Outgoing SMMS President, Prof Simangaliso Kumalo, has urged Africans to develop “a culture of progress and development” in the way they run and view institutions of higher education.

Prof Kumalo was sharing his experiences after a recent visit to Wesley House at the University of Cambridge, one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, where he was on a six-week fellowship.

“It was refreshing to be at an institution that was built over 800 years ago and I marvelled at how they have been able to maintain and sustain it from one generation to the next. The university has survived for this long because people on that side of the globe take institutions of education seriously. I learnt that it is critical for us in this part of the world to appreciate the supremacy of institutions of learning that carry the possibilities of development and progress of citizens. The development of our people depends very much on these institutions.

“I saw windows that are still intact 300 years on. They have not been broken in 300 years. But here, institutions cannot last for more than five years without us burning them down. We have developed a culture of activism, of striking and destroying buildings, breaking windows and doors all year round. People demand services and then they burn schools. This does not make sense. Where else in the world do you have people who think of burning schools? How will we progress if we use the little resources that we have to repair what we would have destroyed during strikes? While the rest of the world is progressing, we are delaying ourselves with this behaviour. On our campuses we still put up notices telling students not to litter and keep our campuses clean. Why do we still have to remind students at tertiary institutions of leaning about such basic things?

“At Cambridge I saw library books that are over 200 years old. When you open them, there is not even a single page that has been marked by a pencil. They are as clean as they were when they first came into the library 200 years ago. People there have internalised the culture of respecting public resources,” Prof Simangaliso Kumalo said.

He castigated the “victim mentality” that pervades much of our discourse: “We always see ourselves as victims of somebody or somebodies and we say we are not progressing because of that. We must stop this excuse. I think we need to do introspection; we need to look into ourselves critically and challenge ourselves.  Look at our universities and how they are fast deteriorating. Some will argue that it is because we do not have enough money to run them. I argue that it is not about money. It is a culture of taking care of institutions that we have not developed. There is a level of sophistication that we need to be able to run institutions.

“Cambridge has survived all this while because people there have matured in their appreciation of education and in running institutions. They have moved beyond the thinking that education is just for one to acquire a job and live a better life, to appreciating education as a culture that promotes development and progress. That has become part of who they are. That has shaped their outlook and their conduct both individually and corporately. They understand the significance of what it means to have well-being and what is needed to build the pillars of well-being in society.”

Prof Kumalo also noted that administrators and stakeholders of institutions ought to put institutions first, ahead of their own egos.

He said, “When you reflect on the administrators of these institutions that have survived for so long, you get to see that on their agenda has always been the institution rather than their individual preferences and egos. We must learn to put institutions ahead of our egos and agendas. Institutions are more important than individuals. Individuals come and go but institutions remain.”

We can also develop this culture through education, exposure and interaction with institutions in the developed world, Prof Kumalo said.

“We should appreciate that we need to learn from other cultures. They are not perfect. They have many shortcomings of their own. We may hate them but the fact is that they are far ahead of us. It is true that we do not want to be recolonised but maybe we have taken the whole idea of decolonisation too far because some of the trends and systems of the former colonisers are actually good for our progress to catch up with the world.

“When world renowned Cambridge physicist, Prof Stephen Hawking died, I was in Cambridge. Donations that were collected at his funeral were used to buy food for the poor and the homeless in the city, not to feed the mourners. There was no feast. It was just tea and cake. The bulk of the donations went to the poor. That is progress. Progress is not buying expensive caskets, having a huge motorcade of black cars or having a huge feast at a funeral. That is not progress. It takes people who have developed to a certain level to know what progress is and what it is not.

“I hear some people say we want to do things our own way. But what is our own way in a global society? Probably the one thing that is African is Ubuntu. Even that is just a rhetoric. If it was real, we would not have fought all those ethnic wars in the past. Ubuntu was not obliterated by whites; they found us fighting with one another. It was the survival of the fittest in the middle of Ubuntu. So it has got its limitations and we need to accept that. I do not mean that it cannot add value but I mean that it is not a magic pill that we sometimes make it. So even what is our own needs what is from others. Thus exposure to these institutions, interaction with international scholars will enable us to move forward. For a small emerging institution like SMMS to be associated with Wesley House which has been around for decades adds immense value to the institution,” Prof Kumalo said.