Trevor Manuel: Do something that will make a difference

Societies progress by constant transition and normal transitions are effectively intergenerational handovers. The worst situation is that of war, which disrupts transition. South Africa is not at war, so we have to focus on facilitating the development of new leadership cadres. But how does this happen? To whom? And what are the determinants of readiness?

We are a nation of the young. Our demographics confirm this. The National Development Plan outlines this. A large number of South Africans are between the ages of 15 and 29. Although the country has not reached the 30% mark, viewed as the dangerous “youth bulge” in developing economies, this cohort will make up more than a quarter of the total population until 2030. From 29% of the total population in 2010, the percentage of youth will decline slowly to 25% in 2030. A “youth bulge” has the potential to destabilise countries, especially where there is rampant unemployment.

Our present demographic profile presents a tremendous opportunity, but it also constitutes a serious risk, given that joblessness mirrors age and race fault lines.

Young black people account for two-thirds of the unemployed below the age of 35. Unemployment rates are highest in the 15- to 24-year-old group (46.6% in 2008) and second highest among 25- to 34-year-olds (26.2%). For black youth, the unemployment rate is 65%. If a young person fails to get a job by the age of 24, they are unlikely ever to get formal employment. Unresolved, this trend poses the single greatest risk to social stability.

I believe it is imperative that young people are represented properly. In other words, a political handover to sensible young people is not only advisable, but also necessary.

In South Africa, much of the political “heavy lifting” has already been done. We had to organise ourselves against apartheid – risking life and limb – and we succeeded. We are still standing to tell those tales. We had to convene elections with great intensity because our first crop of representatives would be the crafters of our Constitution.

I want to invite you to read the Constitution and confirm that the intergenerational mix led by Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa succeeded brilliantly. The first generation of parliamentarians had to draft and adopt new legislation to replace apartheid laws. The task is ongoing, but let the record speak for itself.

Political changes
I operate in the world of politics, where logic does not always reign supreme. Elected leaders hate to hand over authority. Consider the political changes around the world in, say, the past year. The Greek elections were convened after a failure to produce a majority, even by combining the three largest parties. Consider the election battle between Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande in France; take a trip to Russia and examine the musical chairs played by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

Then travel to Australia to understand the infighting between Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, in the Labor Party. Be horrified by the stories from Syria, where Bashar al-Assad’s government has unleashed a cruel military against its people. Ask why an awful war is raging between Sudan and its not-quite-one-year-old neighbour, South Sudan. Then flip across to Mali in West Africa to try to understand the military coup.

And then agree with me that logic is not an attribute available in large measure in politics. I would also like you to agree with me that those who fill the employment square on forms with the word “politician” have done nothing to inspire the next generation to consider political office. Yet, in politics, as in life, there has to be a handover. And, as with all hand-overs, the more orderly the better.

My first question to you is whether you are ready. I am not speaking of storming the Bastille. South Africa needs a generational mix of people in leadership. I am seen as a campaigner for generational mix, so let me add a caveat: age cannot be the only criterion. Leadership has to be about values, respect, discipline, persuasion and a series of softer attributes. The worst leaders are those who lack the maturity to understand that the desire for power is unlikely to render you a competent leader and that power is a force to be managed with utmost care and respect.

The work in the National Planning Commission that I have been privileged to lead has been the most fascinating journey. The commission has 25 of its 26 members drawn from outside government. It has a powerful mandate to describe the South Africa we need by 2030 and to take a hard, critical view of where we are and what impedes our journey towards that future.

Out of play
Collectively, we have declared that, by 2030, our generation will be out of play – either to the next life or to the rocking chair – and your generation will be the decision-makers. Be it in politics, institutions of higher learning, corporations, or just in life, we acknowledge that you will be the decision-makers.

So, in Youth Month, let me declare this strategic objective. We have looked towards 2030 and implementation must start now to get to that place described in the commission’s vision: “Now, in 2030, we live in a country which we have remade. We have created a home where everybody feels free yet bonded to others; where everyone embraces their full potential. We are proud to be a community that cares.

“We have received the mixed legacy of inequality in opportunity and in where we have lived, but we have agreed to change our narrative of conquest, oppression, resistance and victory.

“We began to tell a new story of life in a developing democracy. We began to share freedom and the uncertain.”

To get to this vision, we have to believe ourselves capable of creating a new story, not some distant future fiction. The hard work has to start now.


So, how ready are you? Readiness should never be confused with appetite for a lifestyle. The readiness I refer to is the boring stuff of hard work and intense learning. I am not asking you to travel the same route our generation did – and, yes, I am part of the 1976 generation. My generation took risks that hopefully you will not have to take. I, for example, joined the ANC at the age of 23, with the objective of being a guerrilla.

I did not join the movement to become a minister. Political power was not even on the horizon yet. I knew I would probably be arrested and tortured – and that proved correct. So the intention could never have been to realise the lifestyle I now enjoy.

I am not asking you to face prison and torture – the bulk of you are already too “larney” to fit that in between your next facial and gym session! I am asking something different. I am asking you to be prepared to learn. And when you ask what, I will reply with the words of the poet Bertolt Brecht:

Study from bottom up,
for you who will take the leadership,
it is not too late!
Study the ABC;
it is not enough,
but study it!
Do not become discouraged, begin!
You must know everything!
You must prepare to take command, now!
Study, man in exile!
Study, man in the prison!
Study, wife in your kitchen!
Study, old-age pensioner!
You must prepare to take command now!
Locate yourself a school, homeless folk!
Go search some knowledge, you who freeze!
You who starve, reach for a book: it will be a weapon.
You must prepare to take command now.
Don’t be afraid to question, comrades!
Never believe in faith. See for yourself!
What you yourself don’t learn you don’t know.
Question the reckoning – you yourself must pay it
Set down your finger on each small item, asking: where do you get this?
You must prepare to take command now!

I am also asking you to work hard at what you do, not only in your immediate occupation but in the service of others. Service is not about income; it is about placing your skills, knowledge, time and other attributes at the disposal of others and in their interest. Some of you may earn lots of money. The easiest thing is to write a cheque for some cause, but that is not service. Societies develop and sustain momentum because of service.

I said earlier that in the realm I work in, politics, the amount of logic available is frequently deficient. Yet we have in this country a leader who voluntarily set the terms for his occupation of the seat of highest authority – Nelson Mandela.

Madiba is horrified by the notion that some people have that he is a saint. As an active leader, he was tough, wily and determined, but he possessed both the foresight and the charm to persuade people of what was in their interest.

As part of your preparations, as part of your acquisition of values, as part of changing your own lives in order to change this country, you have an amazing opportunity in July. No, not just on July 18 in celebration of Madiba’s 94th birthday, but every single day. Do something that will make a difference. You will soon understand the joys of being in service of others.

That is how you cut your teeth for leadership. That is how and where you will learn. That is the measure of the accolade that the Mail & Guardian bestows on you today as a great young South African. Be worthy of the accolade.

Trevor Manuel is minister in the presidency, responsible for the National Planning Commission. This is an edited version of his speech

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