Youth are leaders of today, not just tomorrow

Keynote address by Joel Netshitenzhe executive director of the Mapungubwe Institute (Mistra), at the 200 Young South Africans You Must Take to Lunch gathering on June 8 2010

I should take this opportunity to congratulate the Mail & Guardian for a welcome initiative, in a systematic and creative manner, to raise the public prominence of what should, in any country, be the pride of a nation. By profiling young talent on an annual basis in this manner, [the] Mail & Guardian not only reminds us of the talent that our nation possesses; but it also affirms the enduring conviction that South Africa is bound to achieve even greater things.

Xstrata, similarly, should be commended for partnering [the] Mail and Guardian in investing in the future.

As to why I deserve this honour to have “brunch” with you — when others would break the bank to take you out to lunch — I leave to [the] Mail & Guardian and Xstrata to explain.

When the invitation first hit my screen, I naturally had to ask myself, who are these Young South Africans and — wet behind the ears as they should be — what is it that I can teach them about life! I then took the trouble to page through previous editions of Mail & Guardian. Lo and behold, it emerged that most of you have, in barely three decades of your lives, achieved more than what I can hope to attain in a lifetime.

And so, I have stepped off my pedestal and come rather to seek advice.

The central question that I will pose in this discussion is: what should be done to ensure that young South Africans in general break free of the psychology of marginalisation?

As you may not expect, I do not have answers to this question; and attached to it, I will pose a few riddles that you must help unlock for all South Africans. These issues arose in my mind because I noticed that we tend to refer to young talent in years gone by simply as “great figures”; and yet when it comes to such talent in the present, the qualification, “great young South Africans” comes into play.

It then struck me, casting one’s mind to the past, that:

  • John Langalibalele Dube, who became the first president of the ANC at the age of 41, had already attained laudable achievements such as setting up the legendary Ohlange High School at 30;
  • Sol Plaatjie became the first secretary general of the ANC at 35 and already in his 20s, he was a renowned writer and editor; and
  • by the time Charlotte Maxeke led the anti-pass campaign in 1913 at 39 years of age, she had emerged as South Africa’s first woman BSc graduate, as an organiser of the Women’s Mite Missionary Society and established a training college in Evaton.

To these South African geniuses of social organisation, we can add the feats, for instance, of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who, when he died in 1791 at 35 had become, arguably, one of the greatest musicians of all time; or Phillip Tabane of Malombo fame who started making an impression in South African jazz as barely a teenager … Or Steve “Kalamazoo” Mokone who, at 17 made football history as the first black player to play in a professional European league; or our current captain, Aaron Mokoena who debuted in Bafana Bafana at 18 and became captain at 23 years of age. We can add Dr Chris Barnard who at 32 had acquired his doctorate in medicine and set out to start experiments that led to the first human heart transplant … or even Isaac Newton and his work on mathematical calculus at 23, who was described by one senior expert at Cambridge Trinity College then as “a fellow of our College, and very young … but of an extraordinary genius and proficiency in these things”.

And how about Fidel Castro and Che Guevarra, for their exploits in their twenties in liberating Cuba; Karl Marx who by the age of 30, together with Friedrich Engels, had written many books on human development and social organisation, including the Communist Manifesto; or Moses Kotane who became general secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa at 34 years of age!

It is not so much the ideology or the detailed pursuits of these luminaries that matters, but our marvel at the relative youth at which they made an indelible mark — at domestic and international levels — variously on our history, the history of their countries and on human civilisation. Critically, most of them persisted in excellence long after their first achievements

And so, the condescension that we of greyer hair and emptier scalps tend to evince towards you is as much artificial as it is pretentious. It is an ageism that can be a convenient tool of social control — some rule that there are the deserving — to whom it is decreed by sheer dint of age that they should lead. What we do not realise though is that this has its corollary: treat mature youth like children and they will behave as such! They will say anything and do anything, proceeding from the perspective that someone else will clean up after them.

In my view, a critical first step in ridding our society of the scourge of what has been referred to as “youth marginalisation” is that society should disabuse itself of the psychology of ageism.

Without this, we deprive the nation of that explosive blend of youth and ability that makes works of genius possible. Similarly, young people in our society should liberate themselves from this mindset. Without this, you deprive yourselves of the opportunity of responsibility, of taking the cudgels as responsible frontline adventurers in the advancement of the human condition.

