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Academic Year Opening 2024: Commencement Speech By Dr Riaan Steenberg

Yesterday, the DaVinci Business School hosted its annual academic year opening event. Dr Riaan Steenberg, one of our board members, delivered a thought-provoking commencement address.

In his inspiring commencement address, Dr Riaan Steenberg challenges the traditional notions of academic freedom with a compelling question: "Are we free to think and teach?" Against the backdrop of today's global and societal demands, Dr Steenberg advocates for a revolutionary approach to scholarship and teaching, emphasizing the need for academic militancy to drive Africa's development and prosperity. He underscores the importance of education in unlocking innovation and creating industries that not only spur economic growth but also address the continent's most pressing needs. With a deep dive into the constraints on freedom imposed by societal and external forces, Dr Steenberg calls for a collective responsibility towards fostering a future where freedom is not just an individual aspiration but a collective achievement. This thought-provoking address from a leader in African education highlights the pivotal role of academic institutions like DaVinci Business School in shaping thinkers, leaders, and innovators who can rise to the challenges of the modern world and contribute significantly to Africa's sustainable progress and freedom.

Are We Free to Think and Teach? Scholarship and Teaching for the World as It Is Today By Dr Riaan Steenberg

Dr Riaan Steenberg at the DaVinci Business School's 2024 Academic Year Opening
Dr Riaan Steenberg

Good morning, esteemed colleagues, distinguished guests, and the brilliant minds that form the future of our continent. Today, as we stand at the academic precipice of a new era, I am tasked with exploring a question of profound depth and significance: "Are we free to think and teach? Scholarship and Teaching for the World as It Is Today".

Are we free to think and teach? At first glance, the academic halls will open and echo with a resounding "Yes." Yet, as we delve deeper into the fabric of our responsibilities and the context of our world today, we find that this freedom is intertwined with an inescapable duty. A duty not just to educate but to forge real and lasting solutions that address the pressing needs of our society and our continent at large.

Freedom is a multifaceted concept that embodies the power and right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. It is both a fundamental human right and aspiration and a cornerstone of societal organization, encapsulating individual autonomy, the liberty of choice, and the absence of oppressive restrictions imposed by authority on one's way of life, behaviour, and views.

We are all free – but we are often unwilling to accept the price of true freedom. You can do what you want, but if it hurts another, then there should be justice. You can live where you want but do not be surprised if another has a right to that land. You can feel what you want, but we universally have emotions when it involves others. So freedom itself is inherently constrained by having to interact with others and rules and norms built over time.

We can argue that the life of the ascetic is then the true price of academic freedom in the tradition of the sages that would go into a cave and come back years later – having achieved true wisdom. Invariably, these enlightened sages end up teaching or leading – so once again, freedom seems inextricably linked to serving others.

At its core, freedom involves the delicate balance between the individual's rights and the collective well-being, necessitating a framework within which freedom is exercised responsibly. It transcends mere physical liberation, reaching into the realms of intellectual and spiritual expression, allowing for the free exchange of ideas, the pursuit of personal goals in the context of a just world, and the cultivation of a life that reflects one's true self and values. The pursuit of freedom has always been in the essence of the human experience enabling growth, innovation, and the pursuit of happiness. So the prize that is bigger than personal freedom is the chance for collective freedom. To collectively achieve freedom, we collectively need to foster a society that respects and uplifts the dignity of all its members so that not just one but all can be free. We need to respect and uplift the value of each member of society so that all, and not just one, can be free. We need to respect and uplift the spirit of each person so that all, and not just one, can soar to the greatest heights of human fulfilment.

So it brings me to the most pressing question – why is Africa not free? How has this continent escaped the true fulfilment of its potential? Is it because we have let others define our freedom? Is it because we are squandering our resources at the cost of the freedom of our souls, serving as the bread and minerals basket for others for centuries?

While Africa faces a myriad of critical needs, ranging from economic diversification, education, healthcare, infrastructure, food security, clean water, environmental protection, governance, digital transformation, and energy sustainability, the core challenge transcends these individual issues. The continent's paramount task is not merely addressing each need in isolation but fostering the creation of innovative industries that inherently solve these problems as a product of their operation. To do so, I pose it to you as an audience today that the true spirit of innovation will be ignited in the minds of PhDs and researchers who will design these industries to make a real and positive change.

