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Mining alumnus speaks at grads

- Wits University

Mark Burnett’s profile is intricately linked with geosciences, mining, the Witwatersrand, and this University.

Graduation address by Mark Burnett

Thank you for the honour and privilege of being invited to address you, class of 2018. You have had a long, gruelling journey in getting here; you have completed this leg of the race, congratulations, well done.

In all our celebration today, it is important to remember the families, partners, friends and all those people who have sacrificed and supported to get you to where you are now. They are the ones who kept you sane (or made you crazy) during exam time, the ones who worried more than you did about getting assignments in on time, the ones who were your foundation during this voyage of discovery.  

Let’s give them a big round of applause.

To the professors and teaching staff, who sometimes (often?) despaired that you would ever graduate. Thank you for your hard work, effort and dedication in shaping the next generation of Wits Alumni.

It is my hope and desire, that the graduating class of 2018 will hold high the principles and values that this university was founded on: Democracy, with no distinction between class, wealth, race or creed.  Alumni who will change society and the world in a positive way, wherever they may find themselves.

I must admit that I was both thrilled and apprehensive when I was asked to deliver the graduation speech, mainly as I have no recollection of what was said at mine. So if you are ever asked in 25 years’ time, “what did your guest speaker talk about?” I will not be in the slightest offended if you can’t remember either.

What I do remember is worrying that I would fall flat on my face as I walked across the stage and was it really true that the Chancellor’s cap had a lead weight in it, specifically designed to deal with miscreant students one last time?. Luckily neither materialised, but I was also not selected for Gryffindor nor was I invited to try out at Breakbills.

In preparing this speech, I tried to remember what I would have liked to have heard when I graduated, brevity being the major part of it, so I will be brief

Anyway who wants to listen to a boring speech when there is celebrating to be done? 

So what has happened since my graduation day? It is scary to look back and find a quarter of a century has passed, but in that time I have ridden a camel in the Sudan, worked on the deepest mine in the world, driven in a tank across the steppes of Russia, tracked gorillas in Uganda, travelled to more countries that I would have ever dreamed possible and met and married my true love and life partner…

As you leave Wits and start work, you will soon wonder; if you haven’t already, how do I “succeed” in my job and life and what is “success”?

You may try what I did and research the question, the problem is there are many answers and very few easy solutions.

People will tell you:

  • be yourself 
  • have a plan 
  • have a plan with targets and measurable goals
  • do what you enjoy
  • do what scares you
  • or even, just do it and let life happen

None of which I have I found to be particularly helpful, even worse was when I tried to define “success”. Was it

  • being published in Nature (the front cover naturally)  
  • solving the remaining Millennium Prize Problems
  • winning the Nobel prize, and out hawking Hawking
  • getting the promotion, BMW and highest salary in the company
  • or was it just finding peace and contentment and being me?

There are, I am afraid, no easy answers to these questions, as there is no one else like you, with your dreams, hopes, desires, aspirations and fears, so only you can decide the path that you will take and how you will react when life throws you a curved ball.

As Victor Frankel said “The last of human freedoms is the ability to choose one's attitude in a given set of circumstances”.

You can choose how you react and what you do when things go right or wrong.

Good friends and mentors can assist you and guide you as you enter the workplace, for you will soon discover the rules have changed, no one tells you what they are, who marks you and what the pass mark is.

The only guarantee you do have, is that life will happen and that it can be tough.

Ophra, who has overcome massive failure in her life, said” It doesn't matter how far you might rise. At some point, you are bound to stumble. If you're constantly pushing yourself higher and higher, the law of averages predicts that you will at some point fall. And when you do, I want you to remember this: There is no such thing as failure. Failure is just life trying to move us in another direction”.

When you leave today, you will enter a world struggling to cope with the impact of forces never before seen: mass automation, the effects of the 4th Industrial Revolution, AI and the circular economy, green technology, Anthropogenic Change and an ever expanding, population, hungry for resources. 

All of these forces impacting the way that we work, the space we work in and the career choices that will be available to you.

I have found that as my cheese moves and my icecap melts, the following basic principles win out in the long run:

  • Be curious about everything and keep learning
  • Be disciplined, persevere and endure
  • Be consistent
  • Be honest with yourself and those around you
  • Be compassionate
  • Be humble
  • Be kind

But mostly:

  • Work hard, no one likes a freeloader
  • Look after family and loved ones, they are more important than any title or achievement you may get, cherish them, as they will still be there for you after the company has found you superfluous to current operational requirements and discarded you for that new, bright, shiny graduate. 

But where to from here as a graduate?  Is it just all about me, or should you not be considering your place in society as a whole?

Depending on the statistics and sources you access, it is estimated that approximately 6% of all South Africans graduate from university, compare this to America where over 80% of the population have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree… we are indeed the privileged, regardless of skin, colour, race or creed. .

It is also worthwhile to remember, that the World Economic Forum currently ranks South Africa 134 out of 138 countries in terms of competitiveness, regardless of the fact that we spend more money on education, as a proportion of government spend, than the UK or the USA, but we have a society that is more unequal than Brazil or India.

The question becomes, what you will do with the privilege that you have been given?
Will you be the graduate that fights for the right to drive a BMW or will you be the one that will reach out and help your fellow man, wherever you may end up after graduation?

You are the future and you will help shape and create someone else’s tomorrow. 
Be wise with the choices you make.

In conclusion, Graduating Class of 2018, congratulations on your success, we are all proud of you. Good luck and God speed.

About Mark Burnett

A Wits alumnus, Burnett graduated from the University of the Witwatersrand in 1992 with a Bachelor of Science Honours degree in geology. He worked as a geologist on various Witwatersrand gold mines for 12 years and was appointed as the New Technical Business Manager for Harmony Gold in 2004. 

He wanted to expand his horizons beyond gold, and in 20017, Burnett joined Snowden Mining Industry Consultants, where he currently serves as a Principal Consultant and a Divisional Manager for Applied Geosciences. 

Burnett holds a Master’s Degree in Mineral Resource Management from the University of the Free State as well as a number of postgraduate certificates and diplomas from local and international institutions including a postgraduate Diploma in Terrain Evaluation from the University of the North West; a Certificate in Business Management from the Herriot Watt University in the UK; a Citation in Applied Geostatistics from the University of Alberta in Canada and a Graduate Certificate in Geostatistics from the Edith Cowan University in Australia. 

As part of his commitment to skills transfer and the development of young professionals, Burnett participates as an active mentor through the South African Institute of Mining Management and the Society of Exploration Geophysicists. He has recently become a mentor in the Bridge the Gap programme, a mentoring initiative specific to the School of Geosciences, based at Wits University.