times - 22-12-2013

IN 1960 at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1901-1991), a Malian writer, sufi master and founder of the Institute of Human Sciences in Bamako was quoted as saying: "In Africa, when an old man dies, it's a library burning."

This profound metaphor underpins the vitality of knowledge, experiences and sacrifices in the making of a community, nation and the world.

What if the man in question is Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918-2013)? What metaphor will best fit his stature? How do the leaders of other countries measure up to Mandela?

No doubt Madiba, as he was more fondly known (his teacher, Miss Mdingane, called him Nelson as a form of subjugation and he later revealed that he had no idea why the name was chosen), has redefined many things, not least taking leadership to a new normal like never before even as the post-2015 development agenda in South Africa is being crafted.

While most were wallowing in the rhetorics of the last century, Mandela had moved on. He truly believed "in the power of ideas and the role of intellectuals in national and international development" as testified by Dr Mamphela Ramphele, the first black female vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town.

Mandela acknowledged the key role of education and recognised that an inferiority complex had been bred into black people and the converse was true among whites, creating an impediment to living together.

He reckoned that it was not so much where you started but how high you aimed.

He strived to work on his LLB degree at night while imprisoned on Robben Island, demonstrating that failure is an opportunity to learn rather than a personal condemnation. He even initiated the University of Robben Island. Prisoners lectured on their areas of expertise and debated on topics ranging from homosexuality to politics. Mandela studied Islam and Afrikaans, hoping to build mutual respect and further his cause for justice and freedom through education.

Not surprisingly, one of his famous quotes is: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world." This spans schools and universities as well as the community.

In a speech in 1998 at his ancestral village of Qunu, where he was laid to rest, he insisted that children must have access to formal education that produces "capable, skilled and empowered people", not just to sustain the economy but also make democracy work!

Aside from the usual partnership of teachers, parents and the communities, he pointed out that traditional leaders must have a part to play in education. He remarked: "We expect to have the leaders of tomorrow out of this school."

Similarly, Mandela was keenly aware that "our universities must also make a decisive impact in addressing the nation's basic needs. We must ensure that the paradigm of teaching and learning accords with the country's social conditions and position in the world arena". He made this statement when he was conferred honorary degrees by eight British universities at Buckingham Palace in London, six years after his release from imprisonment.

In 1992, on receiving an honorary LLD degree at South Africa's University of Fort Hare, he implored "to acknowledge that the community has a claim on your skills. I want to appeal to you to use those skills to help empower our people.

"We cannot build a strong, vibrant, democratic culture merely from a government department. We need strong cultural organisations of the communities.

"Democracy is a process and democracy in a university is a process that we will have to work at everyday."

Herein lies the wisdom of the leadership at universities. This was apparent during the appointment of the University of Witwatersrand vice-chancellor in 1998 when Mandela argued that no history of the defence of freedom in South Africa can be complete without reference to "the principled stands by universities which bravely insisted on their right to decide who and what would be taught and who would teach".

In other words, "the proud tradition of university autonomy" must not be compromised, but has to be nurtured as the higher education system is transformed.

"They are charged by society with safekeeping the fount of knowledge gained by generations past, while ever exploring new horizons of science and learning."

Mandela made his mark as a leader when he pronounced: "What counts in life is not the mere fact that we have lived. It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead." This, after all, is the very purpose of education!

Sadly, Amadou Hampâté Bâ is right as Tata (father) Madiba departed, leaving behind more than just a burning library that we need to urgently rebuild.

Rest in peace, Mandela, you are truly free at last!