Reimagining South Africa in Honour of Jakes Gerwel: A Philosopher/Patriot/Leader Extraordinaire – Mamphela Ramphele

Today we honour an amazing person who left an indelible memory on our nation’s psyche.  My first encounter with Jakes Gerwel was in 1970 at the Inaugural Conference of the South African Students Organization (SASO).  This soft-spoken handsome young man, who seemed very wise and engaged with life itself, inspired us.

Mamphela Ramphele

He affirmed our quest to become our own liberators.  He was both scholarly and emotionally engaged in the exploration of the importance of psychological and mental liberation as a foundation on which to build self-knowledge and agency in shaping the future we desired.

He recognized that black consciousness was a vehicle for self-liberation of all people who had been mentally and psychologically imprisoned by an imposed colour-coded colonial and extractive exploitative economic system.  Colour-coding was invented to justify the exploitation of indigenous people by colonial conquerors across the globe, whom they designated as less than human. 

Jakes Gerwel also shared our dream that the liberation of black people from the clutches of dehumanizing colour-coding, would also liberate our oppressors to shed their superiority complexes.  This holistic process would enable all to share in the freedom to be simply human in an interconnected and interdependent web of life.  This was the essence of Stephen Biko’s Quest for a True Humanity – for Africa to bestow to the world a truly human face.

Twenty-six years after we attained our political freedom, we are yet to accomplish the process of self-liberation for all citizens.  The signs of this unfinished process of self-liberation are clear for everyone to see.  Our government remains determined to pursue colour-coding as an instrument of economic transformation despite its obvious failures over the last 26 years. Even more ridiculous is the desperation by those married to this colour-coding who think that it is appropriate in 2020 to charge a fellow citizen with fraud for daring to self-identify as an African here on the African continent! 

What has made us so captured by the idea of colour coding that we are willing to deny our beingness as Africans?  How can it be that we have become blind to the rich heritage of our continent that is the cradle of humanity and of civilization?  Humanity evolved in Africa as a single race – the human race.  Why does it make sense to continue to speak of “different races” despite the science that tells us that there are no races, but one race, with a diversity of physical and cultural expressions?

In this talk I would like to explore Three Questions:

  • How can we reimagine an inclusive prosperous future of our society?
  • What would it take to self-liberate ourselves, our children and young people?
  • How do we better celebrate our rich ancient African heritage?

A Reimagined Society      

South Africans seem to have lost the beauty and the power of the dreams that propelled us to the political freedom we won in 1994.  We need to redream what our country could look like beyond the fog of corruption, state capture and betrayal.  We need to follow Jakes Gerwel’s example of not allowing the constraints of our present moment to define the ambition of our dreams. 

Jakes was born and raised on a small farm in the Eastern Cape and rose to become a gentle giant as an academic, a transformative leader of the University of the Western Cape, and a trusted support for President Mandela’s Presidency, and champion of his post-retirement Philanthropic Foundations.  He dared to dream of a life beyond his humble beginnings as a farmworkers child.  He dared to dream of UWC beyond its “bush college” origins and led it to become a “Home of the Left” and a great African university.  He achieved all this in his quiet strong way through his ability to mobilize and inspire people.

History teaches us that true transformation starts with the imagination of a future that captures people’s aspirations.  Imagination propels people beyond the bounds of possibilities that often hold back those afraid to dare to dream.  To imagine is to take the first step into the future we desire.  True transformation starts with each one of us being willing to free ourselves from self-imposed chains of fear, shame, and lack of self-confidence in our agency to shape the future we desire.

We need to dare to regain the boldness of that dawn of our political freedom in 1994. On that historic dawn, we dared to paint a picture of a society united in its diversity to birth a future of inclusion and prosperity for all.  We were emboldened by the knowledge that we could drink from the deep well of Ubuntu: to see ourselves in the eyes of each and every person across the lengths and breadths of our society.  We were confident that we would enact the “I am because you are” and build a country we could all be proud of. 

