Guest Column

Lessons from '76 for SA's young leaders

2018-06-15 11:46
A student holds a banner aloft during the march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria yesterday.

A student holds a banner aloft during the march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria yesterday. (Theana Breugem)

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Alessandro Napoli 

Duplicitous, cunning, narcissistic and manipulative. These are just a few of the traits used to describe many contemporary leaders. Such characteristics may not be apparent immediately but will be noticed at some stage. 

Writing during the Renaissance period, the Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli considered these the true traits of a successful leader who will gain and retain power. It's therefore not surprising that some leaders have drawn on Machiavelli's work as they command fear to gain the respect of their peers and followers alike. 

The problem with such leadership, though, is that it creates an environment of fear, a detachment from our fellow human beings, and serves as a breeding ground for greed. Using others as a means to an end cannot be sustained, for they too will apply the same method to another person. It becomes a vicious cycle. 

We've seen how this environment has been portrayed in popular television shows such as Game of Thrones and House of Cards where leaders personify Machiavellianism so that viewers can see and understand what it means. Although it may seem dramatic, exciting and appealing to many, such leadership environments are unsustainable. Leaders begin to focus on how they will retain their position of power rather than recognising their position of privilege and responsibility. They become selfish, over-ambitious and self-absorbed.

There is a loss of love for fellow humans; a loss of sacrifice of one for the sake of many. In such circumstances, it becomes important to create a new environment to fulfil the true role of leadership; to guide and enable others to achieve the best that they can. This environment will demand sacrifice so that others may gain. It will require a sacrifice of greed, of selfishness and of ignorance. This new environment will require time, selflessness, compassion and collaboration. 

Thus, to enable this new environment, the Machiavellian traits need to be replaced with new ones such as trustworthiness, consistency and wisdom. If a leader can bring the best out of followers or supporters, rather than manipulate them and use them, they will in all likelihood treat other people in the same way. 

It was an environment of fear, cunning and manipulation created by the apartheid government that the youth of 1976 challenged. Their rejection of discriminatory policies culminated in the uprising on 16 June 1976. The courage of these young men and women caught the attention of the world as they stood firm against the tyranny of apartheid. They fought for a new type of leadership that would make it possible for young South Africans to work together in a constructive way to bring about change. 

The youth of 1976 didn't show any fear and refused to be manipulated by those around them. They had a shared vision and determination to work together for a common goal. By taking the lead, those courageous young South Africans had shown the world that when people collaborate and show compassion they can achieve greater things than any other form of leadership. There was not one voice seeking attention for itself, but rather a collective voice seeking a better future for all. 

A few decades later we have seen similar leadership come to the fore when students came together in support for one another during the Fees Must Fall movement. It was a time when a shared voice and a common goal managed to bring about positive change for the greater good. Even though, at times, some individuals wished to stand out from the rest and make their mark, the collective voice managed to continue on the path of achievement. Once again narcissism and cunning actions were overcome by compassion and collaboration.

As we mark Youth Day on 16 June, South Africa's young emerging leaders should ask themselves what it is that they want to achieve and whether their goals are justifiable and realistic. They should also reflect on the type of leaders they want to become and the legacy they would like to leave for the next generation of young people. 

- Alessandro Napoli is a Master's student in Political Science at Stellenbosch University.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    youth day  |  leadership  |  1976
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