Ladies and Gentleman, good afternoon
I am delighted to be with you all today. When I was invited to give this address to you all I was sure that you had all taken leave of your senses. My view was that I had very little that I could impart to this distinguished audience and to this prestigious institution. And since you will have had such distinguished speakers at Rutgers Newark in recent years as President Obama, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Cory Booker and actor-humanitarian Forest Whittaker, only a fool would agree to be delivering this address in the shadow of such greatness. So I said yes, I would love to do it.
I wish to thank Chancellor Nancy Cantor, who has become a friend and partner in the on-going development of a strong civil society in South Africa, for welcoming me to the Rutgers Newark community. I also wish to thank Dean Farmbry, who through his continued efforts to network strategic partners all across the African continent, and especially in South Africa, is proving himself to be one of the most influential and strategic shapers of development dialogues in South Africa. Thank you, sir. Thank you too to the Rutgers faculty and staff for this invitation to be here today. It is a singular honour that I treasure greatly, and will continue to do so for many years to come.
Let me begin by congratulating the 2016 graduating class on this remarkable achievement. Your courage and your endurance is what we have come here today to celebrate. Congratulations! Along with you, we also recognise your parents, your moms and dads, who, many of them, have worked their fingers to the bone to bring you to this point today. We recognise and honour those grandparents who raised some of you in the absence of your parents. We honour them today. We honour the many single moms and single dads who through hard labour sacrificed their own dreams to bring you to this point. And then, we recognise and honour those parents, those brothers and sisters, who encouraged you to endure day in and day out, and who sadly are no longer here with us in this life, but who are the reason you are here today receiving this degree. Whatever privilege and honour your new title may confer upon you, never forgot those who worked hard, often without a college degree, to ensure that you got yours.
You are now part of a distinguished global fellowship upon which two important qualities have been thrust: The Power of Imagination and the Responsibility of Greatness.
Of the over 8 billion people in the world today, you have to realise that as a member of the approximately 18 000 PhD Graduates and the even greater number of Masters Graduates in the United States this season, you have achieved an award of significant value in proportion to the achievements of the majority of the world’s population.
I have been coming to the USA almost annually since 1982 when, as a 21 year old 3rd year Social Science student at the University of the Western Cape, a group of 7 final year University of the Western Cape students decided to attend a student conference in Philadelphia. At that point of my life I, along with the rest of the South African population of colour, were actively discriminated against in South Africa because we were black and had none of the human rights which you had taken for granted for decades: We had no right to free speech. We had no right to free association. We had no right to freedom of belief. We had no right to equal education. And we had no right to choose the government of our choice. I was 21 years old and I had never cast a ballot in my life. At that point of my life I had never lived in a hotel before. At that point of my life I had never boarded an aircraft before.
For most of the world in which we live in today, the scenario described above has changed very little over the last 34 years. And therefore, ladies and gentleman of the graduating community, I wish to remind you of your twin obligations to not shrink back from greatness and from imagining a better world. For upon you are conferred the hopes and dreams of not just the United States, but of the many who will peer through the ever narrowing lens of time, looking to you for solutions to some of the world’s most vexing problems.
This is your world, and along with your global colleagues, you are its greatest gift. If you don’t rise up to shape it, someone else will. It was the Irish poet, broadcaster and later Irish President Michael D Higgins who reminded us all during his inauguration speech in November 2011 of our obligation to be “a better version of ourselves.” In every generation we have to make this choice: Whether we shrink back to hark to the calling of our fears or whether we become a better version of ourselves. Whether we believe our fears or follow the pathways of the dreamers, the initiators, the inventors and the innovators. For the world we know today was not built on wavering indecision, wounded scepticism or warring bravado. It was built on the intelligent ideals of great thinkers who took the concepts of liberty and justice and equality and carefully navigated a pathway that ensured that a free, equal and prosperous society would triumph over the darkness of fear and the despair of faith and imbued it with the tools to always find those pathways, and more especially in times of difficulty, to a better world. That obligation to finding better pathways, using the wisdom of the Old and the navigational skills of the Now to create a better New, now falls upon your shoulders.