As we celebrated our newfound freedom, we did not ignore the obstacles in our path to the future we desired.  We acknowledged the deep wounds that we brought into the post-1994 era. We knew then that the self is a society sustained by interrelationships and interconnections that would need to be mended. We knew then that we needed to sit in circles, look one another in the eye, and heal ourselves and society, through the flow of energy unleashed by the reconnections of our hearts, our minds and our bodies.

A prosperous inclusive and sustainable South Africa is calling us to action.  All we need to do is to redream this beautiful country and work together to create a national consciousness movement to ensure that every person, family, community, school, and place of work and worship, is infused with the spirit of Ubuntu to let freedom and abundance reign.

What would it take to Heal and Self-liberate?

Jakes Gerwel’s life story gives us a tried and tested roadmap to healing and self-liberation.  Jakes seized the limited education opportunities at his disposal to propel himself from his farmworkers’ family base to national and international platforms as a leader.

Jakes Gerwel is a prime example of what President Mandela said about education: “The power of education extends beyond the development of skills we need for economic success.  It can contribute to nation-building and reconciliation.  Our previous system emphasized the physical and other differences of South Africans with devastating effects.  We are steadily but surely introducing education that enables our children to exploit their similarities and common goals, while appreciating the strength of their diversity.”

The under-performance of our education system has sadly betrayed Mandela’s dream.  We need to pay greater attention to the value of education beyond the development of skills as Madiba urged us to do.  Education is an opportunity for the development of the heart, mind and body.  We have a 16-year-old model of such an education system the Six Leap Maths and Science Schools in three provinces:  Langa; Gugulethu/Philippi in the WC; Alexander Township; Diepsloot; Ga-Rankuwa in Gauteng; and Jane Furse in Limpopo Province. 

The Leap School system has demonstrated that the context into which one is born, is not an impediment to the genius that every child is born with to flower. The key success factor is the loving support that learners get to promote the emotional, academic and skills development to excel and become critical thinking citizens.

Leap Maths and Science Schools make appropriate use of Life Orientation as a space in the curriculum to achieve this excellence.  Young people get to know and articulate who they are (identity formation); how they feel about who they are (emotional healing and development); and what their talents are, and how to work hard to excel academically.  The entire Leap School system is anchored on the values of Ubuntu.  These values are re-affirmed in inter-personal, learner-learner, learner-teacher, parent-child, and school-community relationships. 

Leap schools outperform the public school system at many levels.  For example, a pass rate of 90% pass vs 78%. Distinctions in Science, Maths and Technology are common, whereas many learners in the rest of the schools are dropping mathematics and science as subjects.  Leap Schools demonstrate that poverty is not an impediment to excellence in academic performance.  What matters are the right values based teaching and learning environment, high expectations for the success of all learners, and adequate emotional and physical support for every child.  The Leap Schools model is also more cost-effective than our public system given the higher quality of its outcomes. 

Imagine if we the people were to insist that our government adopt this values-based excellence driven model of education to enable the genius in each of our children to flower!  Imagine how our country would be graduating young people from our school system who would live up to Madiba’s dream of a nation that celebrates its unity in diversity as a strength! 

Imagine if President Ramaphosa, a product of the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s, were to mandate all public servants to go through emotional healing processes and civic education, as part of their personnel development programs! This would enable them to embrace Ubuntu values and liberate themselves from the burdens of colour-coding that are undermining their performance as public servants. Could you imagine someone who sees him/herself in the eyes of the citizens being served, being tempted to steal from poor people?  Would anyone who is self-confident and values driven enrich himself/herself at the expense of the country they are citizens of?  Unlikely!

Imagine if the private sector and civil society organizations were to also create spaces for healing the legacy of the divisions that continue to bedevil us and undermine our performance as a nation! Imagine the trust-building that would result from this healing in our places of work and communities across the nation!  Imagine the benefits we would enjoy from harmonious supportive institutional cultures and enhanced productivity in both the private and public sectors!  Imagine the national wellbeing we could enjoy!

How should we better celebrate our rich ancient African heritage?

