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Rasigan Maharajh

Rasigan Maharajh, African futurist

Just say know. From a continent notorious for Big Man political theatrics, it is a soft-spoken intellectual who's getting attention in the African foresight community. Don't be fooled by the dulcet vocal delivery and good manners. You will find passion and a healthy dose of delight lurking beneath the surface of his provocative opinions. Name: Rasigan Maharajh. Preferred designation: comrade, thank you very much.

 

"Our continent is developing at a much faster pace than before, and, with the changing global geo-politics, we now have the opportunity to advance towards an equitable and sustainable developmental trajectory."

 

Asked about the state of foresight on the continent right now, Rasigan tells us that it is "incredibly interesting, with increasingly good quality primary information and data becoming more readily available. Generational shifts have effected a phase-change, with the old staid ways being displaced by higher levels of energy devoted to facilitating 'creative-destruction.'"And he's upbeat about Africa. "It is really amazing to be an African in these times," he says. "Our continent is developing at a much faster pace than before, and, with the changing global geo-politics, we now have the opportunity to advance towards an equitable and sustainable developmental trajectory." This isn’t optimism of the pollyannaesque variant. Rasigan believes that even if "the 'rent-seekers' of the past remain", he's "convinced that our current generation will not succumb to becoming compradors, even in the field of foresight."

 

Futurist, intentionally. Active in the domain for twenty-six years, Rasigan's participation isn’t coincidental; it's intentional. Foresight and liberation are intertwined – and with good reason. "As a former member of a national liberation movement," he says, "and having been intimately involved in the processes of reconstructing and developing the post-apartheid South Africa, futures studies have provided critical tools in conducting my work." We ask him to explain a bit further. "I read a lot of academic, scientific and policy research on Africa," he says. "I use my training in political economy and in scenario building to construct possible, plausible and probable futures. I use the alternative futures to test policies, strategies and programmes and generate both foresight reports and planning documents."

Applying foresight and futures thinking to policy work is something with which Rasigan has lots of experience. Trained by the Global Business Network (GBN) in Scenario Development on behalf of the South African government in 1997, he has been a major contributor to futures thinking in many sectors and tiers of governance, particularly in science, technology and innovation. These experiences have encouraged him to continue in the field. He's also of the opinion that more effort is needed. The challenge is to "develop an embracing culture of thinking about the future and holding governance under tight mandates towards achieving systematic objectives." How close are we to achieving that? Consider what he says next: "When the people lead, the leaders must follow. Embracing such a perspective will return Africa to us all who live in, on, with it. We can all then build the better future now!"

 

"When the people lead, the leaders must follow. Achieving such a perspective will return Africa to us all who live in, on, with it. We can all then build the better future now!"

 

From what we've seen on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Uganda and Swaziland recently, the people are doing their bit but the entrenched 'leadership' has yet to get the updated memo about who is to follow whom. There's another reason for why most African policymakers, and especially policy administrators, aren't embracing foresight knowledge. Many remain "scared of the uncertainties generated, and cowered [by] the accumulated subjugation to fundamentalist faith in neo-classical dogmas, especially in narrow economics, and the donor-agendas," says Rasigan.

Building futures capacity on the continent is critical but there are no short-cuts. Reading, research and writing are essential. The Maharajh Compulsory Reading List for Would-be Futurists isn't a short one. "All reports of the UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) should be compulsory. New work on the green economy, post-capitalist development and global citizenship should be required reading," he tells us.

What of the traits of a successful futurist, we ask. "I remain convinced that aptitude and perseverance are important qualities for futures-related work," he responds. "'Just saying know' aptly describes the personal trait required of the field. It is a difficult value to teach and needs to be driven by the individual practitioner."

Those who have influenced Rasigan's thinking include historical heavyweights as well as contemporaries and friends. "Karl Marx introduced the field by providing me with the theoretical basis for analysing the political economy," Rasigan says, "and the Tofflers and the Club of Rome have produced work that has been very accurate in describing our unfolding world." He goes on: "Paul Raskin and the Great Transition Initiative are acknowledged as deep reservoirs of great thinking on the future. Alioune Sall is a great friend and eloquent guide to the continent's futures and the programmes of the UN. Napier Collins and Jay Ogilvy remain great friends in the field. John Perry Barlow keeps pushing the various boundaries. Kevin Kelly continues to reveal more inspiration from the mundane. This list could stretch on and on and on," he tells us.

We quizzed Rasigan briefly about where he does his best thinking, and he replied that there is no best place because 'the neurologics take place in all contexts." So, what of his office at IERI – what would we see there if we visited his office? Says Rasigan, "the drabness of the apartheid concrete architecture [is] broken by the deployment of glass-fronted offices, lots of interesting academics and students, and the inner Pretoria CBD." He's not joking about the drab architectural design, by the way, but at least there's basement parking.

Rasigan -- who is active in several high-profile global networks focused on learning, research, innovation and knowledge; a director of the South Africa Node of the Millennium Project; and the chief director of IERI -- tells us that it is "always an adventure to live life live." He's also a proponent of the 'just say know' philosophy.

From that list of activities and with that approach to life you'd imagine that 'busy' would be the word he’d used to describe himself, but it isn't; it's 'open'. Others call him stoical –  he does not elaborate why – and someone once told him he was a Renaissance-person. "When selected to be on the scoping team of South Africa’s first National Research and Technology Foresight Exercise, the nominator used the term Renaissance-person to describe me," he confesses.

And the one thing you’d wished you’d been told before you become a futurist, we ask. "Check all ties at the door!" is the reply.

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