Although he began his graduation speech with a light-hearted yarn and ended by singing a blessing a cappella, the CEO of the South African Institute of Civil Engineering, Manglin Pillay, pulled no punches about the challenges that lay ahead. Pillay was the guest speaker at the afternoon graduation ceremony of the Faculty of Engineering & the Built Environment on 6 April.
In addition to being a professional civil engineer with an MBA, Pillay is a qualified high school teacher and musician. He introduced the leitmotif of his speech by telling the story of “a notorious 1900s bank robber from Durban called Pesa”. The story went as follows.
After years of fruitlessly searching for the robber, an English-speaking policeman finally learned that Pesa was hiding out in a pub in the city. The officer went to the establishment and said to the barkeeper, “I am looking for Pesa.”
The barman looked down the bar and called out in Tamil, “Pesa, there is someone looking for you.”
Then, turning back to the policeman, the bartender said, “You see down there? The short Indian man? That is Pesa. But you have a problem. He does not speak English; only Tamil.”
The officer was unperturbed. “That’s fine,” he said. “You can translate for me. Tell Pesa I am a police officer and I know he is a bank robber. I want to know where he has hidden all those millions. Tell Pesa I want the truth. I want to know where the money is. If he does not tell me the truth, I am going to shoot to kill.”
The barman relayed the message to the thief and Pesa responded, “Tell the officer to walk out of this bar and turn left. At the end of that road, he will come to a footpath. Walk down that footpath – it will lead to a river. On the bank of that river is a mango tree. At the bottom of that mango tree is a vault. And that’s where all the money is. Every single cent of it.”
The bartender looked over at the officer and said, “Pesa says, ‘Shoot and kill.’ ”
Who will stand for truth?
The point of the story, said Pillay, once the audience had stopped laughing, was to introduce crucial questions, “What is truth? And who will stand for it?
“My concern for you graduands is not technical competency,” he explained. “You are UCT graduates.
“My worry for you is that you are about to enter a world that is unscrupulous, intimidating and aggressive. My worry for you is how you are going to govern your personal and professional lives in such a world.”
“My worry for you is that you are about to enter a world that is unscrupulous, intimidating and aggressive … [and] how you are going to govern your personal and professional lives in such a world.”
By reaching graduation, Pillay said, the students had crossed a line drawn for them by others. To successfully navigate the compromised world ahead of them, it was now essential that graduands “draw three lines for themselves”.
Train your appetite
As was illustrated by countless media exposés, the construction sector, said Pillay, was awash with examples of allurements of quick wealth through unethical means. This was why each graduand must “draw your line of resistance by training and disciplining your appetite early in your career”.
“There are people out there with businesses that feed hungers and passions meant to make them rich, but break you and distract you from meaningful relationships and tear you away from your purpose and calling,” he cautioned.
Depend on a higher order value system
The second boundary Pillay urged graduands to create for themselves was “your line of courage by depending on a higher order value system”.
While acknowledging that secular thinking discouraged the use of the phrase ‘God-fearing’, Pillay believes its meaning – “that people are good and honest, and live according to a high order value system rooted in transcendent authority” – is still relevant and powerful.
“We don’t talk like that anymore and that’s okay, but the principle still remains,” he said. “Develop and train your courage to stand firm through a conviction of what is moral, right and true.”
“Develop and train your courage to stand firm through a conviction of what is moral, right and true.”
Train your wisdom
The third and final line of defence pertains to wisdom. He explained that, while he once believed that formal education was key to resolving the world’s social problems, he’s subsequently learned that although it is critical and we must pursue it, education on its own is dangerous.
He made his point by quoting from Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s book, The Doctor and the Soul.
Frankl wrote, “I am absolutely convinced the gas chambers of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Majdanek were ultimately prepared, not in some ministry or other in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of nihilistic scientists, philosophers and engineers.”
Pillay extrapolated, “This means, graduands, that in the history of engineering and the built environment, someone sat at a desk and with great accuracy did mathematical equations and calculations using Boyle’s law and the ideal gas equation – remember those from first year? – to determine the amount of gas required to suffocate and kill 12 000 people per day in a tight space confined by brick and mortar walls.
“The German nation, in terms of technological advancement and knowledge, were the most educated people of that time. But there was something missing – wisdom.”
Before surprising the audience by singing an emotive and melodic blessing, Pillay concluded his appeal, “Young people, we are building a nation and I have come to speak to you because of what you stand for and what you represent.
“You must stand for truth. You must fight to protect truth and to bring forth the clarity of truth at all costs. You are facing a tough world. You are facing a hostile world and a challenging world; draw the lines in the right places.
“Train your appetite, build your courage by depending on a godly value system, and finally, do not rely on your education alone, but develop wisdom.”
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