We are the only country in Africa that has an identity crisis.  We have many citizens who are yet to define themselves as unself-consciously African.  We also have many citizens who see Africanness as an exclusive club that only certain people are entitled to. 

We need to acknowledge that we have not yet invested enough time and energy in correcting the distortions of African history by the colonial system.  The denial of Africa’s place as the cradle of humanity and of human civilization persists.  We have acquiesced to the alienation of Sub-Saharan Africa from the North, including the great ancient Egyptian civilization that birthed agronomy, cosmology, philosophy, literature, and monuments in the form of pyramids including in Ethiopia and Sudan.  We also have made little effort to learn about the rich heritage of West Africa, including Mali, that is host to an amazing library and knowledge of cosmology.

John Henrik Clarke, an African American historian, reminds us that: “To control a people you must control what they think about themselves and how they regard their history and culture.  And when your conqueror makes you ashamed of your culture and your history, he needs no prison walls and no chains to hold you.” 

We have to acknowledge that we are yet to heed John Henrik Clarke’s injunction above, nor Stephen Bantu Biko’s reminder that the greatest weapon in the hands of an oppressor, is the mind of the oppressed.  We remain prisoners of other people’s views of who we are.  We need to embrace our identity as Africans and celebrate the richness of our heritage.

The world is waking up to Africa’s wisdom that life is an interconnected web and that our human beingness is affirmed by our interdependence and interconnectedness to other human beings.  This wisdom is now being celebrated by scientists, poets, and innovators across the globe.

The enormous value of indigenous knowledge that is holistic in connecting the past, present and future is receiving increasing recognition in our troubled world.  Indigenous knowledge systems have developed across the globe by learning from nature’s intelligence and wisdom.  Africa as the cradle of humanity and of civilization is the ancient source, and embodies much of this wisdom.  It is tragic to hear Africans talking about science and technology as “western,” discounting the seminal contributions made by ancient and modern Africa to mathematics, science and technology.  We need to take ownership of our heritage of indigenous knowledge, as well as celebrate the many innovations that continue to emanate from Africa.

Equally important is the need to transform our history curriculums to embrace ancient African history, authentic modern history and an openness to different interpretations of history by an array of storytellers.  African history has been distorted by reliance on interpretations by victors of battles fought in different eras, who tend to tell only their side of the story, impoverishing humanity in the process. 

We need to celebrate our cultural heritage beyond its superficial symbols.  We have a core culture that is rich in Ubuntu values shaped by the evolution of humanity on this continent. Ubuntu teaches us that “motho ke motho ka batho ba bangwe”, “umtu ungumtu nga banye abantu” – the I am because you are! This is the cornerstone of African culture that enables us to understand the inextricable links between us as humans and other living beings including plants, birds and animals. 

The understanding of the interlaced web of life explains our totemic customs that link our clans to specific animals, birds and plants, enabling us to visibly celebrate our being part of interconnected nature.  Scientists have now come to appreciate the value of indigenous knowledge and its wisdom as they explore ecosystem sustainability.  Species that support the wellbeing of others tend to be the ones that prosper in good and bad times.  Ours is to celebrate, venerate and promote knowledge of, and pride in our rich heritage.

Imagine if we were to link hands as citizens of this beautiful land to affirm and celebrate the richness of our African culture and heritage!  We need to look no further than the impact of our music, poetry, landscapes, wilderness and wildlife, our traditional outfits and exquisite decorative arts!  We have so much that we need to celebrate that there is no space to feel ashamed of what others think of us.  It is the loss of anyone anywhere in the world who denigrates African culture, because all human beings are African.


We can do no better to celebrate the gentle giant, Jakes Gerwel, than to reimagine our society.  We need to ensure that every child is supported to liberate the genius in them and grow into critical thinking, emotionally intelligent and responsible citizens they all have to capacity to be.  Jakes Gerwel the freedom fighter, philosopher, educator, and public servant expects no less from us today.  Let us make him proud by reimagining and rebuilding our country into the great inclusive prosperous democracy he dedicated his life to.

Mamphela Ramphele
Co-Founder of ReimagineSA
November 2020.