We have an obligation in this calling to greatness to not allow others to shrink the world for us, to fill us with fear of the other, or to cause us to believe that our greatness is simply a cultural project. This greatness calling is a greatness to global leadership along with your compatriots around the globe. Nations such as Egypt, China and Zimbabwe are all committed to increasing their postgraduate outputs to pail that of the USA by 2020, with India already almost graduating 20 000 PhDs a year. You must realise that you have to be more than just an American citizen. You have to thrust the better version of yourselves onto this global stage. Leadership is about sense-making – but you do not have the luxury to only make sense to America. You have to make sense in a globalised context. And your leadership in matters of economics, geo-politics, energy, law, technology, security, environment, humanity, hunger, housing and the host of emerging global challenges will have to be demonstrated shoulder to shoulder with your global compatriots, who for most, have an innate knowledge of these issues as most of them have grown up with it and have been personally affected by it.
William Shakespeare said:
‘Be not afraid of greatness,
Some are born great,
Some achieve greatness,
Some have greatness thrust upon them.
Class of 2016, ladies and gentlemen of the graduating community, your moment of greatness has been thrust upon you.
This greatness calling is what your nation’s founding fathers had in mind when they gathered at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 and penned the words to the United States Constitution, “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America”.
And it is this powerful phrase in the preamble of the Constitution “in order to form a more perfect union …” which jumps up at us who read it from afar This is your moment in time, amidst a year of a highly contested election, that your moment of greatness is thrust upon you as it was thrust upon the writers of that Constitution in 1787, to advance the ideals of “a more perfect union” that will be a message to the world of your readiness and understanding of this global relatedness to the other nations of the world. This greatness calling is what Abraham Lincoln saw when he penned those famous words in 1854 and I quote “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us”. This greatness calling, ladies and gentlemen is what calls you, from those 13 original states in 1787 to the 52 states today and forward to the 196 countries in the world today – to advance, with the intelligent leadership of the world’s 2016 graduating community, a better union for all the world’s people.
Ladies and gentlemen, Rutgers Newark is not the most diverse university in the nation for no reason. Your country and the world needs you to unleash this diverse brilliance of your being into all spheres of geo-political existence and not to cave in to the fears of your future. In your greatness on behalf of this nation and all the world’s people you must, in determined fashion, advance the integrity of memory, gleamed from the great nuances of your own history, which built a greatness from divergent and disparate ideals instead of a conditioned similarity. You must show that you have a regard for history – both past and future and know your place and position in this unfolding story. Like the difficult pathways of old, navigated under enormous public scrutiny, you must diligently and collectively give yourselves to the pursuit of a more perfect union, the union which transcends culture, colour, gender, ethnicity, economic status and which focuses itself on the pursuit of peace and prosperity, having a determined bias towards justice, righteousness, prosperity and freedom for all. This is the better union your founding fathers would have demanded of you today. And this is what you must commit yourself to. And in valuing the integrity of memory you will always know which pathways to follow to this greatness. And know that by peering into the greatness of the past and seeking the integrity of memory you will secure an even greater future, not only for yourself and for this nation, but for all the peoples of the world.
Ladies and Gentlemen, look around you and see how privileged you are. Your generation today owns, earns and enjoys more than what 80% of the world’s population have access to. If you shrink this world to being only about you and this country, you will have missed the abundant opportunities, all marked with your name on, to make a better world possible. All over the world, there are destinies which will require your genius and bravery and will call on you to take your seat at the convention for a better world. When I and 6 of my fellow students decided in 1982 to board that Iberia flight via Addis Ababa and Madrid Spain and New York City to Philadelphia we had no money to fulfil that obligation. All we had was a sense of our place and position in history. Our parents were mostly uneducated, mostly unemployed and mostly dead scared of our determination. But we began to pay for our trip by selling old clothes, and telling our story to church groups and small time business people. And slowly, dollar by dollar, we paid for that trip and all 7 people made it to the USA. And it was those second hand clothing sales on a Saturday morning and those small meagre contributions from equally poor people that became the pathways and the stepping stones that got to me this platform at Rutgers University today. It begins when you recognise your place in history and respond to your position in the pursuit of better union.
