A Talk by Mosibudi Mangena at the BSTEP Gala Dinner, held on 30/11/2017 at the CSIR International Convention Centre, Tshwane


Programme Director

The Chairperson of the BSTEP, Mpho Madisha and your leadership team

The Esteemed Awards Recipients

Distinguished Guests

Ladies and Gentlemen

When the leadership of the BSTEP left me to my own devices in as far as the topic for my remarks tonight are concerned, I found myself gravitating towards the topic: More Than Just STEP; that is, more than just science, technology and engineering professionals. This is inspired by our history, your consciousness and your STEM activism.

The formation of your organization in 2005, 11 years after the attainment of democracy, your ongoing activities in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics, STEM, environment, demonstrate your awareness of the fact that the fortunes of different racial groups in our country continue to be shaped by their race. Yes, in the formal legalistic and constitutional speak, we are all equal, with, at least theoretically, equal opportunities to be whatever we want. However, reality tells a different story.

In South Africa today, if you don’t know that you are Black, the classroom, the lecture room, the world of work, the bank, the bookshop, the insurance company and perhaps even the restaurant will remind you of that fact. If you were to be blindfolded and parachuted into any bookshop in this country, you would be forgiven for believing that you are in a country where Black people do not exist or are a tiny minority. How many times have you gone into a restaurant and get the feeling that you are not seen? A black academic told me recently that she had a feeling her white colleagues on her campus do not actually see her; it as if she is invisible or non-existent. It is subtle, but real.

Despite the fact that black people are the overwhelming majority in this country, how many of you are a minority in your science, technology and engineering work environment? How many of you feel like your white colleagues do not actually see you? It might not have anything to do with overt racism, but everything to do with our history, socialization and general social intercourse.

In our student days in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, affiliated as we were to the South African Students Organization, SASO, we used to say we were Black before we were students. That assertion had huge implications for us. It meant that we had to identify with our people in as far as their problems, plight and aspirations were concerned. At the time, among other things, it meant that we had to identify with the struggle for freedom, which we did with much aplomb.

As part of our conscientization endeavours as Black students, we embarked on community development programmes, such as adult literacy projects in places like Winterveldt, just to the north of Tshwane; some medical students from the University of Natal took part in community improvement projects in Duduza,KwaZulu-Natal south; others were involved in a leather work project in Dimbaza in the Eastern Cape. This was a way of identifying with our communities and their issues.

Just the fact that you formed BSTEP and the activities you have embarked upon, eloquently tell us that you recognize the fact that you are Black before you are science, technology and engineering professionals. You accept that it often matters a great deal whether you are born, raised and schooled in a township, village or a suburb. That realization, that consciousness, that awareness, puts you on a path of identity and solidarity with your people. That is why you are More Than Just STEP. You are not just a qualified science, technology and engineering professional, but you carry a much greater responsibility to Blacks, precisely because you are a conscious human being that understands history and the circumstances of your people.

Whilst our struggle in the era of settler-colonialism was simple and dangerous, the struggle today is less dangerous, but much more complex and difficult. Whereas the enemy was clear and identifiable during the settler-colonial days, in the struggle for economic and social emancipation, more often than not, the enemy is not easy to see, and more often than not it is a struggle against yourselves and your erstwhile comrades.

Why is it that the Black majority is in political office but the quality of education in the townships and villages leaves much to be desired? Why is it that the majority of our children are not able to read, write and calculate adequately at their appropriate level in their educational journey? Why, 23 years after the advent of democracy, do we still have mud schools, schools without toilets, electricity and running water? Why do we still have atrocious overcrowding in some of our schools in the townships and villages? Why do we still have the majority of our schools that are without laboratories and libraries? Why do we need NGO’s to take us to court to force us to deliver books to our own children? Why can beer and fizzy drinks companies deliver their products to every corner of the country all year round but a department of education cannot deliver books to a few thousand schools only once a year? How do you produce learners who are grounded in mathematics and science in such conditions? Who is to blame for that situation if not ourselves?

Why can’t we teach our children properly in the township and village schools? Why should they be shipped out to faraway schools at the crack of dawn when there are schools with teachers in their neighbourhoods? Why can’t our children just get up at a decent hour and walk to a school next to their home? Where is the pride of adults who tell their children that their mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles and neighbours who are teachers cannot teach them? That to get a good education they must run away from the neighbouring schools and their teachers? Are we telling our children we are not good enough? Does it mean we cannot teach our children or we won’t? The exasperating thing is that those in the teaching profession do not seem to be embarrassed by this phenomenon.

