Empowerment needs connections

We often speak in blasé ways about broad-based empowerment. But how will it happen? David Harrison and Mnqobi Nyembe take us on a tour of a local project that creates opportunities for young people and has proved its empowerment stripes.

It’s about much more than pin-stripes and requires business and other leaders to open up social and economic connections between the world of plenty and the world of nothing. It may not win any deals of the year, but it is fundamental empowerment

Recent events have sparked calls for leaders who can make good on empty promises of service delivery. The simmering classes—who feel excluded from the benefits of the new South Africa—have erupted. The bewildered classes, on the other side of high brick walls, don’t quite get what the complaints and the calls for a return to the values of the struggle are about.

Local leadership, efficient service delivery and strong values just aren’t going to happen. Not without terrier-like initiatives to run ahead of the bulldogs of the state. Let us explain. The proctors of the new developmental state—designed to muscle out apartheid-style thinking—include BEE, the moral regeneration campaign and scorecards for corporate social responsibility.

Oxonians might refer to these custodians of national discipline as bulldogs. But what do we need now, now that the country has hit the skids?

The main difference between east-Asian economies and our own is that we live poles apart from one another. Too often, rich meets poor only through the tinted glass of an SUV at a street corner or at the end of a gun in a home invasion. Much of the post-apartheid focus centred on creating upward mobility; yet the drag effect of the masses at the bottom of the pile has stretched South African society even further apart. Social security has tempered the lower extreme. But, obviously, people are no longer willing to be paid off to keep the peace. Anyway, those most likely to explode—young men—don’t get grants.

When people feel excluded, they lose the capacity to aspire. Every day they hustle just to get by. Personal initiative is stifled under the unrelenting weight of trivial matters such as a R10 taxi fare. The public sector mirrors these features: third-class citizens get third-rate services, hustling takes the form of corruption and nepotism and overwhelmed public servants become increasingly bureaucratic and officious.

The risk we face in marshalling the developmental state is that it could ossify along existing fault lines. Economist Anirudh Krishna argues that innovation ignites when the divides separating rich and poor are breached. There’s new energy at the point of contact. In his view the trigger for real development is social connectivity—not just trickle-down opportunity. This argument might help explain some of the most intractable problems of our society, including crime and HIV: there is new opportunity, but most people feel disconnected from it.

For example, for women half the lifetime risk of HIV is crammed into just five years after leaving school. It’s not that they’re stupid or don’t get the message. In fact, condom use among women peaks at age 16 and learners at school are relatively protected from HIV infection. The trigger for high-risk behaviour is school-leaving as most enter a state of limbo without jobs or further education. They have a vague sense of opportunity in the long term but, without the immediate connections, many surrender to day-to-day pressures and social expectations.

One of the authors of this article speaks from personal experience. He was rejected by his dad, raised by his grandmother while his mom looked for work, and pressured to leave school after impregnating a girl. Excluded, stripped of pride and possibility, he wandered around until a chance connection with a loveLife groundbreaker. His story is typical of millions of young South Africans.

Call in the bulldogs—we need a better education system. But we must also respond immediately to the fact that more than half of school-leavers under 25 don’t have jobs and have little sense that tomorrow will be any better than today. We need to bite holes in the social fabric that intertwines, yet still insulates us from one another. Whistle for the terriers—an apt name which means “from the ground”.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of loveLife’s work is the emergence of a new leadership of young people in marginalised communities across South Africa, drawn “from the ground” and self-selected by their commitment to public service. A recent survey of its 7 500 groundbreaker graduates found that 40% followed up their year of service with post-matric studies, compared with 6% of their national counterparts. Sixty percent of them are now employed, while a further 20% are still studying full time. Among groundBREAKER alumni who are members of civic organisations, two-thirds hold local leadership positions.

They—and other enterprising products of youth service programmes—could make connections between the poles of South African society. They could be terriers. But even they hit the glass ceiling too quickly. What we now need is to link them to spheres of influence and develop their ability to solve problems. This time, though, the leadership must come “from the ground”.

Imagine a network of at least 5 000 young leaders, rooted in their local communities, connected through a mobile social network and trained to think differently and solve problems. They’d need socio-political education and some may become leaders in political parties. The starting point is not political power, but a mindset of social entrepreneurialism. Without it, calls for community leadership, strong values of equality and justice and better service delivery will go unheeded.

In connecting to opportunity, they could create precedents and pathways for others. A system of volunteer placements in companies would bridge the time between school-leaving and employment or further study. In just two to three years their innovativeness could be directed towards improving the efficiency of service delivery in local communities. There’s no guarantee that they won’t capture all benefits for themselves and ride the elevator up alone, but the combination of service- and opportunity-linked leadership would minimise this risk.

To work well, this terrier initiative would cost about R100-million a year; that’s R5-million each for 10 top companies if government matched their funding.

We have enough politicians. Now we need really committed local sparkies.

Mnqobi Nyembe is an ex-groundbreaker who recently founded the String of Influence Institute to create new connections for young people

David Harrison is CEO of loveLife

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