While the French example shows that the state can effect change, sustainable change needs to be rooted in the people writes Brian O’ Connell.
JOHANNESBURG - At the beginning of the 18th century, France was a feudal country made up primarily of peasants who lived in relative isolation, and often in enmity with those in their surrounding villages. By the end of that century, the French government sought to create a sense of nationhood and developed a plan, part of which dealt with the fact that the people spoke many different dialects.

This plan sought to unite all the people as French citizens by ensuring that they mastered a single national language: French.

The state used every structure over which it had authority to advance this agenda. And the plan succeeded.

While the French example shows that the state can effect change, sustainable change needs to be rooted in the people.

For South Africa to thrive and achieve greater wellbeing and quality of life for all its citizens, South Africans - particularly the youth - need to partner with the government and drive this socio-economic agenda.

Youth empowerment can be championed through their exposure to our celebrated National Development Plan (NDP), as a formal part of the school curricula. This will ensure the widespread adoption and sustained implementation of meaningful transformation, creating a nexus for change.

As head of education in the Western Cape in 1996, I searched for international education assistance to help us accelerate school development in the Western Cape.

My journey led me to Norwegian educationalist Per Dalin, who had worked on large education projects, especially in the East.

On the last day of the three weeks spent with him, I asked: “Given what you have seen and experienced here, how long do you think it will take us to be on a par, at least, with our international peers?”

He responded, saying that it would take 25 years if everything unfolded smoothly, which is unfortunately rarely the case.

He also warned of the incredible natural and social changes in our world, and how we should prepare ourselves to engage with these profound paradigm shifts, which he called revolutions: knowledge and information, globalisation, population explosion, economic, technological, social/cultural etc.

Dalin believed that humankind would be so tested by this combination of incredible changes, both natural and social, that on many levels simultaneously our cultures would have to undergo the profound kind of paradigm shifts last experienced in the 16th and 17th centuries, when science began to challenge all forms of knowledge.

He argued that our current paradigms could not contend with these monumental changes and survive. We must change our thinking and we must all work together. We need great leaders.

Such warnings have come to us from all corners. In 1972, Dennis Meadows and researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology tracked industrialisation, population, food, the use of resources and pollution. They modelled data up to 1970, then developed a range of scenarios up until 2100.

These models predicted the “overshoot and collapse” of the economy, environment and population before 2070 given a “business-as-usual” scenario.

In 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report stated that global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels sometime between 2030 (the same deadline set for the NDP) and 2052.

A rise of even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people.

It behoves us then to embrace the concept of humanity - the loving of and caring for all by all, embodied by the principles of the NDP.

Although South Africa has planned for change through the NDP, a lack of implementation will mean that the status quo persists.

The post-apartheid transformation project will not be completed, society will remain highly unequal and the majority of the population will not attain socio-economic well-being.

Meadows and colleagues predict that we are the last generations with the chance of preventing a population crisis of unchecked poverty, malnutrition, restricted economic growth, and shortages of primary healthcare services, family planning services, housing and education.

In 2001, Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells said that it is in our interests to continuously empower ourselves with education, and to develop supportive networks.

Education helps us to understand the natural and social challenges facing us, the choices that we have and the innovations that we need.

Networks create a pool of skills and capacities in partnerships required to meet complex global challenges.

Sustainable positive change is possible, but we must be able to respond dynamically if threatened.

Seven million South Africans became infected with HIV/Aids primarily because of the protracted denial of the Mbeki government.

Initially, as head of the Higher Education South Africa HIV project, I could not persuade the majority of seniors to lead the march against this virus, because of their allegiance to their culture and the contrary position taken by the then minister of health.

When we broke through, we managed to open the minds at all South Africa’s universities, especially among the youth, to other ways of thinking and sense-making. The challenge of creating socio-economic well-being for all in South Africa is daunting.

While we have a viable, resilient plan to achieve this in the form of the NDP, plans alone do not bring about change.

As in the case of French nation-building, we require implementation through an investment of financial resources, successful communication, policy, procedural and systemic changes, stakeholder ownership, and, most importantly, harnessing the power of education.

Great value can be derived from integrating an awareness of and teaching about the NDP throughout primary and high school curricula.

But all stakeholders will need to pull together to realise the objectives of the NDP.

Professor Brian O’Connell is the former rector and vice-chancellor at the University of the Western Cape. O’Connell was the project leader of a study - The Power of a Nexus in South Africa: National Development Plan Survey - which has just been published.

BUSINESS REPORT