Professor Brian O’Connell spoke passionately on the topic of The South African Project at the Trialogue CSI Conference, held in Johannesburg on 24 and 25 May 2016. O’Connell has a long and distinguished career as a policy advocate, community activist and educator, and is the retired rector and vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape.

Professor Brian O'Connell on the role that each sector has to play in helping to realise a more equitable and prosperous democratic South Africa

Professor Brian O’Connell on the role that each sector has to play in helping to realise a more equitable and prosperous democratic South Africa

Speaking to an audience of social development practitioners, corporate and private donors, government representatives and other development stakeholders, O’Connell pulled no punches in articulating the view that South Africa is in deep trouble as it continues to grapple with overcoming the harsh and persistent realities of inequality, rooted in the colonial era, apartheid and the missed opportunities since 1994.

He said, “The problem, simply, is that a small proportion of South Africans are living a good middle class life. The majority are not. This is what makes South Africa as difficult and as complex as it is. This must change. Ethics demands it. And how do we create a nation when 90% of our geniuses are excluded from the development of the country? Government and corporate South Africa must ensure that all South Africans contribute to developing our capacity.”

He added that the local CSI sector had an important role to play. He said, “Our country needs people like you to commit themselves totally to its future.”

He urged the audience to address their enterprise with hope and commitment, and to consider the question of what it means for our children and our children’s children.

“Every generation has the burden and responsibility of making sense of their social and natural environments,” said O’Connell. “We must understand the past and project into the future. We must move from hope to action using the best knowledge bases and best competence available.”

He pointed out that there is “an absence of sense-making in our country at every level”, and that the opportunity to give every South African an understanding of the challenges, has been a missed opportunity.  The failure of the education system was highlighted as a particular tragedy for the country.

O’Connell outlined three important tasks for South Africa, into the future:

  1. To build the democratic state.
  2. To integrate into the competitive arena of international production and finance. He said: “We can’t stand outside of the capitalist world. You can try and ameliorate the negative aspects of it, but if you’re not in the game you’re not in the game.”
  3. To reconstruct the social and economic relations to eradicate and redress the inequitable patterns of ownership, wealth and social and economic practices that were shaped by segregation and apartheid.

In conclusion, he addressed CSI practitioners: “I am asking you in the brilliant work you are doing to look at a bigger frame, not the impact just on the organisation you are supporting, but on the area in which it exists. Take a long view. What is this going to look like in 10, 20, 30 years time?”

He urged: “Every one of us here, each one a dynamic leader with a giant circle of influence must ask: are we as teachers and leaders engaged in transformatory education?”

Click here to access the presentation.