Watching powerful individuals erode the dream of promise and a better life for all in South Africa, it is natural to fall back and review whether this could have been predicted. Simultaneously, as a young person, I wonder what I would have done had I been of age or relevance during the transitory years in South Africa, between 1990 and 1996. In wondering about different scenarios for the country or region, in fairness, I try place myself in the shoes of negotiators and past leaders. However, realising that South Africa is amidst a vast series of newly unique transitions resolves the need to wrestle with the past. This idea turns past-tense questions into the present tense: I should be asking how best to act or respond right now. Indeed, this is the question I think everyone should be asking.
This question affirms that the present is the most important reality when building a new future – a present focus rationalizes efforts. Poverty, racism, and xenophobia and low-wages, for example, are in the present tense. Arbitrary references to the past obfuscate matters to the bereft of any current solution. We can import the logic of activism, but personality cult is unhelpful. Consistently invoking the same group of past leaders to generate a rationale is arbitrary, because conditions are different. Public exchanges between young and older activists highlight a vast confusion that arises when different generations clash. Younger people invoke betrayal of the success and legacy of a few household names, while older people, some of them household names, defend the status quo by arguing that the unjust ills of the past are still present. There are exceptions, but for the most part neither offers anything new, the should-be-obvious consensus is obfuscated and paralysis continues.
Anton Lembede, an architect of the ANC Youth League, said in the 1940’s what is equally cogent in the present context, “It is incontrovertible and unchallengeable fact that the leaders of tomorrow will be recruited from the youth of today. No man outside the lunatic asylum can shamelessly maintain that present leaders are immortal.” This is an example of past logic we can import and apply today. A leadership vacuum either absolves itself or is absolved by crisis. And, with tremendous regret, real crisis appears a likely reality in democratic South Africa.
The most effective strategy in the meantime is for young people to take responsibility, educate themselves as previous generations did, associate their various activities and create a connected thread of civil power to counteract the crisis of vacuous irresponsibility that we seem to have inherited. To not utilise the power of democracy is to waste valuable opportunity at the disposal of the citizen. Millions of individual acts of positive reform, or better yet thousands of connected organisations, can combine to tip the scale of national advancement back to the center. Millions of spoilt ballots, for instance, can send a signal and rebel against the current menu of divisive mediocrity and corruption – or better yet, creating a new national youth movement for democratic change can create entirely novel prospects for change.
The focus should be the big picture and how our different activities symbiotically come together to create a fabric of coherent advancement. If leaders won’t take responsibility, citizens and residents – especially young people – have to safeguard their own future and that of future generations. South Africa is in the “second transition”, transformation towards and security of multi-party and non-racial ideals is a present concern and, as in the case of negotiations in the early 1990’s, the need for a momentum of national unity has returned. The rejuvenation of South Africa’s role in the African Renaissance and the restoration of trust in dreams of a better life for all will result naturally from an era of responsible action, accountability and evolutionary big-picture thinking. The second new South Africa is here and along with it the time for young people to take responsibility and negotiate their own future.