It was Robert F Kennedy who on June 6, 1966 spoke to the National Union of South African Students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and said “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total; of all those acts will be written the history of this generation.”
I am calling on you to bend history itself and to purpose yourself to seek a greater union, wherein lies a greater world and a greater humanity.
But let me reflect for a moment on the obligation of imagination.
This nation has been inspired by the dreams and minds of great men and women who imagined great things. From the founding fathers who saw a better union, to your explorers who dreamt of conquering outer space to Dr Martin Luther King who dreamt of a deeper and richer equality to your poets and your artists and your immigrants who all spoke of the power of imagination, now imbedded in your psyche. The great African American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, short story writer, and newspaper columnist Langston Hughes wrote his epic poem “Dream Variations” in 1926 in which he penned these words:
“Not my dream alone, but our dream.
Not my world alone,
But your world and my world,
Belonging to all the hands who build”
You have an obligation to advance the ideals of these great leaders and to push back the crushing darkness of fear and to reject and cast aside the notion that you are small, scared and of no consequence. You have to learn that this achievement today confers on you the privilege to imagine again and give meaning to the dreams of those great dreamers. You have the privilege today to see fulfilled in your lifetime the better world and the greater union your forefathers foresaw and did not shrink back from. You today are the beneficiaries of the world of the great American initiators, inventors and innovators. How dare you shrink back from this moment which your dreamers and inventors and innovators so longed to see?
In every era there will be challenges of Place and Position. Your role as a participant in the vanguard of the global 2016 post-graduates community, will be to recognise that in this year there will be some 50 000 post graduate degree recipients globally from countries all over the world. You are not alone. From the West Coast to the east Coast, North and South of this country, through to universities in Nairobi and Delhi and Berlin and Moscow and Perth and Osaka and Morocco and Warsaw will be those who, like you, dream of a better union. They are not your competitors, ladies and Gentlemen. They are your partners in the pursuit of a better union – for all the citizens of the world.
You, along with your global compatriots who share this same qualification, will be our new global corporate leaders, political leaders, social activists, inventors, designers, innovators, game changers and global shapers. You have to take your place as one among this global community. Don’t fear that Place or Position. For when you cast aside your fears you will begin to see a new reasoning, the reasoning that brought men and women together in 1787 to believe that collectively they could be better together than individually and apart, the reasoning that put a young black South African on a plane to the US in 1982, the reasoning that allows you to bend the course of history because you encountered and responded to a moment that had your name written on it. You have to fuel the imagination of a world that has become fearful and dark, to once again see the light. To once again see a rising sun instead of a setting sun.
When the Constitutional Convention was drawing to a close in September 1787, Benjamin Franklin said, after reflecting on the painted image of the sun on the back of the chair of George Washington “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.”
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of 2016, you have before you a rising sun. You have to imagine a better union of world leaders into which you bring your greatness, your brilliance, your courage and your name and take your rightful place in order to cement your position.
You have to fill our old damaged minds with the fresh ideals of your imagination. You have to take your blackness and your whiteness, your religious and non-religious orientations, your brilliance and your bravery and you have to shine a light on the better union for all of us. For in you, black and white, and every other colour, and from every other social determinant and persuasion, lay the hope for all of us. Let your brilliant imagination show us the way and let its brightness light up all our paths.
It was the artist John Lennon who called on us to keep imagination alive. I was privileged to commemorate the death of John Lennon on 8 December last year in my home town of Cape Town South Africa. John Lennon died on 8 December 1980 in New York. What many don’t know is that Lennon travelled to South Africa very frequently during the latter years of his life to meditate on a particular rock on Table Mountain. He had over the years of visits to Table Mountain carved his initials “JL” into a piece of the rock on the mountain. And this past December 2015 ten of us, business leaders, students, academics and workers all climbed that mountain to sit on that rock and for a moment we imagined a better world.
Those prophetic words of Lennon’s still rings true today
“You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one …
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will live as one …”
Ladies and gentlemen, to this class of 2016, your name is inscribed upon brilliant opportunities deeply disguised as insurmountable problems.
We the people of the rest of the world, need your greatness and your imagination … towards a better union – for everyone.
Congratulations and God bless.