Op-Ed: The Thabo Mbeki School and the transformation of Africa

Last month saw the launch of the University of South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki African School of Public and International Affairs. Toyin Falola* looks at what this portends for leadership in Africa

IN a modern world anchored on excessive capitalism in which the state is prone to protect the interest of its bourgeois class against the workers, South African trade unions, the Student Representative Council (SRC), and the University of South Africa came together to honour a former President of the country, Thabo Mbeki, with an institution that seeks to prepare young Africans for leadership positions across the globe.

Concentrating on eight critical areas of teaching and research, the Thabo Mbeki (TM) School of Public and International Affairs hopes to redefine the value of education in Africa by Africanising knowledge production and dissemination process. This comes in the realisation that the sustainable development of modern African states depends even more on the relationship among their production forces now than ever.

Home to world’s largest population

Several projections estimate Africa to become home to the world’s largest population/workforce from the next decade. Yet, these states’ economies have failed in many parts to equal this population boom or annex the potentials therein.

The TM School has recognised that in as much as this form of projection sounds good for Africans – whose workforce/population was depleted by centuries of the slave trade across the Sahara and the Atlantic – it could also spell doom for the continent’s teeming population and the survival of African states in the future of the comity of nations.

Of course, one cannot overemphasise the effect of the committee’s composition that conferred Mbeki with the honour of associating him with this novel idea. As mentioned above, these entities and their submissions are pointers to the institute’s established goals and mission: building future Africans that can act as a bridge between government/public sector (policy) and the society/private sector (impact).

Social re-engineering

If modern states have been conditioned to support the bourgeoisie at the detriment of the common people/workers/proletarians, the TM School wants to see how it could adjust an extant colonial and neo-colonial curriculum being regurgitated by several African institutions in response to solving this modern menace. There is no question that the social re-engineering needed to balance, at least in the relative sense. The social relations among production forces in a state lies in the education system. We have a great vision in place.

By imparting the right education appropriately, a generation could be built differently from others, thereby inflaming the smoke of hope many still hold for Africa. Considering that ideology and consciousness constitute the most potent weapon for the reinvention of society, educating the emerging outstanding African population in the following eight areas is designed by the School to ensure that energies are pulled together towards a greater good of the region:  Citizenship and Development; Leadership Studies; Peace and Development Studies; Study of Government Affairs; Urban and Regional Affairs; Simulations and Futuristic Studies; Security and Intelligence Studies; and Sustainable Livelihood & Resources Management.

One after the other, these areas not only summarise the challenges facing post-colonial Africa – even though they are not entirely the making of the people – they also project the possibility of remedies. Any research endeavour in these fields is expected to provide possible solutions to the issues in question in a lucid framework.

Africanising knowledge in Africa

 While it is true that Africa has never been short of ideas and advice in the past or now, it is also true that with the establishment of the TM School and its methodological inclination, which includes a transdisciplinary approach to Africanising knowledge in Africa, tend to have the capacity to fit into the African Union’s ‘African solution to African problems.’

Again, it is one thing to Africanise the problems and their solutions, and another it is to put them to tangible use without ‘embalming’ them on rotten shelves to gather dust or throwing them in the bin to burn. This is why the school prepares African intellectuals and African leaders: those who could captain the drifting ship of modern African states through rough seas.

Ex-President Mbeki noted in his virtual speech at the commissioning of the School: ‘The TM School will have to avoid the consequence so graphically described by Bryan Williams of Turning (Its Students) Into Corporate Stooges!’ And what was this graphic description? Williams had written an article where he lamented the American university system’s mercantilist culture, which had been the touchstone of modern education in the world and the effect of this on the consciousness and practices of their graduates. Williams was himself a graduate of one of the top universities in the US, Duke University, and was practically talking from first-hand experience.

Suppose the tempo that establishes the TM School is sustained from all sides, it cannot be out of place to suppose that we’re witnessing the laying of the foundation of a new African intellectual culture.

The development challenges of societies

It is pertinent to add that the School aims to ‘address the development challenges of societies in Africa; search for new knowledge and ideas, be in the forefront of the logic of invention and the logic of discovery; contribute to global discoveries; provide knowledge that accommodates inclusive growth, African thought, issues of sustainable development and human cohesiveness; reshape public-private sector relationships and determine the role of the public sector in economic development.’

If these could be instilled into all its graduates and interagency networking, it is only a matter of time before other African countries replicate this structure in their higher institutions. To do this, both the leaders and the led in these states will have to foster a common course in the same direction with a clear vision.

Like Mandela, Mbeki played significant roles in the making of the post-Cold War in Africa and post-Apartheid in South Africa. His leadership quality and democratic badges could not have been misplaced when the unions and UNISA decided to hang the School on it. He is both a national and global leader – in the excellent function of these terms and as one committed to education.

Africanised knowledge

 His fears about the African education system and what we call the gap between the town and the gown were palpable in his speech on September 22, so much so that his only succour was in the Tanzanian scholarship. His thesis: if Tanzanian scholars can distinguish themselves by producing Africanised knowledge and contributing meaningfully to the academic discourse of reinventing Africa, TM School should merge this with implementation mechanisms that the former lacks.

It is still too early to measure the institution, but the quality it portends will surely give this a voice in the nearest future. The School is designed in such a way that its programmes are focused on developing and training students in high-level trans-disciplinary research in public and international affairs; educating and training researchers who can contribute to the development of knowledge at an advanced level; preparing students to think critically, analyse and solve policy problems to become impactful leaders for the public good; training students to explore; creating and implementing policies to address the most pressing issues in society; and preparing students for advanced professional employment.

A new Africa in the world order

 This scope shows the bridge which the School intends to construct in the society. To fulfil the task of its establishment and the one ahead, the Institute is staffed by academic and professional leaders in Leadership Studies, Peace and Development, Simulation and Future Studies, Urban and Regional Affairs, Citizenship and Development, Feminism and Gender Studies.

With this, another significant stone is laid in making a new Africa in the world order: a stone of consciousness and conscience, intellect and excellence, liberation and power. But it is ‘not yet Uhuru’ as the School will now have to earnestly activate its fundraising mechanisms to meet with quality improvement and sustainable measures.

All of which boils down to the quality of its research outputs, students, facilities and alumni, and requiring massive investment in grants, scholarships, publications and others. It needs no telling how these Western structures have been transformed into the nucleus of knowledge production and impact worldwide.                                                                                                                                             The former president and elder statesman could also use his political clout, institutional access, and networking to enhance the programme design of the School by providing graduate students with the opportunity to put their skills and knowledge into practical use during their study. Aside from improving their intellectuality, this aspect of their graduate experience is prone to increase the Institute’s chances of making an impact in its quest to reinvent Africa.

The School must be aware that the old policies and programmes for the management of national and international affairs are now outdated for the new world. The School must be creative and proactive in its agenda to produce prospective leaders that will have up-to-date management intelligence to effectively govern the Artificial Intelligence of the Millenia generational issues.  One can only hope to see more of these initiatives across Africa in carefully chosen innovative fields of study that address any of the myriads of problems confronting the continent today, with a futuristic outlook that places the image of Sankofa before it.

*Toyin Falola is University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair at The University of Texas at Austin, Honorary Professor at the University of Cape Town, and an International Advisory Member of the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute.

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