Towards a new dawn of knowledge
Based on the composition of the Mapungubwe Institute leadership, as well as the intellectuals taking part in its various research projects, I would be so bold as to infer that the establishment of this institute is another positive step towards strengthening our intellectual and reflective firmament.
I believe that the Mapungubwe Institute is poised to make a critical contribution to the national effort as we strive to crack the riddles that make success possible.
This new institute offers a platform to key players in the public sector, civil society, academia and the private sector to reflect and engage on the pressing strategic issues that challenge us as a nation.
The research agenda set by the institute consists of fundamental issues that confront our nation.
Most of them may be long-term, some may be high-flown, and others may even be described by some as esoteric, yet they remain relevant to our present-day concerns. While we are all duty-bound in all sectors of society to attend to the practical problems of today, we also need to appreciate that, without long-term reflections, without abstract engagement, we stand in danger of mistaking the wood for the trees.
We live in a world of complex challenges. This is a world where knowledge is at a premium. The creation of new knowledge systems is a key determinant of a country’s ability to compete regionally and globally. Prime capital for the survival of societies is largely dependent upon turning knowledge into serviceable data and products.
Equally important is the necessity for research institutes to forge functional links with the public and private sectors, civil society and the nation at large. Research and development should be central to South Africa’s plans for shared growth, developing indigenous knowledge and technological enterprises, as well as developing human capital.
Breaking new ground
Experience convinces us that a society that bases itself on coordinated research and development is on the right track to a higher sense of self-understanding.
History will ask whether the Mapungubwe Institute was able to break new ground in knowledge production, make available space to inform the public on the complex challenges, be a relevant and reliable partner in responding effectively to the unique South African and, indeed, African conditions, and promote the ideals of a society informed first and foremost by the spirit of humanism.
In my estimation, think-tanks are meant to champion projects for democratic formation, democratic practices and democratic consolidation. Therefore, in a democratic dispensation, it is to be expected that strategic reflection that takes place in research institutes will be geared towards building society and empowering all citizens irrespective of race, gender, religion and class.
Even though the notion of think-tanks is a 20th-century one, there is no doubt that, with other conditions, strategic thinking has been at the core of most of the advances that humanity has made over the centuries.
Historically, the art and science of good leadership has found full expression among those decision-makers who valued the attitude of critical appraisal from among the population—and especially its thought leaders. From the imbongi to the philosophical men and women of letters, this has been an important stratum in shaping social norms and values, and in kindling aspirations in all of us. I am aware that most of these ideas inform the Mapungubwe Institute’s overall philosophical orientation.
An authority on the subject of strategic research institutes, James McGann, offers this counsel: think- tanks should endeavour to be “research organisations that are independent of government and universities — [and have] significant autonomy from — societal interests such as firms, interest groups and political parties”. The courage of the Mapungubwe Institute in espousing this approach and in focusing on long-term research questions that have strategic interests for our country is commendable.
Yet, having said all this, we cannot but repeat the truism that, while practice without theory is meaningless, the inverse is also true. In thinking and acting autonomously, in objectively reflecting on social dynamics, it is critical to always pause and test abstract ideas against the reality of life. Shorn of this, theoretical engagement on its own can become an empty vessel, enthralled by its own noise and adding little value to societal endeavours.
‘Bedrock of goodwill
The Mapungubwe Institute has a choice either to creatively identify linkages and dissonances among disparate phenomena and identify those that can take the country, the region and Africa to a higher level of development, or simply to rehash obvious truths and posit subjective views as the paragon of profound intellectual thought.
We expect the former. The firm and solid bedrock of goodwill in society towards the Mapungubwe Institute derives from this confidence in the employees, the council, the board and the broad network of intellectuals mobilising this initiative.
We in the government are committed to creating an environment in which the best available talent in the country can contribute to the development of ideas. The creation of the National Planning Commission, a body made up of independent minds that is mandated to lead in national policy formulation, follows this system of thought.
Thus we do pledge, as we join you in celebrating the launch of the Mapungubwe Institute, to pay attention to the fruits of your hard intellectual labours.
Challenge us through your research endeavours, shake us from the slumber of short-termism: in other words, fulfil the mission you have set yourselves and you will have served the nation.
This is an edited version of the address made by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe at the launch of the Mapungubwe Institute in Midrand on March 17