People need to embrace power of knowledge

Despite freedom of information legislation, despite leaks and the difficulty today’s governments face in keeping things secret — despite all these and more — the actual operations of those who hold power may well be growing more, not less, opaque.

“Politics, after all, is about power, not truth. Decisions are not based on ‘objective’ findings or profound understanding, but on the conflict of forces, each pursuing its perceived self-interest.

“Along with changes in the general population, therefore, fed by the shift to the new wealth-creation system, comes a parallel upgrading of the tools of manipulation used by politicians and government officialdom to hold onto their power. This is what meta-tactics are all about.”

This was written a quarter of a century ago by futurist Alvin Toffler in his book Power Shift. He defined three sources of power: muscle-bullets (force), money-budgets (wealth) and mind (knowledge). He makes two major points about power: that power itself is not good or bad — it is what those who have it do with it that matters most; and knowledge is different from the other two sources of power in that money and muscle are finite.

Knowledge is infinite: “Unlike bullets or budgets, knowledge itself doesn’t get used up. This alone tells us that the rules of the knowledge-power game are sharply different from the precepts relied on by those who use force or money to accomplish their will.”

Knowledge, he explains, “is the most democratic source of power. Which makes it a continuing threat to the powerful, even as they use it to enhance their own power.”

There is no doubt that SA is at the most defining time in its democratic evolution. Toffler’s predictions are living themselves out in our society every day.

We are heading for the perfect storm because muscle and money can get you only so far. Several constituencies believe that President Jacob Zuma has used his power to enrich himself and, in one way or another, the Gupta family have been muscling in on things.

People inside and outside of the governing party claim to have knowledge of this, but the inner circle’s meta-tactic is to throw doubt on the disclosures made, and deny all knowledge about what they are saying. Which brings us to the power of knowledge. Toffler says: “By definition, both force and wealth are the property of the strong and rich. It is the truly revolutionary characteristic of knowledge that it can be grasped by the weak and the poor as well.”

Hence, the protests at university campuses are extremely important and relevant. Prof Peter Vale, director of the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study explains that the protests are about far more than fees and symbols; they are around epistemology, the academic term for knowledge.

The students are asking substantial questions about who is in control of the knowledge-power game, what gets taught, why, by whom, and in which language. It delves into the circles of power at universities that alienate many students. Many politicians and captains of industry still don’t grasp the magnitude and depth of this.

We need to tackle the means of access to knowledge in universities, because today’s students are our future. In their own way, they are fighting for the democratic knowledge economy SA is supposed to be about, which can bring about a new political, economic, and social order.

To access knowledge, many students are struggling against odds that would be insurmountable for most. There are students typing their essays on their cellphones, as they cannot afford a laptop. When I related this to a CEO, he replied that this was the sort of person firms should be employing. It is one way of looking at it, but it should also urge us to find out more about the background of this student, of all our students.

It requires us to make the effort to better understand our country, to know our country, to understand what all our fellow South Africans think. How do they live? Make ends meet? What are their aspirations?

Toffler said: “Whatever gulf separates the rich from the poor, an even greater gulf separates the armed from the unarmed, and the ignorant from the educated.”

Regrettably, our society is still characterised by high levels of ignorance at all levels, even among those who could claim to be well-educated. How are we ever going to build a prosperous, generous and competitive nation if we choose ignorance over knowing and understanding our country?

Gordon Insitute of Business School professor Nick Binedell asks people, “How well do you know your country?”

I would hope that most of us would be honest enough to reply: “I don’t know it too much at all”. And start changing this with sincerity and urgency. If we don’t, the muscle may keep the lid on things for a while, but then the money will run out, and the goal for knowledge and a knowledge economy that we seek and require will be lost.

First published in Business Day on Wednesday, 30 March 2016.


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