Mary-Jane Morifi, a UCT social science graduate whose career has taken her to the top of some of the world's biggest corporations, implored the final group of UCT commerce graduands on 20 December to "do the right thing" because it benefitted communities, and also because it was good for business.
It was the fourth and final of the commerce graduations this December, at which 1 657 graduands became graduates and emerged from Jameson Hall with a degree or a diploma. Former Cabinet minister Trevor Manuel was in attendance.
Guest speaker Morifi, who is the executive head of corporate affairs at Anglo Platinum, ensured the graduands were inspired to reach for heights beyond mere personal gain.
Beginning by thanking her alma mater for giving her opportunities to launch her career – opportunities that included a year's study at Harvard University, posts in research and in fundraising at the UCT Fund in New York, for which the focus was raising funds for students who could not afford to study at UCT – Morifi noted that one of those students was "none other than the advocate who is giving all those people at [platinum mining company] Lonmin a huge headache because he is representing the Marikana miners".
The university had taught her three important lessons: "to dare the impossible; to stand confidently in the world; to go about my business guided by a love for my people and country, determination to do the right thing, and make choices that put gifts that I have been given to work for the common good."
Upon joining oil and mining giants BP as an executive in 1993, Morifi was dismayed at the corporation's lack of social investment, which at the time comprised giving money to the SPCA. Not that she does not adore animals, as her "beautiful, gorgeous Rhodesian ridgeback [and] two stupid basset hounds" will attest, "but in a land of extreme poverty and inequality, in a land not democratic and free at that time", Morifi was surprised that company was not doing more to invest in human capital.
She discovered that many children in South Africa were dying from drinking paraffin kept in unprotected bottles and in shack fires caused by fallen paraffin stoves.
"These are social problems that were never evident to leaders of BP before, but it took a woman who grew up in a poor community and who knew first-hand the perils of this petroleum by-product to innovate a solution to this social problem – the paraffin safety-cap – and to start a national campaign to prevent paraffin accidents, using BP's funding," she said.
"Developing a child safety-cap for all paraffin bottles used for BP paraffin was good for public health. It was good for public safety. It was good for the community. But most importantly, it was good for business. It actually led to what is today the Paraffin Safety Association of South Africa.
"Students, doing the right thing is good for business. It creates shared value."
We all need to give back to the communities from whence we came, Morifi urged.
"That is why I'm the chairperson of the local hospice in Atteridgeville, Pretoria; that's why I'm a board member of the Black Sash, an organisation fighting to protect the rights of the most marginalised in our community.
"That is why I mentor and coach young women to help them navigate what can sometimes be shark-infested waters within the large corporates, and that's why I'm currently working to help make Madiba's last wish for the children of South Africa a reality – supporting the building of a new specialist referral children's hospital in Johannesburg to serve the children of Southern Africa, the children that Madiba so loved that he actually committed and dedicated a third of his presidential salary to start and maintain the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund."
She reminded the commerce graduands of Madiba's message to "all of us": it is in your hands.
"No matter what stage you are in your career, we can all share our good fortune with others."
The graduands did not need telling of the challenges we faced as a society, a country or as humanity, she said: "If you did need to be told, then I would ask all your parents to ask for a refund from [UCT's Vice-Chancellor] Dr Max Price, as your education would have been wasted on you. It would have been in vain," she said. "You have demonstrated amply through your academic achievements for which you are being lauded here today that you are more than capable of thinking from the head."
But to be successful in their endeavours, the soon-to-be graduates would need to think with their hearts as much as their heads, and do the right thing, inspired by a love for humanity and the world we live in, Morifi said.
"My generation was great at articulating the concept of ubuntu," she concluded. "We sold it internationally very successfully. What we failed dismally was at living and demonstrating that through our actions and decisions.
"We are going to need you to win that struggle for us."
When the last echoes of applause faded in Jameson Hall, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Crain Soudien thanked Morifi, who he had earlier described as a "pillar of strength and leadership", for her "wonderful message" and for the example that she set.
Before admitting the first students to the degrees for which they had qualified, Price added his appreciation for Morifi's talk, saying the students were privileged to have been present for one of the very best graduation addresses during all his years of presiding over the ceremonies.
Story by Yusuf Omar. Photo by Je'nine May.
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