Lecture on Conferment of the Doctorate Honoris Causa from Cheik Anta Diop University, Dakar, Senegal
Your Excellency, President Macky Sall,
Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation of the Republic of Senegal, Mr. Mary Teuw Niane,
Rector of Cheik Anta Diop University, Professor Ahmadou Aly Mbaye,
Secretary-General of Cheik Anta Diop University, Mr. Elimane Ba,
Executive Deans of Faculty,
Directors of Schools and Institutes,
Student body representatives,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
This is indeed the greatest of honours, to be bestowed with a doctorate Honoris Causa by one of Africa’s and the world’s pre-eminent universities.
In the course of my career I have received a number of honorary doctorates. I can say with the utmost conviction that this one, from Cheik Anta Diop University, gives me the greatest pride of all.
As a young student in South Africa in the 1970’s I was drawn to the black consciousness movement, and came to know about pan-Africanism, the mass movement that was then stirring across the continent and the diaspora.
I immersed myself in the thought of WEB du Bois, C.L.R James, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, Julius Nyerere, and Cheik Anta Diop.
My consciousness was also shaped by the Négritude movement, and I keenly studied the writings of its leading lights, amongst them Franz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and of course the first President of Senegal, Léopold Sédar Senghor.
They all a great influence on me as a young man; an influence that prevails to this day.
For my name to now be associated with Cheik Anta Diop fills me with pride.
He was a towering figure. His writings galvanized an entire people to cast off the chains of mental slavery.
This was at a time when we were being told and taught that being black and being African was a mark of inferiority.
I accept this honour on behalf of all the people of South Africa who have entrusted me with the responsibility of being their President.
I am mindful that I stand on the shoulders of giants.
Since its founding in 1957, Cheik Anta Diop University has produced too many luminaries to cite here.
It has produced political leaders, Prime Ministers and Presidents; scientists and Chief Justices; playwrights, musicians and novelists.
Twenty-nine years ago this university recognized President Nelson Mandela with the same doctorate I am receiving today.
In accepting the doctorate, President Mandela made a commitment to this university and to the people of Senegal.
He promised that we would uphold the banner of freedom, truth, human dignity and integrity.
In 1992, President Mandela came here from a South Africa where our people were still in chains.
Today I visit Cheik Anta Diop University as President of a free South Africa, where all enjoy the protection of a Constitution and a Bill of Rights.
In less than a week from now, we will be celebrating 25 years since President Mandela signed our Constitution into law.
I am gratified that I am able to tell this esteemed congregation at this university that honoured the father of our nation that we have made good on this promise.
South Africa is a vastly different place than what it was in 1992.
Our society is rooted in human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The right to vote and to participate in the national life of one’s country has been long-won, and we have just held another successful free and fair election.
We have made significant strides in improving the quality of life for millions of our people, particularly the black majority.
We have been hard at work to give effect to our people’s rights to education, to basic services and healthcare.
We have advanced progressive policies to return land to our people who were disposed by apartheid, and to transform our economy so it benefits all.
At the same time we know that significant challenges remain.
We know that in South Africa, in Senegal, and in many countries on our continent, the spectre of underdevelopment looms large.
We know that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly eroded the developmental gains we have made as a continent, and pushed millions of people into unemployment and worsening poverty.
The hoarding of vaccines by rich countries has been at the detriment of Africa, and continues to hold back our recovery and put our peoples’ lives at risk.
Even as we wage battles on this front to ensure our people get vaccinated, we are hard at work driving an economic recovery.
For this recovery to be sustainable and inclusive, all of society must come together.
Our task is to address the immediate impacts of the pandemic, but also the formidable legacy of underdevelopment across our continent.
We have to strive with renewed energy to meet the Sustainable Development Goals as well as the objectives of the African Union’s Agenda 2063.
In this regard, African academia is called upon to play a more prominent role.
In 1963 President Kwame Nkrumah gave a speech at the opening of the Institute for African Studies and the University of Ghana, where he asked what kind of institution, and what kind of graduates the country needed at that time.
“For what kind of service are we preparing students of this Institute and our universities?”, he asked.
It is a question as critical today as it was then.
Institutions of higher learning are foremost occupied with knowledge production.
In a developing country context they have another equally important role. They must drive development, advance progress and contribute to the upliftment of the human condition.
Africa today has many challenges.
They include slow economic growth, worsening unemployment, especially for young people, rising social inequality, conflict and instability, climate change, and poor health outcomes worsened by COVID-19.
In this context we must indeed ask ourselves a question.
For what purpose, and to what end, is the knowledge being produced here at Cheik Anta Diop University; at Makerere University; at the University of Dar es Salaam, at the University of Ibadan, at Fort Hare, and at the University of Cape Town?