It is in this context that I take this opportunity to congratulate you, for your successes and/or prominence in sport, science, business, politics, information technology, media and other fields. Your exploits should be a harbinger of greater things to come, the beginning of journeys at the end of which you will be able to say: I gave the best that my faculties could muster, and left a trail that will lead to a better South Africa, a better Africa and a better world!

There is no doubt in my mind — and to this I can add empirical evidence — that running like golden thread in the making of real and enduring excellence is education: both academic and the ability to draw critical lessons from the hard knocks of the university of life. Research on income dynamics and social mobility points clearly to the truism, for instance, that levels of household income, creativity and endurance in entrepreneurship, and the possibility to break the gender glass ceiling, all depend critically on the level of education that individuals have acquired.

Annually, the media and society at large become fascinated with matric results, and quite correctly they also focus on the achievements of schools such as Mbilwi and Ivory Park Secondary Schools that are able to excel despite the odds. But we fail to track, for instance, the life trajectories of the students from such schools who burn the midnight oil to attain good passes: that is, their progression through university and in the world of work, and how this changes the social condition of their families. In as much as we should celebrate extraordinary excellence, we should also pay attention to achievements which are made the more significant by the qualitative impact that they make on families and communities.

In this regard, my message is as simple as it is obvious and quite correctly overstated: education, this great liberator and great leveller, deserves our undivided attention as a nation.

Beyond the formal knowledge and possible social returns that attach to education, is the observation, perhaps somewhat exaggerated, by Friedrich Hegel in his Philosophy of Right, that “[e]ducation is the art of making men ethical … [H]abit is part of ethical life as it is of philosophic thought also, since such thought demands that mind be trained against capricious fancies, and that these be destroyed and overcome to leave the way clear for rational thinking”. To the extent that Hegel’s notion of education can be broadened to include the various centres of imparting knowledge in the broader sense — including the family, the community and society at large — there is something quite instructive in his reasoning.

Let me preface the other riddles that I wish to cite, for further reflection, by indicating that we are in the process, with a few colleagues, of setting up a research institute, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra). We do hope that, working with young researchers, we will start the process of intense reflection on some of these questions.

The first among the riddles that you should apply your minds to is the fate of civilisations. Why is it that the Mapungubwe civilisation graced our shores and yet disappeared into oblivion, only to be “discovered” by accident? Why is it that the ynasties of the Han rose and fell, and yet rise again today like a phoenix from the ashes? And are there lessons that we can derive from this about the reasons behind success and failure, as we seek to build the civilisation of national democracy?

The second riddle pertains to the conduct of politics in the current age in our country, especially at local government level. How do we interpret the imperatives of intra-party and wider democracy and their relationship to poverty: the fact that this can present an opportunity for genuine people-driven development; but also, on the other hand, the reality that poverty can generate the kind of political conduct that destabilises communities and even development projects, as streetwise local politicians seek to displace one another in pursuit of personal advancement!

The third riddle pertains to finding a growth path that is premised on the improvement of people’s quality of life. Where are the young economists who, instead of debating their ideological likes and dislikes about macroeconomics, can unlock the interrelationships among the exchange rate of the currency, inflation, levels of investment, interest rates and savings; and the appropriate balances that we should pursue under different conditions, to move to a higher trajectory of growth?

Today, youth unemployment stands at about double the rate of unemployment across society. Many young people have never known the pain, the joy and the responsibility of earning an income. Close on three-quarters of the unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 34. This, we all know, is at the root of many of our social maladies, including crime and the rate of HIV infection; and it is clearly unsustainable. What are the interventions required decisively to deal with this social and economic challenge; and how do we navigate the self-interest of organised labour which opposes proposals such as an employment subsidy?

The fourth riddle, related to the third, is about the pursuit of common purpose among South Africans. We all have a broad common idea about where we want our country to be, as elaborated in those lofty words in our Constitution. Leaders in all sectors, I presume, know that the national democratic society that we seek to create would redound to the benefit of all. I also presume that they do know that to attain those ideals will require hard work and sacrifice.

