We Have More Than Enough Role Models

2015-01-24 22:05

Amid the disgusting turn of barbaric events in Soweto, where the looting from foreign-owned shops condemned the darling township of South Africa to an anarchic state, many people have come out to bemoan the lack of youth inspiration in our townships.

It’s reported that young Sowetans are at the centre of these “acts of criminality”.

They do these bad things because, among others, they lack positive role models. How can a person in Soweto, of all the places, not have role models when the township has offered so many talented and respected people to the world? Where and how exactly are these kids looking for potential role models?

The genesis of the Soweto ‘crisis’ is said to be a group of nyaope addicts who attempted to break into a local shop, got scared off with a gun, reported the presence of guns in the foreign-owned shop, agitated the community, and the rest is everywhere in the news. Allow me to add that I find it flabbergasting how a community could be mobilised into criminality or xenophobia (depending on your activist or propagandist position) against foreigners when such energies are desperately needed in the fight against nyaope in the same community. That's like defending a rapist who has had a knife pointed at him by one of his victims.

Anyway, I was saying there are many people, most of them adults, who'd want us to believe South Africa does not produce enough role models for young people. Many people posit that if there were many inspiring figures in the country and specifically our townships, problems of crime, drugs and teenage pregnancy could be avoided. This thesis is a regular self-absolution narrative adopted by delinquents when interrogated about their behaviour. It is also a favourite among parents who don’t want to admit they failed to instil values in their sons-turned-gangsters. We don’t have role models, they popularly say.

My antithesis, however, is that we have an abundance of role models in the country. There is always a good person doing something good everywhere. I think our problem as the youth is the criterion of inspiration that we subscribe to. Colluding with the often self-righteous media and religious institutions, we have fallen prey to the worshipping of some sort of imagined perfection, one which not even our parents have attained. We are reluctant to celebrate goodness, but hasten to publicise defects.

A generation that sensationalises weaknesses renders hope a mysterious and foreign concept.

We cannot know more about people’s mistakes than we do about their heroic contributions in their communities.

The expected levels of righteousness animatedly preached in churches, compounded by the preference of scandals over good stories in newsrooms, play a major role in young people’s understanding of inspirational human beings. We can tell you more about the failures of government than its life-changing programmes and policies.

We are wrong in this regard as the youth. If we can develop our own score sheet of inspiration, we will realise that we have been misleading ourselves all along by seconding the chorus of “we have no role models”, sung in a self-justifying, judgmental and responsibility-transferring way by both young criminals and adults, each for their own interests.

Most young people are not clear as to what exactly they are looking for in a role model, beyond and besides perfectionism. Personally and advancing this as a proposition, we must only look for those traits relevant to our current conditions and our destiny – in a person we must underline the things that are essential in our own journey to the future; everything else is noise. Instead of wanting to get a full inspirational package from only one person, we should compile qualities from different people, including our immediate families, whose profiles match our ambitions.

Fallibility and brokenness are defining features of the human race. We therefore cannot expect everything from a fallible, imperfect human being. It’s logical to have different role models, segregated according to particular phases and key areas in your life, so that you don't judge an entrepreneur on pastoral expectations.

Sexuality, politics, religion and ethnicity do not matter when it comes to choosing a role model. It is possible and reasonable to be a straight young man who is inspired greatly by a successful gay man. President Jacob Zuma is an inspiration to many rural kids, the very exemplar that it matters not where one was born. Whatever he chooses to do in government is not necessarily relevant in the context of the young village kid. What matters is that someone from his background has managed to make something out of his life, against all odds. The same applies to many other people whose examples might perhaps be less dramatic and less provocative.

For some reason, we tend to expect our ‘role models’ to possess qualities we are not even expecting from our future wives, qualities which our parents are not even promising to attain. Also, we have almost definitely assigned the responsibility and ability to inspire only to public figures/celebrities.

We overlook the neighbour who loves others as she does herself.

We don’t consider the business owner who invests his profits into local sport.

At each level, there are more than enough role models for everyone.

It’s always about what you are looking for and why, not how the other person chooses to love, how he feeds his spiritual needs, how he lives his life. If it’s ever about such factors, then indeed you’ll say there are no role models.

To busy ourselves with things that do not matter is to fail to recognise the things that really matter. We should not eliminate the good in people by illuminating the bad.

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