“Education,” President Nkrumah said, “consists not only in the sum of what one knows or the skill with which one can put this to one’s own advantage. Education must be measured chiefly in the power to understand and appreciate the needs of one’s fellow man and woman, and be of service to them.”
The role of the African university is to be of service to Africa.
For this to happen, it must be socially embedded, working with and within communities, and helping to advance national development.
The Plan for an Emerging Senegal is very much in step with South Africa’s National Development Plan (NDP) as well as that of Agenda 2063.
Its focus is on the improvement of people’s living conditions, on fighting social inequalities, on driving economic growth, and on developing new sectors that create wealth, jobs and social inclusion.
This excellent vision and blueprint for Senegal is being driven by the work being done here at Cheik Anta Diop University.
I am extremely impressed by the solid, world-class research outputs of Senegal’s most famous university.
There is cutting-edge work being done across a range of sectors, from COVID-19 research and epidemiology, to migration and labour trends, to smart cities.
Cheik Anta Diop University is engaged in 4th Industrial Revolution knowledge exchange through the African Research Universities Alliance that also includes South African universities.
The university’s Center for Research and Training in Internet Technologies is playing a leading role in Dakar’s Digital Technologies Park project.
Earlier today I visited the Park to attend the 7th International Dakar Forum on Peace and Security in Africa and was extremely impressed by the world-class infrastructure. I hope to get a full tour on my next visit to Senegal.
As if this is not impressive enough, UCAD has also been involved in research around the implications and benefits of the Africa Continental Free Trade Area that came into operation earlier this year.
My visit to Senegal comes at the end of successful visits to Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, where all our deliberations included how we can work together to ensure the AfCFTA is a success.
For it to be fully a success, we must continue to invest in human capital so that our respective peoples are able to harness its potential to do business, to trade, to learn new skills and to uplift themselves and their communities.
The knowledge produced by our institutions of higher learning can and must play a leading role in advising and guiding policy, in measuring implementation and in broadening our horizons to new frontiers of development.
Knowledge is the torch that has lit our way as a people for millennia, and propelled human advancement.
For 64 years the thirst for knowledge has attracted men and women from across our continent to Cheik Anta Diop University.
Having acquired it, they returned to their countries to serve the cause of development.
If we are to realize the Africa we Want, the learning taking place within these four walls must not end here.
It must not end with the publication of a study. It must not end on a desk or in a library.
Knowledge must permeate into society and change it for the better. It must result in improved outcomes for communities, for individuals, and for national economies.
In April 2020 a group of Africa’s most prominent intellectuals, including from this university, penned an open letter in response to the pandemic, titled The Time to Act is Now.
“The realization of the second wave of our political independence will depend on political creativity, as well as our capacity to take charge of our common destiny.”
“Pan-Africanism also needs a new lease on life, and to be reconciled with its original inspiration, following decades of shortcomings. The African continent must take its destiny back into its own hands. For it is in the most trying moments that new orientations must be explored, and lasting solutions adopted.”
It is right here, in our institutions of higher learning, that such creativity is birthed.
These new orientations and solutions must empower Africa, restore her glory and enable her to take her rightful place in global affairs.
The task before us is to harness knowledge for betterment, for development, for growth, and for peace.
I want to conclude with a message to the representatives of the student population who are with us this evening.
Your graduation scroll will carry the name of one of Africa’s finest sons.
The focus of its life’s work was not only on his chosen discipline of physics.
His writings restored our pride in our origins as a people, and in Africa’s contribution to the advancement of the human race.
He inspired millions of people, including myself.
It can be said that as an intellectual he didn’t only advance knowledge, but also human freedom.
We know that being able to speak or act freely is not the only definition of freedom.
Freedom is above all about having the opportunity to improve one’s material condition.
As Amilcar Cabral said, we fight not for ideas, but to live better, in peace, to benefit from progress, and for the better future of our children.
The greatest threats to Africa’s freedom today are poverty, inequality and underdevelopment.
By engaging in work that contributes to the eradication of the scourges that continue to plague Africa, you will be upholding the legacy of Cheik Anta Diop.
It is a legacy I have no doubt you will all strive to live up to.
It is a legacy that I will strive to live up to.
I wish all the faculty, staff and members of this proud African institution well as it carries forward the mission of uplifting our continent. Thank you for honouring me.
Here, in Senegal, a nation that once suffered worst excesses of humankind, Cheik Anta Diop University stands as a symbol of Africa’s ability to recover, to reinvent, and to progress.
May we realize the vision of a better Africa that the generations who came before longed for. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to them.
In the words of the great Léopold Sédar Senghor, “let us listen to the voices of our Forebears. In the smoky cabin, souls that wish us well are murmuring.”
I thank you.