DaVinci Business School is ideally poised, through its management of technology and innovation programmes, to be that centre of innovation and growth that will ignite Africa’s freedom.

This singular real challenge, therefore, is to cultivate a robust ecosystem of thinkers and doers that design industries that not only drive economic growth but also seamlessly contribute to solving Africa’s most pressing needs. This approach underscores the importance of holistic solutions that integrate economic development with social and environmental well-being, suggesting that the creation of such industries is indeed Africa's single biggest challenge and opportunity for sustainable progress. If we then take this to its logical conclusion, then we have to posit that our freedom is limited and that we need to apply ourselves ceaselessly to the intellectual pursuit of creating these industries – which inevitably leads to the conclusion that we need to start with education.

Today, I also want to honour pioneering thinkers such as Prof Ben Anderson, who has been a sentinel in saying we need to have a different conversation – that led to the formation of DaVinci Business School.

In this era of unprecedented challenges and opportunities, the traditional paradigms of learning and teaching are undergoing a transformative shift. No longer can we afford to be siloed in abstract theories and disconnected disciplines. The world today demands a more applied, integrated approach to scholarship—one that transcends academic boundaries and leads directly to the formation of new industries, innovations, and solutions that can uplift our communities and economies. There is simply not enough time for us to solve our collective challenges. The IP game is over and dead, and the solutions game has opened. It is interesting to note that service economies are experiencing rapid inflation as AI is already changing the order of labour both by making existing effective providers more productive, thus limiting new entrants, but also by moving to a more personalised paradigm of having the tools that you need and lifting the order of work away from manual solutions.

What is the objective, then, from a scholarship perspective? While usually, a scholar seeking parsimony between their ideas and the proven “laws” found through the scientific method in those most glorious halls of intellectual breakthroughs that we would all like to enter – we must realise that many of those laws were often proven with Africa not being around the table. There can thus be no parsimony if the ideas we have do not line up with what we experience as researchers. I found in my own research that the tools to support entrepreneurs and the so-called challenges facing entrepreneurs were grossly misunderstood in the literature that was not from Africa. We must also realise that the very objectives that are currently prevalent in many disciplines do not serve us. I propose that our scholarship should look for solutions that many other scholars in the world will claim already exist and may lead to scathing and unpopular perspectives or violation of previous conventions or settled arguments. We should not be scared to overturn these findings – challenge and reprove these outcomes, and also, we should not be scared to claim the loss of humanity in these solutions. We should also not be afraid to draw on ourselves as African scholars and re-interpret the world to foster our own freedom and to serve our own needs.

I find it fascinating that if you want supply and demand statistics for Africa you can find it in China, Europe and the US – because they know what we buy from them, but you cannot find it in Africa. I find it challenging that we collaborate with drug researchers to test drugs in Africa that we end up buying at great cost from smart people who make us pay in diamonds, gold and rare minerals for things that they learnt from us. I find it most disturbing that we export iron ore to pay for cars that get imported from countries that have no mineral resources. So we rack up debts for buying things that we supplied the raw materials for. We have to buy chickens as part of trade deals so that farmers in other countries can prosper while our politicians kill our own local industries for hands full of silver and gold that was drawn from our own soil.

This brings us to the heart of our discussion: the notion of freedom within the academic realm. To be free to think and teach in the context of our shared reality is to recognize the weight of our responsibility. We are not free in the sense of operating in a vacuum, detached from the world's ailments. Rather, we are entrusted with a profound duty to society—a duty to leverage our intellectual resources, creativity, and collective wisdom to tackle the issues that plague our continent and to use every tool possible to stop us from hindering its progress.

The question then shifts from "Are we free to think and teach?" to "How can we think and teach in a way that serves the greater good?" This is where I am a proposer of the concept of academic militancy for Africa. As scholars, educators, and students of this esteemed institution, we are called upon to be academically militant. Not in a sense of aggression but in our unwavering commitment to pursue knowledge that directly contributes to Africa's development and prosperity. I believe that many of the solutions that are in the academic discourse and indeed in the world today have been weaponised against Africa. Our recent experience with climate change is one such example – where we are being paid monies to fit into agendas that further entrench our dependencies on others. It is time for us to solve our own energy crises and not look to external solutions that exploit our mineral wealth in exchange for giving us tools to convert our own sun into power. Let us be the thinkers who design the tools to deploy these industries and learn from others rather than being sold our own futures that we then have to work back at great cost. This is definitionally not being free – it is to become economic slaves, mineral slaves and intellectual slaves.

