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‘Start with the room you’re in, change that conversation’

By Suntosh R Pillay

“We have too much faith in leadership. It lets us off the hook so we can say someone else messed up.” This was the warning of Rama Naidu, a panellist at the third annual Conversations for Change in Durban.

An initiative of The Mandela Rhodes Community, it was held amid tense strike action by students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). With an unusual backdrop of security reinforcements, and the nearby Westville campus shut down due to rioting students, the themed debate, “why are we still struggling with social transformation?” seemed morbidly appropriate.

The speakers, trailblazers in civic society spaces and transformative dialogue, used their allocated five minutes to make provocative opening remarks about leadership in Africa.

“Is transformation even feasible?” asked Khanyisa Booi, one of the Mail & Guardian’s top 200 Young South Africans of 2014. She began Mocha Panda (Youth Forward) dialogue sessions and works as a connections leader at Activate! Change Drivers, a network of young leaders equipped to drive change for the public good. She asked tough questions and gave no easy answers: “Do we have policies in place that are fertile ground for transformation? Can we make the policies work? Do we even understand what we want to fix? Are we harvesting the energy of the youth in the manner in which we should be?” She suggested a single place that young people can go to and ask for help.

Zama Ndlovu, who works for Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa as a strategy and communications adviser on the National Development Plan, proposed that leaders get too much attention. “What about the followers?” she asked, suggesting that leadership is as much about knowing when to follow as it is about being in the front. “Even Nelson Mandela was a follower before becoming a leader,” she reminded.

Naidu, founder and executive director of the Democracy Development Programme, facetiously apologised: “Sorry, but Superman is not coming!” He scoffed at the idea of waiting for heroic leaders to come and “save us from ourselves” and urged people to become active citizens who are their own agents of change. “History shows us that leaders consistently fail us,” he said, critiquing even the physical setup of the event itself and the power dynamic it creates, with the panel of “experts” up on stage and the audience down below asking questions and waiting patiently for answers.

The Mandela Rhodes Community is a registered non-profit company of alumni recipients of the Mandela Rhodes scholarships and is committed to furthering the goal of developing exceptional, ethical leadership capacity in Africa. They currently function as a platform for debates, most notably at their annual summit, currently taking place in Stellenbosch, or on online forums and during the Conversations event. The Durban event is held in partnership with the UKZN’s corporate-relations department.

From the audience, Nikhiel Deeplal, a final-year law student, commented on the poor solidarity among students when it comes to protest action. “There was only one Indian student in the entire group of black students marching on campus today,” he said, “and that student was me!”
“Why is this?” he asked.

Siya Khumalo, a blogger from Umgababa in the south coast, commented that “it’s time for citizenry to retrench a few public servants. The vote is one way to do it, but the Constitution surely provides us with more than enough ammunition to fire anyone we must in order to save South Africa, starting, if need be, at the top.”

“Where do we even start?” decried one student, to which Naidu challenged everyone to “start with the room you’re in, change that conversation”.

Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist at King Dinuzulu Hospital Complex in Durban, and is regional coordinator in KZN for The Mandela Rhodes Community.

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  • Mandela Rhodes Scholars

    Mandela Rhodes Scholars who feature on this page are all recipients of The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship, awarded by The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, and are members of The Mandela Rhodes Community. The Mandela Rhodes Community was started by recipients of the scholarship, and is a growing network of young African leaders in different sectors. The Mandela Rhodes Community is comprised of students and professionals from various backgrounds, fields of study and areas of interest. Their commonality is the set of guiding principles instilled through The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program: education, leadership, reconciliation, and social entrepreneurship. All members of The Mandela Rhodes Community have displayed some form of involvement in each of these domains. The Community has the purpose of mobilising its members and partners to collaborate in establishing a growing network of engaged and active leaders through dialogue and project support [The Mandela Rhodes Scholarship is open to all African students and allows for postgraduate studies at any institution in South Africa. See The Mandela Rhodes Foundation for further details.]