Yet how do we deal with an approach to social dialogue in our country which is premised on each sector demanding its pound of flesh, without regard to the hard choices that have to be made in different phases of our development trajectory?

How do we narrow the divide between the gilded mansions and the craggy shacks — in terms of income, access to health, education and other opportunities; and the asset base?

All of us, including the young South Africans that everyone would like to take to lunch, are keenly aware that our nation cannot sustain the levels of inequality obtaining in our society. But in our race to the top, we tend to avert our eyes when confronted with the reality of abject poverty, preoccupied as we are with competition among ourselves in the stakes of conspicuous consumption.

This brings us to the fifth South African riddle: the issue of race, and how racism is compounded by corruption both in the public and private sectors. In this regard, I wish to reiterate an observation made at a seminar on non-racialism organised by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation a few months ago. This is that hindering the building of non-racialism is, for instance, the conduct of BEE frontmen and women. For, in the mind of those dishing out the largesse is the thought, ‘”f I can buy him or her, s/he should be of a lower order as a human being”. Thus the community and the race to which such front people belong become the butt of jokes in bars, and at dinner tables and golf courses.

Inversely, this also becomes a convenient excuse on the part of some in the white community from dealing with the obligations of the 1994 settlement. The warped rationalisation that takes root is: let’s critique from the sidelines; let’s exaggerate the weaknesses; we can’t make common cause with “them”; we can’t sacrifice for the common good because “they” are corrupt.

This attitude, and the radical rhetoric used by some black leaders to mask greed and ostentation, feed into one another: white spiritual emigration and a pretentious African nationalism of convenient victimhood are two sides of the same coin.

The last riddle pertains to the confidence of our nation to do good things to better our condition and contribute to the endeavours of humanity simply because we can — not in order to solicit praise from anyone. This has been referred to in some discourse as the “catwalk syndrome”. And so in our communication, when we upgrade our infrastructure to meet our economic and social needs; and when we prepare for what should be one of the most successful Fifa World Cup tournaments ever; it is not simply because we can do it in line with our commitments to the football family and to our own society. Rather it is “to show the world” that South Africa is also capable of doing good things. What is it in our psyche that feeds this “also-ran” attitude to life — and how do we liberate ourselves from it? For, when other nations sense that we crave their approval for everything we do, they will naturally exercise their right to extend such approval and to withhold it when it suits them rather than us.

I should also make the observation, in relation to football, that enduring success depends on systematic planning and application. The national team coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, put it succinctly when he said: “The World Cup will leave a legacy for this country that is unique … You’re going to have the best stadiums … But we are still lacking in grassroots [organisation] and hopefully all the money from the World Cup can be used to help develop young players. Without this, we’re not going to catch up with the big powers in Africa”. (The Citizen, June 6 2010)

Our team does hold out the promise to do well in the 2010 Fifa World Cup tournament. But Parreira is warning us now that this should not be a flash-in-the-pan occurrence. I’m quite certain that similar sentiments were expressed after the 1996 African Cup of Nations victory. Yet little was done to build the structures and systems required for ongoing success. Why did the nation allow this to happen — and shall we allow the same farce to play itself out going forward?

These then are just a few of the issues that I believe should occupy the minds of young South Africans in the current environment. The answers to these and other questions should come from you. Otherwise, the successes that we celebrate today will be nothing more than an act of revelling in the extraordinariness of an ordinary existence. We will improve our individual condition of life. We will, in the midst of poverty and inequality, surround ourselves with walls and barbed wire. But we will forever live exasperated lives of insecurity. For, the wretched of the earth will breach these defences as they demand their place under the South African sun.

This becomes even more critical as the nation knuckles down to develop a common vision and strategic plan about where we should be in 15 to 20 years. That future belongs to you, more than anyone else. And we thus hope that the voice of the youth will be heard more forcefully than ever before, as we elaborate the trajectory towards a national democratic society in which you and your children will live.

And so, my message is a simple one. South Africa stands at the cusp of decision. Whether we tip in the direction of faster progress depends to a large measure on whether we unlock the talent of the nation’s youth. To achieve this, we need to harness that cocktail of youth and ability that makes works of genius possible.

It is in this context that I have come to seek your advice. And I do so, firmly in the conviction that you are South African leaders not just of tomorrow; but leaders of today in your own right!

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