Better choices come from being willing to change one’s mind - Business Day

23 July 2018 - We can deservedly marvel at how far we have come since those dark times. And yet it has to be sobering that, in 2018, the latest Institute of Race Relations research on schooling shows, among other things, that just less than half of children who enrol in Grade 1 will make it to Grade 12 ....

Michael Morris

One of the more intriguing tokens of the torment of unforeseeable outcomes is the naming of two South African brothers a century ago by a father for whom prudence was evidently the better part of patriotism.

In 1915, mindful of the vagaries of war in the uncertain opening months of the bloody contest between Germany and Britain, Chief Mhlolo Mvuso Matanzima named his newborn son Kaiser, after German emperor Wilhelm II.

Three years later, the winds of fortune having by then favoured British imperial arms and those of its allies, he opted for a monarchical George for his next son.

The naming of the Matanzima brothers, both of whom would court notoriety in the homeland politics of apartheid’s later years, is just a footnote today.

Much more than a footnote is the destiny of their uncle, born in the last months of the Great War, in July 1918, who, unforeseeably in the imperial setting of his birth, would emerge as a global icon and, a century later, be the celebratory motif of an address in a democratic SA by none other than a former – and the first black – US president.

Last week’s Nelson Mandela Lecture by Barack Obama drew a beam of world attention on an SA struggling perhaps more intensely today than it did in the early 1990s to choose a better future. Making better choices was the thrust of Obama’s lecture, and of Mandela’s life.

If the South African hero was no more clairvoyant than the rest of us, and could never have imagined the costs or rewards his life would deliver, what distinguishes Mandela is the effect of his choices on the world he died in.

It is a lesson Obama dwelled on, emphasising at one point the importance of being open to persuasion, observing with signature charm: "You notice the people who you think are smart are the people who agree with you? Funny how that works."

But democracy meant being as willing to change one’s own mind as other people’s. Just last week, former leader of the opposition Tony Leon reminded us of the signal instance of Mandela’s matching this demanding challenge when, after a testing encounter with foreign investors at Davos in 1992, the president himself recalled: "When I came back I told the ANC economic team: ‘Boys, we have to change our policy.’"

Obama earned cheers and applause in his lecture for underlining the need "to bring more resources to the forgotten pockets of the world through investment and entrepreneurship", but did the most influential in his audience note his emphatic assertion that a better world "won’t involve old-style command-and-control socialism from the top. That was tried; it didn’t work very well. For almost all countries, progress is going to depend on an inclusive market-based system"?

I began with a footnote, and close with another.

In his final statement from the dock in the Rivonia Trial on April 20 1964, Mandela said: "According to figures quoted by the South African Institute of Race Relations in its 1963 journal, approximately 40% of African children in the age group between 7-14 do not attend school. For those who do attend school, the standards are vastly different from those afforded to white children."

We can deservedly marvel at how far we have come since those dark times. And yet it has to be sobering that, in 2018, the latest Institute of Race Relations research on schooling shows, among other things, that just less than half of children who enrol in Grade 1 will make it to Grade 12, and our economic data reveal a commensurate skills deficit in an unemployment rate for black people that is between four and five times higher than for white people.

SA still has a lot of choosing to do. In 2018 it could make a start by choosing to heed what Obama called the "hard evidence" of history — that the world’s most prosperous and successful societies "happen to be those which have most closely approximated the liberal, progressive ideal … and have nurtured the talents and contributions of all their citizens".

The future is never wholly unforeseeable.

• Morris is head of media at the Institute of Race Relations

https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/columnists/2018-07-23-michael-morris-better-choices-come-from-being-willing-to-change-ones-mind/

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