July 11, 2009 – Nobel Peace Laureate and founder and managing director of Grameen Bank, Professor Muhammad Yunus, delivered the Seventh Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture at Johannesburg’s city hall today.
The theme of the lecture was “Eradicating poverty by investing in the marginalised”.
The lecture was opened by Nelson Mandela Foundation CEO Achmat Dangor and praise singer Zolani Mkiva, who welcomed Mr Mandela to the lecture. Dangor then introduced Sibongile Khumalo to sing an opening song.
After Khumalo’s song and the South African national anthem, Professor Jakes Gerwel, chairperson of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, welcomed the guests and the Foundation’s sister organisations to the Seventh Annual Lecture before wishing Mr Mandela a happy 91st birthday.
Introducing Prof Yunus, Prof Gerwel spoke about the “impressive array” of previous Annual Lecture speakers, saying that he added “similar lustre” to the list.
Prof Yunus thanked Mr Mandela and the Nelson Mandela Foundation for inviting him to deliver the Seventh Annual Lecture, saying he felt “honoured and privileged” to be able to say happy birthday to him in person. He went on to talk about the impact that Mr Mandela had had on his life and on the lives of everyone.
“I stand in awe, standing in front of the most wonderful person on earth today,” he said. “As young people, we looked up to you. You stood tall and made us stand tall. You rejected prejudices, and you inspired us to reject prejudices. You rejected hatred, and you inspired us to reject hatred. You inspired the whole world,” he said.
Prof Yunus spoke about the independence struggle in Bangladesh and the challenges that his country had faced, including the 1974 famine.
“What good does the theory [of economics] do if it is not working for people?” asked Prof Yunus, speaking about how teaching the theory of economics felt disingenuous when people were starving.It was this divide between theory and the reality of the situation that encouraged him to make his first loan of $27 to 42 people at the mercy of loan sharks, in a neighbouring village.
Having seen how happy it made people, he approached a bank to make similar loans to poor people.
The banks said it was impossible, said Prof Yunus, but “you, Madiba, showed us that nothing is impossible!” Grameen Bank made more and more loans to the poor, he recalled. “The banks kept saying it would collapse. We kept saying we will continue until it collapses. It didn’t collapse … Those who told us it would collapse – they collapsed.
Prof Yunus explained that because Grameen Bank focuses on lending to women, it had encountered opposition, particularly from those from those who argued that encouraging women to get into business was against the “culture” of the villages the bank was operating in.
“Culture is useless,” he argued, “until it is supported by counter culture.”
“Today,” he continued, “we have nearly 8-million borrowers, 97% of whom are women. They own the bank. They sit on the board.”
Prof Yunus explained that part of the bank’s business philosophy was to encourage the women who borrowed from the bank to educate their children, to ensure that the bank’s help was intergenerational.
The 2006 Nobel Prize winner said he had visited a village to speak to one of the bank’s clients and met her daughter, a qualified doctor.“Her mother could have been a doctor too … but no one gave her a chance,” he said.
The woman got a chance because her mother banked with Grameen Bank. It makes you think, he argued, that poverty does not lie in the person but rather is a result of systems put in place by society.
Prof Yunus explained the traditional banking sector’s excuse that poor people do not pay back loans was undermined by the success of microlenders worldwide which have an extremely high rate of return.
He went on to say that charity was not the answer, but the responsibility of society was to create possibilities so that people could “fight for their lives”.
In order to tackle not only poverty but the other crises that face the world, such as the food crisis and global warming, Prof Yunus said there was a need for capitalism to turn away from the philosophy of profit maximisation and start focusing more on what businesses can do for the people around them as well as the environment – what he terms “social business”.
People are both selfish and selfless, he continued, and capitalism needs to evolve so that it encourages businesses that incorporate the selfless aspects of the human condition.
Prof Yunus argued that there was no shortage of philanthropists in the world who would set up these types of businesses.“Any person here can do it [create a social business],” Prof Yunus said.“You don’t have to wait for the government to do it, we are just as capable as the government,” he said.
All the world’s problems could be solved by social businesses, he argued.The financial crisis, Prof Yunus continued, has awoken us to the reality that the current system is not working, providing us with the perfect opportunity to “shake things up in a positive way”.
Prof Yunus spoke about how the Berlin Wall was taken down 20 years ago, not by explosives, but by ordinary people. “We can make this wall of poverty fall, just like that,” he said.
People have made what seems impossible possible, such as landing on the moon. If that is possible, he said, is it not possible for us to help others?
“We got rid of colonialism; everyone said it’s impossible. We got rid of slavery; they said it was impossible. We got rid of apartheid; they said it was impossible … Let’s do the next impossible thing, and do it with joy,” he said.
“Let’s make South Africa the first country without poverty,” he said, “and let’s do it fast. Let’s do it in the next 20 years,” he said amidst laughter.“Why are you laughing?” he asked, “because it’s impossible? That’s why it will be done.”“Thank you very much,” he concluded to rapturous applause.
Prof Gerwel thanked Prof Yunus for sharing his “thoughts and vision”.The magnitude of the task [eradicating poverty], he continued, may make it look insurmountable, but “you have proven through your own efforts that a difference can be made”.
Prof Gerwel reminded the audience of Mandela Day, inviting people to give time on July 18 to promote social good.
Khumalo then sang as Mr Mandela left the City Hall.
To download the full speech click here