If you could invite anyone to dinner (and they were forced to accept), who would you choose?

This is the type of thing you think about when you should be marking. But it was interesting enough that I entertained the idea for a while. Who would I really like to meet, and why? Would it be to simply bask in the fame and popularity of my guests? A selfie with Meg Ryan (that gives away my age, right?) or Mesut Özil (a fan since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa)? Would it be to wine and dine with the powerful and prosperous? (Maybe I can convince Bill Gates, Aliko Dangote or Oprah to fund LEAP…!) Or would it be for the engaging conversation with the intellectual elite, debating ideas with Nobel prize laureates Paul Krugman, JM Coetzee or Stephen Hawking?

I decided to make two lists: five South Africans I’d like to invite to dinner, and five people from across the world. I started with the South African list: Cyril Ramaphosa seemed an obvious choice. He might not be our next president, but he is sure to influence the decision. I also included Thuli Madonsela, a pillar of moral clarity the country so desperately needs. I considered former politicians and activists: Desmond Tutu, Thabo Mbeki, Trevor Manuel and Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, now Under Secretary-General at the United Nations. And then there are the businessmen and women, of course, people like Koos Bekker, who transformed a stale South African media company into a multinational giant, or Herman Mashaba, who built up his own cosmetics company and now is a director of several leading South African companies.

Writing down these names, though, made me wonder about the purpose of my dinner invitation. Yes, it would be great to meet powerful and impressive people, and ask them questions about their careers and experiences. But it would be equally wonderful to meet young people who will shape our future societies. Do I want to discuss the past (you don’t need much to convince an economic historian), or do I want to dream about the future, as young people inevitably do?

So I instead made a list of the top five people younger than me I’d like to invite. This turned out to be even more difficult: how do you choose between Taylor Swift, global music icon, and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, for example? (Catherine was disqualified on a technicality because, despite being born in the same year as I, her birthday is in January.) Or between Julius Malema and Mmusi Maimane, two men whom I suspect will have a long-term impact on South African society? (Again, both were disqualified because they are older than me, but only just.) And then there are the dozens of tech gurus already creating the future: from South Africans building satellites and platforms and apps and drones to the tech geniuses of San Francisco like Mark Zuckerberg (who is, miraculously, still only 31!), Marissa Meyer (CEO of Yahoo and 40) and Sergey Brin (founder of Google and 41). So, after some tough decisions (and many hours of not marking papers), here are my two lists. I’ve included a short explanation and my first question to them:

  1. Trevor Noah (31): He’s funny, he’s engaging and he’s taking over America. Q: How will we laugh at ourselves without you?
  2. Mark Zuckerberg (31): Facebook has connected the world. Who knows what it will do next. Q: What will Facebook do next?
  3. Taylor Swift (25): Global music icon. Q: Do you have a blank space in your diary?
  4. Mesut Özil (26): He has more than just a cultured left boot. Q: Who should Arsenal buy to win the league?
  5. Elizabeth Holmes (31): She started her own company when she was 19. It’s now worth more than $9 billion. Q: How do we create more Elizabeth Holmes’s?

Surprisingly, the global list was slightly easier. The first three were certainties: Elon Musk is the most innovative and confident person on the planet, Obama the most powerful. The Queen is a walking library (and it would just be pretty awesome to have the Queen over for dinner). Arsene Wenger is a legend at Arsenal, and an intellectual in the sport world. He’s also a trained economist. That’s a killer combo. It was really only the last slot that caused some deliberations. How do you not invite the Pope, for example? I reckoned there might be a language barrier (my Spanish and Latin is pretty poor), so instead I decided to invite someone else with an enormous following: Tom Hanks. He is not only a brilliant actor but also collects old typewriters. Sold.

  1. Elon Musk: The Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla of our generation. Q: We have an energy crisis in South Africa. Perhaps you have some ideas?
  2. Barack Obama: US president. Q: We have a leadership crisis in South Africa. Perhaps you have some ideas?
  3. Elizabeth II: Surely the only living person to have met the last 12 British Prime Ministers (including Winston Churchill) and the last 12 American presidents, from Herbert Hoover to Barack Obama. She also met Jan Smuts, Nelson Mandela and Jacob Zuma. Q: How are the corgis doing?
  4. Arsene Wenger: The reason I support Arsenal (and have spent too much money on supporters gear). Q: Who will Arsenal buy to win the league?
  5. Tom Hanks: Second highest all-time box office star. Q: Can you bring along Meg Ryan?

Wait, did I just write a whole blog post about imaginative dinner guests? This is what marking does to you.