Lincoln Mali speech on: Professionals In Conversation


It gives me great pleasure to share a few words with you as part of the Professionals in Conversation Sessions.

I am mindful that conversations are about words and hope that the words that we share today will go some way in making us better people in a better society for all. As I consider what words to share with you I am reminded of the wise counsel of the Nigerian poet, Ben Okri.In his poem, “Beyond Words”

“We began before words, and we will end beyond them. It sometimes seems to me that our days are poisoned with too many words. Words said and not meant. Words said ‘and’ meant. Words divorced from feeling. Wounding words. Words that conceal. Words that reduce. Dead words”.

This rich and subtle wisdom from Ben Okri is the impact of the words we say and utter, it is what goes beyond in the ripples of our words. As professionals I thought I could spend a few minutes reflecting on words or the absence of such in three current topics dominating our conversations over the last few weeks:

1. Words in conflict and tragedy

Words failed us all in Marikana, after weeks of talking and conflict, it was the sound of bullets and not words that brought our collective attention to the crisis in the mining sector. In a strange twist, it was words that fueled the crisis beyond Marikana to the whole mining industry, but we relied on words to find a solution to the Marikana pay dispute.

What is currently missing are words that explain the following:-

  • What impact will the settlement have on Lonmin’s profitability and sustainability?
  • What impact will the strikes have on foreign direct investment? and more importantly,
  • What is the outlook for jobs and poverty in the mining sector after the strikes?

2. Words of intolerance and violence

A fascinating debate ensued in the United General Assembly a few weeks ago on the issue of religious tolerance, freedom of speech and the limits and responsibilities associated with such freedoms. Pres Obama of the US led the charge in condemning in the strongest terms the offensive video that has sparked outraged in the Muslim world, whilst stating unambiguously that no offense to a religion justifies violence and loss of innocent lives. He emphasised the protection of such rights in the US Constitution,  most Western Countries supported his views. In response, Pres Morsi of Egypt , supported by most Islamic countries, also condemned the violence, but argued strongly that Egypt does promote freedom of expression, but not one that is used to incite hatred against anyone, nor one that is directed at any religion or culture.  This exchange of words in the hallowed chambers of the UN mirrors the exchange of words between the living rooms of the West and the streets of Islam. Because of such words, suspicion, misunderstanding and conflict abound.

3. Words may destroy the 1994 Miracle

It was with words and not violence that achieved the 1994 South African miracle. It was words such as negotiations, settlement, compromise, peace, consensus and Rainbow nation that we were saved from a bloodbath. It was leaders using words in the aftermath of the Hani murder that we never had a racial war. Today, it is either the absence of words that we see polarization, conflict, intimidation, protests, destruction of property etc that makes our miracle look like a false dream; worse still, it is the populist words  that are driving a wedge between locals and foreigners, black and white, workers and management and factions of the ruling party against other factions. As for our future, what words will keep our dream alive, or will the absence of such words lead to a ‘dream deferred.’

The Challenge

What does this all mean for the Professionals in Conversation?

Do I propose silence because words have failed us? No, on the contrary, I’m suggesting a much more powerful use of words in our own families, in our communities, and in our society at large.

In the words of Ben Okri, ” We should sit still in our deep selves and dream good new things for humanity. We should try and make those dreams real. We should keep trying to raise higher conditions and possibilities of this world. Then maybe one day, after much striving, we might well begin to create a world justice and a new light on this earth that could inspire a ten- second silence of wonder- even in heaven.”

What conversations should we have in the next few years?

  • Finding you voice in the development of South Africa

Previous generation distinguished themselves in liberating our country, the challenge of this generation is to rebuild this country, grow its economy, narrow the inequalities and take up leadership positions in all sphere’s of society. This is an enormous responsibility that requires a totally different outlook and dedication to do more about others and less about self. The key conversations we need to have in this regard are the following:

  1. Clear vision and execution of a coherent Economic Policy for South Africa.
  2. Address issues of Labor Market Flexibility
  3. Fix our education system
  4. Ensure that our economy is vibrant and competitive
  5. Address poverty and inequality.

These are not somebody else’s problems, they are ours, we need to find workable solutions for them, we need to lead discussions on them and we need to dedicate time, energy and resources on them. We cannot be mere spectators nor arm-chair critics.

  • A sense of duty and identity

In the words of the late US president John F Kennedy: “Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, if fulfilled can be translated into the benefit for everyone and greater strengths for our nation.”

We are where we are at the back of huge family sacrifices for our education, lost loves and broken limbs of those who fight for our freedom and the foundations of those pioneer professionals under the apartheid regime. We must therefore accept that we are privileged in comparison to the rest of society, given the huge inequalities in South Africa. We are the pride and joy of our families, the role models of our siblings and the shining stars of our communities. This places huge responsibilities for us to act and behave in a manner that:

  1. Makes our society better than how we found it;
  2. Contribute solutions to our society’s problems;
  3. Play back our knowledge and expertise to those younger than us;
  4. Remain in touch with our roots.

If and when we do so, we will indeed be translating our dreams or good fortune into the benefit for everyone that the late Pres Kennedy referred to.

 · Find your voice in the corporate sector or public sector

What defines a professional? It seems to me that the elements of that description are excellence, hard work, dedication and commitment. To be regarded as a true professional, this means that one has to excel in a hostile corporate world where, sometimes, you have to work four times harder to prove yourself because you are either a woman, young, Black or disabled.  This requires resilience, staying power, and a drive for excellence.

Equally in the public sector where sometimes political interference, corruption and the political deployment may frustrate a true professional, our duty is to have an uncompromising commitment to excellence without fear or favour. As a professional, we must be passionate, motivated, and punctual. We must be disciplined, aim for the highest standards and be engaged in the constant pursuit of un-attainable perfection. In our jobs or professions, we must rest less and never be satisfied, always evaluating and re-evaluating where we’ve come from and finding ways to do what we are doing better, now, today, moment to moment.

As Black professionals, or as I prefer, as professionals who happen to be Black, we must insist that excellence and transformation must be seen as two sides of the same coin. We cannot be impressed by companies that excel but are untransformed, on the hand we must also not glorify public enterprises or government departments that are transformed but are under performing.

We must have pride in who we are, what we do, how we do it, for who we do it at all times, without seeking glory and fame. We must be found more at the coal face, grabbling with challenges and obstacles and winning battles rather than on the golf course, in social magazines, gossip columns. We must aim to be the best in the world, in everything we do, that is my standard; I dare not aim less, for the sake of my children and future generations.


Ladies and gentlemen, the enormity of our challenges requires deep contemplation, intense listening and a desire to reach out to others- this is a firm foundation for new words, words of hope, and words of new ideas, new solutions, new dreams and new possibilities. This is how I live my life, by using words, in spoken or written form to make a difference in my family, in my work place, in my community and in our society.

Let’s reclaim the space for positive and healing words; let’s not allow our voices to be silenced by those who shout loudest and let’s not allow those in position of corporate and political power set the agenda for the debates. Let’s protect words for the future of our children- they deserve much better

I thank you

Lincoln Mali