Ismail Lagardien: Goodbye but not farewell

Ismail Lagardien
Picture: Supplied

At the end of this month, I will leave Port Elizabeth. I have lived in the city for a little more than 18 months, associated with Nelson Mandela University.

Unless the editors agree otherwise, this will be the last column I will write for The Herald.

I leave at a difficult time, personally and in terms of the country’s political economic future.

Let me deal briefly with the personal. I leave NMU with a heavy heart.

As executive dean of business and economics sciences, I woke up every morning truly excited about my work.

It was as if I had been waiting for this position my whole life.

The reader may know, by now, that I have stepped down from the position.

Before I get to the larger societal issues (in a scholarly environment I would suggest that one can never quite separate the individual from society, I am that “universal singular” so eloquently summed up by the French philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre), let me share a vignette of my first formal duties at NMU in April last year.

I arrived at the university within a few days of the April graduations.

Sitting in my allocated seat, among the academic leaders, I twirled the cap of the academic garb in my hands and read the label on the inside.

It read “Birch’s”.

Overwhelmed, as I was, by the occasion and my new surroundings, I was overcome further by images of a childhood spent in Grahamstown, where my grandfather was a bespoke tailor for Birch’s, a specialist in academic robe-making.

I remembered the days we spent running around the property of Birch’s, and hiding in the hollows of my grandfather’s large table where he marked patterns and cut cloth.

My reverie ended swiftly when the academic procession was called to enter the hall and take up our seats on the stage, where we would preside over the graduation.

I donned the cap, adjusted my gown and followed the procession.

It was a profound moment.

It brought together, in some way, the way that Sartre explained about the novelist Gustave Flaubert, what my own history can tell me about the times I lived in, and what the history of these times can say about me, as an individual.

But enough with the philosophical jibber-jabber.

My family history runs deep in the history of Port Elizabeth.

It was here, family legends and myths hold, that two brothers Lagardien arrived from the Nusantaran world during the slave period in South Africa.

The family would settle in South End, with one or two living and working in Uitenhage, and my paternal grandfather in Grahamstown.

My father moved to Johannesburg after World War 2.

Today the family are scattered across the globe, from Malaysia to Italy, Canada and Australia.

We all bear the name, Lagardien, with the de rigueur spelling mutilations that colonial and post-colonial “Home Affairs” impose.

One of my father’s first cousins was a Lagerdien.

A first cousin’s name lost the “r” somewhere . . .

Anyway, the earliest progenitors of my family are all buried in places in the Bay.

Today most of them live in the northern areas.

I should say, with some shame, that I have met only three or four of them – and quite coincidentally, at that.

So, as I write this, I leave Port Elizabeth, “die Baai”, at the end of October, not sure of where I will be next.

I will go where the next job is, and given our times, that is the great uncertainty.

This brings me back, neatly, then, to our times.

Over the next two months, South Africans will feel like a people running around in search of space to hide from the political hurricane that has slowly been swirling around the country.

The ruling party, so dominant in all aspects of our society, its sweaty hands – filthy with the detritus of an end-of-empire type bacchanal – hold the keys to our economic future.

The ruling ANC will elect its next president and that person will, surely, become the country’s next president.

Everyone across the country and, this I know with absolute certainty, very many important people around the world, will watch, closely, what the ANC does in the coming weeks and months, and who will become the putative president of South Africa in December.

Notwithstanding the threats to international co-operation and to the functional integration of local and national economies into global production and value chains, the next president of South Africa will have to exercise the boldest of leadership – with an exceptional understanding of global political economic matters.

This leadership will juggle several balls, each one of which is a crystal sphere.

Each one of which, if dropped, can have disastrous consequences.

The way I see things, it all revolves around the economy.

The statistics on unemployment, poverty, inequality and general precarity are astounding.

They don’t need repeating.

There are times when I think that it will be impossible to turn things around within the next 10 to 20 years.

Then I remember what China, Malaysia, South Korea and post-Cold War Germany achieved.

However, when I listen to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, I remember what former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere said to Zimbabwe’s first prime minister, Robert Mugabe, in 1980: “You have inherited the jewel of Africa, please take care not to spoil it”.

  • Ismail Lagardien Dr Ismail Lagardien is the former executive dean of business and economics sciences at Nelson Mandela University

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