For years now, we have been complaining about the shortage of mathematics and science teachers, who are absolutely critical for the production of science, technology and engineering professionals. It is either the teachers in our schools offering these gateway subjects are in short supply, or unqualified or under-qualified. Why don’t we produce the teachers? Who would produce them if not ourselves? How does complaining about the shortage help us? Being in charge, as we are, shouldn’t we be saying we are going to produce so many teachers of mathematics and science by this or the other date?

The afore-going demonstrate that the contemporary struggle is not primarily against the enemy out there, but that we are our own enemy. It is a struggle against our psyche, lack of respect for ourselves and pride in our work and capabilities. If that were not the case, you would not need to be More Than Just STEP, because those that are employed and paid in the education department as officials and those deployed in the classrooms would be making sure our kids get the right education and the pipeline for the production STEM workers would be adequate for our country’s needs.

Due to the fact that the education system is not performing well, the interventions that private companies make as part of their Corporate Social Investment and efforts of others like BSTEP, are less enriching than they ought to be. These efforts account for less than 1% of the budget of the department of education, and probably even less in terms of human hours.

A worrying phenomenon is the growth of private extra classes in our system, particularly for mathematics and science at secondary and high school levels. Parents are paying through their noses to afford their children a fighting chance. Children whose parents do not have the means to pay for extra tuition are left to their fate.

Your endeavours are not just important for our egos and psyche, but for our future as a country and people. Currently, our economy is heavily reliant on natural resources and agriculture. We dig holes in the ground, take out the minerals and ship them abroad to earn foreign currency which we then use to buy sophisticated goods and services produced by those that use their brains to make things. Similarly, we plough the land and look after animals, then sell our harvest and meat to others as our most important conduct of international trade.

We know that our mineral wealth is finite and will deplete sometime in the future. What would we do then? Due to centuries of mining, already our diamonds and gold reserves are no longer as huge as they used to be. A lot has been extracted and carted away to faraway destinations in Europe and North America. No doubt, in the fullness of time, the other minerals will follow suit. The agricultural aspect needs a steady stream of scientific researchers to ensure its health. Without such scientists we would fall behind.

For our own survival, we need to build a competitive economy based on knowledge, science, research, technology and innovation. We need to produce more scientists who, through research, would produce new knowledge, generate intellectual property and patents that can, in time be converted into goods and services. Of course it is those schooled in the various fields of engineering and technology who would be our resources in the innovation and production space.

We need to deliberately build capacity in our schools, colleges and universities for the production of such knowledge workers as well as the required physical facilities for research and innovation. Logically, we should put in place measures to promote and sustain our technology and engineering business ventures.

Our unfortunate history of oppression and discrimination has bequeathed to us a legacy characterized by a small number of scientists, engineers and technologists, who, although of good quality, are too few to lubricate our economy at a scale required for prosperity. Ours is a task that requires that we bring the majorities in our population into the science, technology and engineering sphere. These majorities are women at around 52% and Blacks (Africans, Coloureds, Asians), who constitute more than 90% of our citizens. It is clear that this is precisely what your organization is trying to do.

Our history has maliciously denied Black people opportunities to be trained in sufficient numbers in the science, technology and engineering fields. As a result, we do not have enough role models for our youth. So, those of us who are in the field, ought to know that they are role models for our young people. That’s why we say you are More Than Just STEP.

So, in addition to what your organization does, some of you, if your work environment allows, could take a youngster or two to work with you during school holidays. If need be, they could just be given a stipend for transport and meals. It would not be employment per se, but a way of exposing them to these fields of work. You would be surprised by what such exposure could do in opening the world vistas of a young person from a poor community.

Some of us might even identify a promising youngster, maybe the child of a relative or a neighbour that does not have the wherewithal, and take him or her through school.

In short, we need a lot of solidarity and a public spirit that propels us to do more to help one another. Remember, we are More Than Just STEP. Maybe we might inspire others to be more than just health workers, more than just teachers, more than just counsellors, more than just parliamentarians, more than just civil servants. Imagine where our country would be if that could occur.

I pray for lots of wind under your sails. Full speed!

Thank you

Pin It