Imagine a South Africa where two young men — one white and from a wealthy suburb, the other black and from a poor township — are asked to work together to address a pressing social concern.
They’re also encouraged to think creatively and innovatively, beyond the boxes in which they’ve been placed by our society. Now imagine that together, using their combined knowledge, skills and resources, they come up with an innovative plan to tackle crime in the townships by deploying a drone to map out crime hotspots. They then present those maps to the police as a resource for monitoring crime.
Farfetched? Idealistic? Naïve? Wishful thinking?
No. This is one of many true stories from a project, Activate! Change Drivers, in which we have worked and connected with more than 3 200 youths from around South Africa. What we have found is that there is not just capacity but also an insatiable appetite to tackle our country’s social and economic ills. These youths are also determined to rewrite the narrative of pessimism and despair that is so pervasive in our country. They do so despite the many obstacles they face in their daily lives, from poverty and sub-standard education to a prevailing national cynicism about the future.
In working with these young people, we’ve been able to identify some key constructs that can be drawn on to unlock their potential. We’ve learned that by introducing them to new mindsets, including problem-solving, creative thinking and innovation, they are able to map out alternate pathways for themselves and others.
Those who come to us already have fires blazing in their bellies. They are working with people in their areas. They burn with the calling to inspire others. They share opportunities, identify or establish bursary opportunities, raise funds or source clothing for children, teach other youngsters how to be financially savvy, and are social change drivers in the making.
Our role is to support young people in recognising that they all have vast and untapped reserves of agency, which they can harness to solve the problems right on their doorsteps. We’ve also found that, by bringing together young people from polar-opposite contexts, we can create a sense of connectedness out of that difference. They learn to understand each other’s contexts and to work together authentically without hiding behind socially constructed barriers of race, class or gender. Rather than obsess with what makes them different, they choose to look at what they have in common.
Sadly, these approaches and capacities are not nurtured in the curriculums of mainstream education. At Activate! we’ve sought to grow these mindsets in alternative spaces. By the end of this year, we hope to have expanded our network to more than 5 000 young people.
But our project can only scratch the surface. Imagine the exponential potential for change that would be unleashed should the school curriculum incorporate programmes that seek to encourage innovation, beyond the school entrepreneurship programmes that have been floated. In doing so, we could build new and boundless stores of social capital and foster an ideas economy for social change.
There are precedents and prototypes to which we can turn. We’ve seen how investment in education has paid off in countries such as China and Singapore and we’ve seen the innovations that have come out of these countries.
But South Africa is still a long way away from this. Consider the ridicule levelled at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s State of the Nation address, not just by opposition parties, but also by rival factions in his own party and by members of his own team. In a country beset by a near-pathological Afropessimism, one would have thought that the president’s address — in which he imagined a bold new South Africa in which every 10-year-old can “read for meaning”, of bullet trains that connect megacities, of a cutting-edge public health service, of a food-secure populace driven by smart agriculture, of networked modern cities, and of comfort and prosperity for all South Africans — would have been universally embraced as a visionary blueprint for the country. Instead, the president is widely lambasted as “a dreamer”, and not in the flattering sense.
This is an indictment of the state of our nation. Surely, what the president was doing was inviting us to imagine a new society vastly different from what we behold now. Once we’ve imagined it, we can start to ask ourselves how to create it. When he closed his address with a poem by Nigerian writer Ben Okri — which includes the line “Our future is greater than our past” — we are drawn into a world of possibilities, and of imagination.
Denying that world of possibilities is to deny all of us the possibility of a future that is greater than our past.
Ashley Roman is the national programmes manager at Activate! Change Drivers South Africa and a Bertha Centre scholar at the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business