Graduates should help change society
Possessing a degree does not make you better…
TENS of thousands of men and women owe their careers to the vocational training received at the former ML Sultan Technical College in Centenary Road, Durban.
Through full-time and part-time classes, “Tech” as it was commonly referred to, produced waiters, chefs, bookkeepers, teachers, motor mechanics, secretaries, carpenters, bricklayers, engineers, plumbers, electricians and diplomats in a host of other professions.
When it was established more than six decades ago, ML Sultan Technical College for the first time provided new educational opportunities which hitherto had been denied to people of colour, thus according them pride through meaningful livelihoods.
Ironically, the man who opened the doors of higher learning for the community had himself received very basic formal education.
Yet Malukmahomed Lappa Sultan, who rose from poverty through dint of hard work to amass a fortune which he bequeathed to deserving causes, used his deep religious and moral convictions to advance himself in life, all the while displaying great empathy for the human condition.
I reflected on the life of Hajee ML Sultan when news broke that the DA had proposed that only an MP with a university degree be considered for the position of chief whip.
The degree proposal erupted into mud-slinging between DA chief whip John Steenhuisen and the EFF whose leaders mocked Steenhuisen for not possessing a post-matric qualification. Steenhuisen retorted that the EFF big wigs’ degrees had only equipped them to “steal from the poor and the downtrodden”.
The party-political squabble begged the question: Does a degree make you a better person? Is university education a prerequisite for success?
The answers came to me when I looked at the life of ML Sultan. He was born in Quilon (now referred to as Kollam) in Kerala, South India, on February 15, 1873.
He received his early education in India but, on the death of his father, left school at the age of 14.
He worked long hours decorating and polishing brassware but, finding his earnings insufficient for his needs, he decided to emigrate to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
The ship’s engines broke down, leaving him stranded in Triticurin. His meagre funds were soon exhausted.
He was approached by the agents responsible for the recruitment of Indian immigrants and brought to then-Natal in 1890.
A period of steady work in the government service followed. As a porter at Berea Road station in Durban, he met many pioneer personalities of Natal and imbibed some of their sterling qualities.
When his contract expired, he was attracted to the then-Transvaal where he worked as a waiter in a Johannesburg hotel.
He returned to Natal after three years to take up farming. He cultivated bananas, paw paws and pineapples and established a dairy in Escombe where he spent the major portion of his life.
He married Mariam Bibi in 1905 and they were blessed with four sons and six daughters.
ML Sultan’s long experience of hardship and difficulties made him an acute businessman.
Realising the advantages of commercial endeavour, he opened a wholesale and retail produce business in Victoria Street, Durban, while at the same time growing betel leaf at Stamford Hill.
A busy man, he prospered, returning most of his profits to his businesses and also investing in property. He became wealthy, with deal after deal proving successful.
An orator in Tamil, he read widely, broadening his spiritual life while not neglecting the practical aspects of business.
It is reputed that ML Sultan was most widely respected for his honesty. His word, once given, thus became a bond stronger than any devised by a lawyer.
It is said that, at the age of 80, he walked 20km to keep an appointment after a landslide had disrupted the train service.
Such was the man who rose from humble beginnings and earned hundreds of thousands of pounds. He was unaffected by wealth yet knew its value and power.
His personal needs were small; he felt that the needs of his fellow man were greater. In the name of God, he gave back to the poor all that he possessed.
While ML Sultan generously donated money to schools and religious bodies, his beneficence lives on most conspicuously through the £33 000 he gave for the establishment of the ML Sultan Technical College (now merged with Natal Technikon and known as the Durban University of Technology).
He strongly believed that young Indians should have opportunities for education to prepare themselves for employment in industry, business or a profession of their choice.
ML Sultan was a product of the university of life. His exemplary life has shown that a degree does not define success.
Having a degree does not mean you are smarter, better, more qualified, or harder-working than a person who doesn’t have one.
I know of many leaders in all walks of life who never acquired tertiary education, but through hard work and determination became successful and lived a happy life.
Chief Albert Luthuli, Africa’s first Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and president of the ANC for 15 years until his death in 1967, was the most widely known and respected African leader of his era.
While he completed a teaching course, he turned down a scholarship to study at the University of Fort Hare, opting instead to stay as a teacher so that the £10 monthly salary would help provide for his aged mother.
However, in today’s competitive world you need a degree for almost any job. Employers have become obsessed with the idea that having a piece of paper with your name on it makes you more qualified than those who work every day to make a better life for themselves but do not have a degree.
Over centuries, the university has evolved from a place that a select few attended to become academics and further human understanding to a place where students go to get a decent job.
Possessing a degree does not make you better at performing at a job. It does not override qualities such as humility, authenticity and integrity.
I often see employees who have limited formal schooling running circles around their bosses who have multiple degrees.
University education has become one of the biggest economic burdens on society. Most students are spending at least three years learning something they’ll never apply in their lives. Most of what people learn in a job is learned on the job. Fresh graduates learn almost nothing at university that is useful to them at work.
Nonetheless, the act of applying yourself to getting a degree by working hard and disciplining yourself can make you a more wellrounded person.
Since many employers still think that having a degree means you are fundamentally smarter, a degree is, by far, the best way to get a higher-paying job. And for that reason alone, having a university education is, for most people, incredibly useful.
But if there is one thing that a degree should do, it is to give graduates an advantage in terms of their capacity to participate in civil society.
With their gained skills, credentials and knowledge, they should have a better opportunity to develop their social capital, which includes their social networks with friends, neighbours and acquaintances through participating in organisations and associations.
Graduates must use their acquired skills to fundamentally change society for good.
The writer refers to the ‘mud-slinging between DA chief whip John Steenhuisen and the Economic Freedom Fighters’.
LEFT: The original ML Sultan Technical College. RIGHT: ML Sultan