We have the right to know
The reality is that a small but powerful minority has the capacity to decide what society should 'know'
IT is in the vital interest of all our people that the historically inherited and contending understandings of "knowledge" should be given free rein, each to establish its place in our society through open dialogue as "the truth", and therefore a legitimate player in the formation of the new South Africa .
The conference you begin today is daring because, in my view, it must necessarily address the fundamental issue immanent in all philosophical discourse, from ancient times to date: what is knowledge?
It is daring because it poses the interesting task that you must consider the thesis that it is possible to have "undemocratised knowledge", and therefore that you should discuss the challenge to achieve "the democratisation of knowledge".
This conference is also timely because it is self-evident that "knowledge", regardless of the philosophical debates about its meaning, and indeed because of this, has established itself as a critical driver with regard to the human objective to achieve what the business school has described as "the betterment of society".
We have to confront urgent and difficult challenges to eradicate poverty, underdevelopment and gross social inequality as quickly as possible, and to achieve lasting and equitable social and national cohesion and the continuous improvement of the life conditions of all our African people in the context of growing and transforming economies.
Accordingly, we need access to such knowledge as would indeed accelerate our advance towards the achievement of these goals.
This poses the challenge to distinguish between what we as Africans "know", which is therefore the "knowledge" we would use to change our condition for the better, and what is the "objective truth", which might be at variance with what we know as the "knowledge" at our disposal.
This raises the important issue of epistemology, of the distinction between what society "knows" and assumes constitutes "knowledge", and what can logically and independently be established as "the truth", and therefore "objective reality", regardless of whether we know it or not.
This posits the thesis that it is possible for individuals and societies to share an understanding about various processes and phenomena which would constitute their bank of knowledge, while such knowledge would be different from, and even contrary to, the objective truth relating to these very same processes and phenomena.
Thus it becomes possible for action to be taken, intended to achieve the betterment of society, based on what we can characterise as false knowledge because it is at variance with the objective truth.
This obliges us to refer to the contentious question relating to what is called the "criterion of truth", which bears on the philosophical question: is there an objective measure that can be used to establish what is "true knowledge" and what is "false knowledge"?
Obviously, this obliges us to revert to the fundamental question of epistemology and gnoseology: what is knowledge?
The fundamental proposition of this conference is that knowledge is a fundamental driver in the process of social transformation, and therefore, ineluctably, a critical player in terms of the objective to achieve the betterment of society.
Although this conference might correctly avoid issues that relate to epistemology and gnoseology, these should nevertheless remain at the back of our minds .
I would like to believe that what I have said surely means that this conference must address a number of vitally important questions.
Some of these are:
- In the contemporary global context, especially as it relates to Africa, given that this conference is taking place on our continent, what does "the betterment of society" mean?;
- What knowledge do our decision-makers need to inform them as they strive to achieve such betterment?;
- Who will produce such knowledge?;
- Who will ensure that this knowledge reaches the decision-makers?;
- What possibility is there to guarantee the independence of the producers of knowledge, such as universities, so that they enjoy the freedom to produce the objective knowledge all social development needs?; and,
- What should be done to ensure that such objective knowledge is propagated, including through the mass media, while necessarily allowing that all other alternative knowledge, even though it is not part of what is generally accepted, is allowed unrestricted freedom to express itself, able to challenge established and generally accepted truths, including through all the available media?
I am certain that when we have sought to consider these issues as activists of one kind or another, surely we must have arrived at very disturbing conclusions about the global contemporary reality of the management of knowledge relative to the democratisation of knowledge and the use of knowledge for the betterment of society.
I would like to suggest that, in important respects, knowledge has become ever less democratised and even more compromised as an instrument for the betterment of society.
I say this being perfectly aware of what seems to be the general view that the "social media" enabled by the internet constitute a defining intervention which both democratises knowledge and facilitates its use to better society.
However, the questions I believe you must answer are whether all this truly represents the democratisation of knowledge, and whether such "democratisation" correctly defines the role of knowledge in the betterment of society.
This raises the challenge to answer questions I raised earlier - what is knowledge? What knowledge are we talking about? W ho manages it?
Accordingly, I would suggest that you take some time to inquire into such specific matters that relate to the betterment of global human society as:
- The obligations of the developed world towards Africa, in the context of what the influential British magazine, The Economist, in an illustrative cover page in May 2000, characterised as "The hopeless continent". The false "knowledge" about Africa arising from such prejudiced reporting has, inter alia, discouraged investors from making their capital available for the development of Africa, thus serving as a self-fulfilling prediction;
- The 2003 war against Iraq. The false "knowledge" was propagated that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, which was not true, but was used to launch a war which has generated immense problems both for Iraq and, at least, the wider Middle East region;
- The 2011 activation of the concept of the "responsibility to protect" relating to the enforcement of the so-called "no-fly zone" concerning Libya. The false "knowledge" was advanced that the Gaddafi regime was about to slaughter millions of civilians. This was used to justify the imposition of a no-fly zone over Libya, which served as a cover to overthrow the Libyan government and impose a regime approved by the Western powers, in their interest;
- The behaviour of global financial capital, which led to the 2008 financial and economic crisis, from which the world economy has not yet recovered, and which resulted in the impoverishment of millions throughout the world. Financial capital communicated false "knowledge", especially about US mortgage loans - the so-called sub-prime lending - which nearly resulted in a more punishing global economic depression;
- The role of international firms of accountants in the context of corporate governance. Major global accounting firms communicated false "knowledge" about then major firms such as Enron, which resulted in the loss of billions of dollars by honest investors, including workers' pension funds;
- Successive scares about world health. The Council of Europe has asserted that false "knowledge" was propagated during 2009, which resulted in billions of taxpayer dollars being spent in many countries to respond to a fictional swine flu epidemic, which benefited the globally dominant and highly profitable pharmaceutical companies; and
- The year 2000 Y2K scare. The false "knowledge" that the world would seize up because of an end-of-century computer malfunction proved to be unfounded, having no scientific basis.
All these instances confirm the timeliness of precisely the two important themes of this conference, certainly in their macro-social implications: that knowledge should be democratised and should be used to better the human condition.
At the same time, they illustrate the destructive potential of the abuse of knowledge by those who exercise preponderant power, to propagate their version of "knowledge" for selfish ends.
Thus does it not stand to reason that the knowledge generally available to society to effect its own betterment is in fact such "knowledge" as the preponderant powers would permit to be available, in their own interest?
Contemporary society faces the frightening reality of the capacity of a small but powerful minority of humanity to determine what society should "know", and what passes as "knowledge".
The world community of nations has also accepted the notion that there are various elements of knowledge to which should be attached private proprietary rights, thus making such knowledge a profitable commodity for those who can legitimately claim ownership of such intellectual property.
Everything I have said underlines the need for the democratisation of knowledge precisely to ensure that knowledge, the collective output of human thought and inquiry, and therefore the property of humanity as a whole, is readily available to better the human condition, and is used for this noble purpose.
The Stellenbosch University Business School and you who are gathered at this conference are absolutely correct that, given the immense contemporary global challenges, including as they affect the poor of the world, knowledge must be democratised and must be used for the betterment of all humanity.
As we, the Africans, enter into our second century of the existence of an organised modern movement for national liberation, we would surely do well to join you, the African and international progressive intelligentsia, to give practical meaning to the famous Chinese saying: "Let a hundred flowers bloom: let a hundred schools of thought contend!"