Fix the picture we don't want

2017-10-29 05:55
Academics protest on the steps of Wits University in support of the students who embarked on last year’s #FeesMustFall campaign. Picture: Leon Sadiki

Academics protest on the steps of Wits University in support of the students who embarked on last year’s #FeesMustFall campaign. Picture: Leon Sadiki

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By joining with young South Africans who are striving for better leadership, we can build on our constitutional promise, writes Thuli Madonsela. 

The belief that leaders should be dealers in hope is a universally acknowledged principle. It is generally accepted that the leader of a collective must rally the group behind a shared dream, while inspiring hope that the dream is attainable and having faith in the collective’s ability to achieve it.

This is not surprising. It is the invincibility of hope that keeps us going, particularly when the odds seem stacked against us. Hope anchors our faith in the attainability of a future we love.

The requirement for leaders to inspire hope is particularly relevant at a time when South Africa needs dollops of hope as it battles a weak economy, a struggling tax base, extreme poverty, obscene inequality and related social justice challenges.

Add to these low investor confidence and public governance challenges that include resources being wasted, particularly by state-owned enterprises, along with endemic corruption and growing impunity for the powerful and politically connected.

You will agree with me that our country is increasingly gripped by hopelessness and a sense of powerlessness among sections of the community. Given that violence is the language of the disempowered, the situation does not bode well for a stable democracy and sustainable development.

We frequently hear remarks that the problem behind our troubled times is a lack of leadership. Incidentally, similar remarks have become familiar in conversations about global leadership, particularly in the face of extreme poverty, inequality and global peace challenges.

I attended the One Young World Conference in Bogotá, Colombia, a few weeks ago, and my message to attendees was that our countries and the world do not lack leadership. There is an abundance of leadership.

I said the same during my address to our young leaders at Michaelhouse boys’ school in KwaZulu-Natal, as well as to business leaders in Cape Town, Windhoek and Johannesburg. I also said as much in my address at the Kgosi Edward Patrick Lebone Molotlegi Annual Memorial Lecture at Royal Bafokeng in the North West last Saturday.

I maintain, as I have asserted in my addresses, that the leaders we yearn for are among us. With less complaining and more action taken to change our circumstances, we can change the course of history and reclaim the constitutional promise in all its glory.

In the process, we can inspire confidence and hope as the iconic Nelson Mandela did after the death of Chris Hani, and the peerless Oliver Tambo did throughout the challenges of leading an exiled political movement.

It is my considered view that any difficulties we face regarding leadership in our societies, in our country and in the world, are not because of a lack of leadership, but a consequence of wrong leadership.

Influencing behaviour and change

My simple premise is that leadership is the art of influencing behaviour and change. If we agree on this simple definition of leadership, we must accept that there are people influencing behaviour and change, but doing so in a manner that is leading society and the world astray.

To be fair, many among us are already transcending victimhood and taking steps to influence behaviour and change to bring about the society they want to live in.

Young people, particularly millennials, are at the forefront of taking concrete steps to move the needle in pursuit of the world they yearn for. In most cases, this entails a better world that optimises social justice, characterised by fair life chances for all.

One Young World offers a home for these millennial leaders, who believe in lifting others as you rise. They do not subscribe to the old paradigm of learning, earning and then giving. They pursue all three simultaneously. Some of the do-gooders are barely out of their teens, with some even as young as 15.

The South African delegation to Bogotá was rich in talent as far as world changers go. These people believe a better world lies in the hands of those who believe in it and are prepared to work in collaboration with others to establish it. Amazingly, these leaders are committed to ethics, have a sense of purpose and are committed to service.

Among them was Shivad Singh, who believes that with the right mind-set, anyone can be a genius and anyone can do mathematics. He runs a programme that proves his theory. It has seen many young people matriculate with flying colours and excellent mathematics results – despite having been told they were not good enough or could not do maths.

His bridge-building strategy is similar to that of Ahmed Nasser from Egypt, a young leader I had the fortune of introducing to the world in Bogotá.

Nasser co-founded the Meca Academy with fellow university students to bridge the gap between industry requirements and the state of readiness for employment with regard to graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The programme has accelerated the absorption of graduates into employment by exposing them to knowledge and experiences that make them ready for work.

Most of the young people participating in the Bogotá conference were involved in some social enterprise or movement that seeks to expand the frontiers of meaningful freedom for all in pursuit of the world they yearn for. Even the driver who collected me from the airport, 22-year-old Daniel Ortiz, was involved in ensuring fair play for coffee growers while running his coffee machine supply business on a part-time basis.

Another shining star in the South African delegation was 15-year-old Wandile Zuma, who motivates fellow teenagers born into poverty like himself to dream big and follow their dreams. He tells them that they have the power to transcend the circumstances of their birth and that being born disadvantaged need not define your destiny.

If the young people are leading admirably, why then do I sense a growing helplessness? It seems to me that the most frustrating thing is what appears to be growing impunity among the powerful, involved in white-collar crimes such as corruption. It is justice, above all, that people are crying for.

What I have learnt, though, is that, as much as these millennials are happy to roll up their sleeves and fix the problems they can in pursuit of the world they yearn for, they have zero tolerance for bad leadership.

As we saw in struggles such as #FeesMustFall, young leaders also cannot stand injustice.

But the reality is that not all people, particularly young people, feel empowered with adequate agency to articulate their concerns and thoughts on the best way they should be governed. In such cases, violence becomes the language of the disempowered, and that is a threat to stable democracy and peaceful coexistence.

What can peace-loving patriots, who believe in the constitutional promise, do to help move the needle? Perhaps it is time we did less complaining and more leading. Let us join the young ones in changing the picture we do not want. Let us be the dealers of hope we yearn for. It is time to lead.

Madonsela is founder and chief patron of Thuma Foundation, a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow and the former Public Protector

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