I propose that academic militance is an important first step in getting us to a new place like Africa.

It is not our job to tear down others but to build our own new truth that works for us.

To be academically militant is to challenge the status quo, question outdated practices, and boldly venture into uncharted territories of research and innovation that can redefine the future of our continent. It is about harnessing the power of applied learning, interdisciplinary collaboration, and entrepreneurial thinking to create tangible change. It is to enable multiple generations to challenge others who use Africa as its doormat for exploitation, thus imposing restrictions on the fundamental expression of our humanness as Africans. It is observing for ourselves what others are so keen to tell us and being less bothered by restrictions that others place on us for their so-called help that they give us what we already have at our own expense through unburdening our minds with rules and conventions that are not applicable here.

Our role as part of this place of learning and this time of learning, and indeed as part of the broader academic community in Africa, is to prepare a new generation of thinkers, leaders, and innovators. Individuals who are not only equipped with theoretical knowledge but who are also deeply committed to applying this knowledge in ways that foster economic growth, social justice, and environmental sustainability in Africa, which is our context.

In preparing to conclude - while the freedom to think and teach is a foundational pillar of academia, it is not an end. It is a means through which we fulfil our societal duty to develop solutions that significantly impact our world. As we embark on this academic year, let us embrace our responsibility with vigour and vision. Let us be academically militant for Africa, not just in words but in actions that resonate across our continent and beyond.

In conclusion – we are free to think and teach only when we live that freedom. The rules are there to make us free. If others are not following them – we should call on those very rules to serve us – and redefine them when they do not. Without using this freedom that we have to think and teach, we become the oppressor, we become the constraint, and we destroy futures, and we destroy ourselves. We cannot be free without liberating ourselves.

We cannot liberate ourselves if we put on the shackles that others have prepared for ourselves daily and if we do not equip ourselves and others to express our true potential. This gives us a duty to teach, enable, guide and coax others to create these freedoms not only for ourselves but for others and to demand that Africa’s resources be used for the good of her people in the most efficient and prudent manner possible to achieve her sustainable prosperity and freedom.

It is also not an individual responsibility but a collective responsibility. I give you permission today to be free to think and teach in an African context and look forward to achieving our collective mission of lifting Africa to rise.

Thank you.

Dr Riaan Steenberg

Board Member: DaVinci Business School

*The views expressed in this speech present the personal insights of the speaker, which are not intended to represent DaVinci Business School's official positions or beliefs.


Short Bio: Dr Riaan Steenberg

Dr Riaan Steenberg at DaVinci Business School's opening calls for academic militancy to foster innovation and freedom, urging collective action for Africa's future.
Dr Riaan Steenberg

Riaan is the Director of Operations and Co-Founder of the NetEd Group, the fast-growing African education platform that incorporates Eduvos, Stellenbosch Business Institute and the Davinci Business School. His life’s mission is to build a network of private universities that educate 250,000 students per annum across Africa, and the NetEd group is currently on its way to achieving 15,000-20,000 students for the year 2024. He is a practical academic, and his doctorate is in using education to awaken the entrepreneurial spirit; he focuses on unlocking value for businesses through Culture, Entrepreneurship, Systems and Innovation. He is a lifetime learner, a business architect at heart and has more than a decade of experience in higher education management at the helm of some of South Africa’s most innovative private higher education environments.

Riaan has a strong technical and analytical approach, and he enjoys working with large teams and often complex implementations. He thrives in the world of mass communications and marketing. He enjoys shaping the potential of people through education in the fast-paced world or private higher education in South Africa. He is a deeply spiritual person and can be said to truly love life. He believes, together with his partners at NetEd, that Africa is too rich to be poor and that the true challenge is to create better education outcomes for as many people as possible.

Dr Riaan Steenberg's multifaceted background, combining his passion for education with a wealth of leadership experiences and a strong educational foundation, marks him as a visionary leader who is making a substantial impact in the world of education and business. His commitment to fostering education and supporting the growth of businesses is a testament to his exceptional leadership capabilities. As a data scientist, management consultant, and entrepreneur, Dr. Steenberg will continue to shape the future of education and corporate growth across Africa and beyond.


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