One of my favourite scenes in Love, Actually is right at the beginning of the movie. The setting is an airport arrivals terminal. As travelers arrive through the gates, they are welcomed by family and friends, smiling, laughing, hugging and kissing. Whenever I have to pick someone up at the international terminal, I do my best to arrive early, and to witness the joy of family and friend reunions.
I would contest that there is another setting where you’re guaranteed to be uplifted. Graduation ceremonies. I was fortunate to attend one of these at the end of March where hundreds of students received their degrees, with thousands of friends and family watching on. Each applause and ululation tells a story, stories often coupled with hardship, sacrifice and perseverance but also with hope, faith and, ultimately, success. There are few things better to see than a father or mother, proud and captivated as their son or daughter walks across the stage, holding back the tears.
Several of my own Economics students graduated too, each with their own stories. Thokozire Gausi graduated with an Honours degree. She is from Malawi and part of a network of students that self-finance their studies in South Africa, often with very little institutional support. Masters-degree graduate Omphile Ramela, who grew up in Soweto, wrote his dissertation while playing professional cricket for the Cape Cobras and, now, the Highveld Lions, and while balancing the demands of a young family. Abel Gwaindepi received his PhD in Economics. He grew up in Zimbabwe, where his father worked in the sugarcane plantations of Anglo-American. Abel has 16 siblings, many of whom he had to support with his meagre scholarships through an undergrad at Fort Hare, a postgraduate at Rhodes and, ultimately, a PhD at Stellenbosch. It is difficult to imagine what that moment of graduation must have felt like for Abel and the Gwaindepi family.
At the same ceremony, both Patrice Motsepe and Jannie Mouton received honorary doctorates, and had the chance to say a few short words. Motsepe noted South Africa’s amazing people, and our duty to ensure that each has the opportunity to live a life of dignity and prosperity. We underestimate our own abilities, Motsepe said, to make a success of South Africa. Mouton highlighted the wealth of opportunities in the country. Focus, he said, on the opportunities instead of being an expert on the problems. ‘Build a business, employ people, pay taxes – contribute.’
Negativity pervades our society, and can be incredibly debilitating. A few minutes on Twitter and you’re bound to find discussions that turn into slurs and slanders which will only end in ignorance and intolerance. But – and this I repeat to myself and my students frequently – Twitter is not the real world. Despite all the negativity that surrounds us, there is one undeniable truth: there has never been a better time to be human than in 2018.
The story we do not tell often enough – and one that still surprises each new cohort of students I teach – is that life is getting better. Yes, we have tremendous challenges in South Africa, in Africa and globally, but we are making good progress to tackling these head-on. Six of the ten fastest growing economies in 2018 will be in Africa. But it is not only incomes that are improving. Steven Pinker, in the first few chapters of his new book, Enlightenment Now, provides a wonderful summary of the trends in health, happiness, and living standards, as well as inequality, the environment, safety and democracy. In each case, the evidence suggests that we live in a much better world than our parents and grandparents.
This good story did not just happen for no reason. It is humankind’s ability to use the resources of nature and transform them into food, clothing and shelter, through ever-increasing understanding of science, our complex technologies and sophisticated institutions, that have allowed us to build a more prosperous world. I really like the way Pinker explains this:
Poverty needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth. Yet even today, when few people believe that accidents or diseases have perpetrators, discussions of poverty consist mostly of arguments about whom to blame for it.
That our world is getting better should not mean that we can get complacent. As we’ve seen in several countries around the world, places like Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, when things fall apart, living standards quickly revert back to poverty and chaos. As long as we understand that investment in better knowledge about how the world works lies at the heart of our story – in other words, investing in innovation, science and technology – such an outcome is unlikely for South Africa. The worrying thing about our recent budget is that the allocation towards this category will grow at less than the inflation rate. Our politicians seem to not understand that our wealth is dependent not on connections, mineral resources or land. Instead, it is the result of innovation-led improvements in productivity that explains the huge progress of the last two centuries.
Motsepe and Mouton are both correct: we have amazing people and amazing opportunities. But we will only be able to tell a good story if we invest in those amazing people – like Thoko, Omphile and Abel – to use their knowledge and skills to take advantage of those opportunities.
*An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 12 April edition of finweek.