“If we don’t disrupt ourselves, we will be disrupted”

“If we don’t disrupt ourselves, we will be disrupted”

Keynote speech: professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

08-09-2021

“Every unknown has the potential to unsettle us, but if we choose to unsettle ourselves, that is a different matter.” This is how professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town and the keynote speaker during the opening ceremony of the academic year in the Vrijthof Theatre on Monday, started her plea for disruption.

According to Phakeng, the world is ready for change, ready for a transformation. Only then can great problems such as climate change, the stream of refugees and poverty be solved. She believes that universities must recognise that this transformation is necessary and inevitable. “Then we are exercising our power to make disruptive choices. And a university environment is the perfect place to develop our disruptive potential, because universities are places of ideas and innovation.”

Policies may be necessary, but they have their limits where it comes to change, says Phakeng. “To achieve it, you need people. An example: our university (Cape Town, ed.) provides financial assistance for students with a lower socio-economic status. That is important, but not enough to bring about a transformation. The university environment treats them as if they have been done a favour. And hence they should be grateful, assimilate to the environment, graduate and leave. During protests in 2016, I asked students: ‘What do you want, you have everything already’. And they said: ‘Don’t try and silence us by paying our tuition fees. We don’t want to be enveloped in the existing culture of the university, we want to change the culture.’”

On the opposite side, you always have people who don’t want change; those who are content with how things are now. Phakeng: “People feel good in their comfort zone. Instead of striving for the best solution, we make our decisions on the basis of what is acceptable. The present situation is always acceptable, otherwise we wouldn’t be in it. Maybe it is not effective or successful, but it is acceptable. People fear what life would be like if we did things differently.”

It seems as if transformation is only possible when a big event such as the covid pandemic swings us out of our comfort zone. But what, says Phakeng, if we create some chaos, some disruption? “Then we can end up in the discomfort zone, without us being in a crisis. It is challenging and exciting there, without it becoming overwhelming. That is where we could grow as a university.” So, she concludes: “Listen to people, listen to those who do not agree with you, who make you feel uneasy. Invite these people to sit at your board table, because otherwise you will hear their voices in protests.”

The speech can be watched again via Opening Academic Year Livestream - Afternoon programme - YouTube (from 34.34)

Author: Cleo Freriks

Still: livestream Opening Academic Year 2021

Tags: keynotespeech,opening academic year 2021,southafrica,transformation,instagram

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