Guest Column

Reflections of a young leader

2013-06-10 08:49

Over the past couple of months, I have been intimately involved in a project to understand the values and aspirations of South African youth.

Such a task was both exciting and daunting because it called for a level of introspection that I was not sure I was ready for.

Locating myself within the discourse, I was confronted with an image of myself that I recognised was not my true self. So many young people struggle with the challenge to see ourselves differently from our lived realities.

The struggle with unemployment, the challenge of articulating our values in a globalised world that informs and conforms our culture, the battle of ideas that goes on within higher education institutions and naturalises a capitalist ideology: all of this gives me, and others like me, a fractured mirror to reflect on who we are. We are given a jaded view of ourselves.

Last year, as the UCT-SRC undergraduate academic chair, I attended the New Hope summit hosted by the SRC of the University of the Cape Town. 

A raging debate consumed me. After seven months in office, I attempted to articulate my role as a young student leader in Africa and the contribution I could make.

Reflecting on this in a quiet space, I wrote: There is a sense of disillusion that I get when I question how real our impact as leaders really is. I guess we have some impact; if these institutions were left to their own devices the students would feel it.

Who would fight for excluded students? Who would provide the student view on teaching and learning? Who would argue for affordable fees? But is this all that my role comes down to: responses to bureaucratic concerns?

The impact of that kind of leader is short-lived. But a leader whose voice and knowledge carries beyond their own understanding, whose concerns are greater than their personal space; a leader on the ground, not cooped up in the office; a leader and student who is conscious and aware of their debt to society?

Such a leader should be able to make an impact in society.

I have realised that there is a distinction between short-term and long-term vision. Our youth leaders have learned how to plan for short-term goals and to strategise around their year in office in the same way the state has changed our economic policy countless times (RDP, GEAR, NGP and now NDP).

We unconsciously practise an inability to articulate the future of our nation and indeed our continent. As the youth, we have lost the ability to think and critique those in our communities who do not represent us with integrity. Why does this happen?

I come to the conclusion that neither the old nor the young really know what OUR hopes, aspirations and values should look like. The question really is: what kind of leaders are we? What hope do we carry into this summit, and into our future?

This was at the back of my mind this year as I pursued this project of learning from both the older generation and fellow students what generation X is all about. What I heard frightened me.

Overall, the message from the older generation is that our generation’s mandate is to unite our society, to be successful (often measured materially), to confront the challenges of building a democracy and new universities – but with no real advice on how to go about this.

They are just as perplexed as we are. A huge parenting or mentoring gap exists whereby the values and leadership of the older generation do little to inspire the youth to look towards the future.

On the other hand, the youth and youth leaders spoke of the challenges of poverty and unemployment.

Confronted with these problems, the youth have embraced the capitalist dream of pursuing material self-interest without a second thought for the future effects it will have on their communities.

The question of values and aspirations is far from the minds of most of our young people. Instead, the pressure to make money and to be successful cripples them.

If there is such a disjuncture between the two generations – a clear case of chaos, with no transfer of responsibilities - then what is the hope for the youth in Africa? I was left with greater confusion and a fear that the boiling pot would soon spill over.

Once again, I looked at myself in the mirror and a sense of emptiness and frustration came over me. But, while standing in this emptiness, I understood something very significant.

The exercise I had embarked on was not futile. Not only would it assist others to understand the challenges and opportunities of this generation, it allowed me to recognise that the answer to the challenges of our time is not "out there".

The answer is not what is reflected in the mirror of our current situation. The answer is me looking at the mirror, me confronting the image and choosing to look beyond it.

The answer is inside you and ahead of all of us. It is this generation becoming conscious of our realities and choosing to find solutions from within our experiences.

As young leaders, we must recognise that the frustration we feel needs to be there. It must be felt. But leaders do not stop at an emotional response to present reality.

We must go beyond that for the sake of those to follow us, for the sake of our society and the future of our children’s children. As leaders, we may join in and spearhead campaigns, but that response alone is far too short sighted.

Our role is to guide with our eye, to inspire the movement and keep it going with our thoughts.

Your role as a leader is to define the vision, but not stop there: yours is to articulate, instruct, teach and voice the character of the alternative reality you seek.

Yours is to speak long after the campaign is gone and say where the people should go next. And while I propose no answers yet, I have been awakened to a new understanding of what my role in society should now be.

I hope that in reading this issue you will also find yours.

*Fadzai Chitiyo is the guest co-editor of the NEW Agenda social and economic policy journal.

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