Democracy did not solve everything

2018-06-17 10:09
Hong Kong residents march in a downtown street during an annual pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. (Vincent Yu, AP)

Hong Kong residents march in a downtown street during an annual pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong. (Vincent Yu, AP)

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One of the prevailing anthems of the US civil rights movement – To be young, gifted and black – was written in 1969 by Nina Simone and Weldon Irvine. They were part of a formidable movement of black intelligentsia, protesting against racism and segregation, who harnessed their self-determination to influence the direction of US society.

To echo the innate force commanded by young people, South Africa also witnessed a concerted uprising by black youngsters in 1976. On two separate continents, black people actively rejected regimes that tried to tell them they were not good enough.

Being young is probably the most difficult life phase because of its foundational and formative nature. Considering the nature versus nurture debate, the former states that the disposition and future wellbeing of children is genetically determined, while the latter puts more weight on environmental factors. Recent research advocates that a combination of both in varying degrees creates the foundation of a child’s future.

Nevertheless, many stories about the triumph of the human spirit have shown how some children beat both genetic and environmental odds to reach self-actualisation. Despite their adverse circumstances, these high-achieving young people illustrate that it is not where you come from but where you are going that matters.

The so-called gifted children have the odds in their favour as their impressive talents often solicit support and sponsorship from those around them. To justify the resources invested in them, words such as ‘merit’ and ‘prodigy’ are associated with them. The adults around them believe that investment in them will ultimately yield dividends for society.

Where does that leave the average child in terms of IQ or aptitude? I have a somewhat philosophical view of the conundrum of the “gifted” versus the “average”. It is by no mistake that children are born with varying aptitudes and acumen. Each has a default disposition that is an essential ingredient to the matrix of life. My opinion is supported by one psychological theory I resonate with – the theory of multiple intelligence.

Personal development practitioners have made it their cause to spread the word that all individuals are gifted, albeit in various categories. To echo that sentiment, the eight intelligences as identified by Howard Gardner are musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, verbal-linguistic, logical-mathematical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic. Plus one more he recently recognised – existential and moral intelligence.

The idea behind specifying these talents is not to confine people to a particular category, but rather to help them find their place in the world. Many people have a collection of these talents, making them even more versatile. This theory serves to show that the general labelling of talent as being confined to IQ, academic disciplines or job specification is a disempowering approach that discriminates against the majority of any population.

Looking at a practical application of diverse forms of intelligence, one would realise that the world of work does in fact employ people across the intelligences or has gaps in the market for entrepreneurial products and services issuing from them. The challenge, however, is when people are doing or aspiring to do work that does not complement their inherent disposition.

In an ideal society, children would be taught to identify the thing that they do the best and love the most, get exposure to its life application, learn, cultivate and master it and then follow a career path related to it.

They would be encouraged to find the kind of job referred to by Mark Twain when he said: “Choose a job that you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”

The San Franciscan Silicon Valley model, built around those gifted in computers by way of their logical-mathematical abilities, is an outcomes-based system that employs youngsters and enables their contribution to the economy. There are innovation hubs in place, where venture capitalists facilitate technological breakthroughs by paying for living costs, resources, infrastructure, product development and trial runs for these young people.

However, if government’s intent is to channel youngsters exclusively towards the science, technology, engineering and commercial fields because they are considered to be essential for economic growth, then it is being set up for a figurative Bantu education system – the foreign language in this case not being Afrikaans, but rather the language of capitalism.

The Black Consciousness Movement, founded by young black intellectuals in the 1960s, viewed psychological emancipation as the precursor to physical transformation. After witnessing the effects of the soul-sucking parasite of apartheid, these young people reaffirmed their personal and collective identity and rebelled against what stifled their souls. The movement’s contribution to the 1976 Soweto uprisings was akin to the kindling required to start a fire.

Fast forward 42 years. We are faced with the uncomfortable truth that the democracy that was so hard fought for was not, in fact, a solve-all. Under such unfavourable conditions, can we equate anything as revolutionary as Black Consciousness by and for the youth? We can perhaps give the #FeesMustFall campaign an honorary mention. But have today’s young black people cultivated the kind of self-respect, pride and dignity that warrant deference from their white counterparts, endorsement from their elders, sponsorship from civil society, inspiration from one another and accountability from government?

To be young is already a social movement by category that has the power to influence national agendas. Add to that a proactive and prolific development of gifts, talents and skills that breed self-determination. Fuel it all with a Black Consciousness that Pan-African philosopher Molefi Asante has reframed into an ideology that is not based on race or colour. Its purpose, according to him, is “ … to express the most progressive political, cultural and ethical interests that, in a racist society … [are] for human liberation and thus against all forms of oppression”.


- Setlaelo is a writer, author and personal development speaker. Follow her on Twitter @sarahsetlaelo


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