Many of my close friends and the people I hang out with are under 35. According to local definitions, we’re “the youth”. By accident, I have a great deal of experience on youth matters – being one myself, working with youthful colleagues, enjoying long palavers with youthful friends, and being part of global youth networks. My frame of reference is, by and large, youthfully coloured. I find Sanele Nene’s opinion (The Witness, April 18) that there is an absence of “good, visionary leadership” amongst our youth incongruent with my own experience.
Nene’s argument applies well if we locate (and perhaps confuse) youth leadership with youth organisations, such as the ANCYL or NYDA. They’ve self-evidently lost the plot, confused their mandate, squandered funds, and become vehicles of self-gratification and self-enrichment, with a few public relations stunts to create the facade of meaningful activity.
These organisations, however, have never been elected by us youth, certainly not to “lead” us – and thus have no direct mandate. They pontificate noble causes, and great intentions, but are without visionary, long-term solutions to the many ills facing our “lost generation”. Joblessness, mediocre education, and poverty are rife. However, entrepreneurship and business skills development hardly feature on their agendas. Instead, parties masquerading as talk shops become the norm, and token handouts disguised as seed capital passes for business development. Dialogue between the youth – whoever this hectically diverse group is supposed to be – and their self-appointed leaders rarely happens. There is no genuine trust. But this is common knowledge. It’s a troubling game we all play – complacently complain as organisations let us down, expect no improvement, but hope for change. Alas, the cycle continues. Our inertia feeds their recklessness, and vice versa.
But here’s the real problem – we value the wrong kinds of leadership.
Worldwide, social theorists claim that there is a general feeling amongst the public of being let down by big institutions – from the massive ones like religion and marriage, liberation movements and its consequent failed governments, to its tentacles of temples and churches, public organisations and private banks. This disillusionment with grand ideologies and giant bodies, fuelled by our collective disappointment in their abilities to find us any salvation, has resulted in many turning their backs and looking elsewhere for hope. I am becoming one of those people.
You see, when I hear the term “youth” and “youth leadership” my thoughts do not automatically go to figures like Julius Malema or the ANC or DA youth, or images of poor, unemployed graduates, or even firebrand activists. My thoughts skip to images of bright young women and men I have had the good fortune of knowing, from really varied backgrounds and socio-economic conditions, who have shown exceptional leadership both in their academic lives and newfound professional careers. They/we are counter-narratives – hidden stories – that have emerged from “the majority” we so often speak about in pitying terms. They are entrepreneurial; they debate big ideas and imagine new possibilities; fancy themselves as armchair experts on global issues; they’re action-oriented, but always critically assess their own positions and roles in society and the world. They are reflective young people who have worked hard for the sake of their families who depend on them to be first-generation tertiary graduates, and who will shine lights of hope for their mothers and fathers, aunties and uncles, and grandparents, who were robbed of similar chances of success.
None of these people belong to formal youth organisations or participate in any form of formal politics, but they are fiercely political in their thinking and, indirectly, through their actions. It’s an everyday, personalised politics.
When our middle-class, liberal mainstream media refers to “the masses”, these young thinkers I am referring to know that this anonymous euphemism refers directly to their own families, individual stories that make up these masses. Their motivation to be effective, ethical youth leaders is not motivated by crass materialism or ego. It is motivated by a genuine desire to be active citizens in a global village, understanding that first and foremost, the mark of an educated person is in their ability to use that education at a community level, and the basic unit of any community is the family – their family. And when they see their family’s pride, they are humbled. And this humility is what further drives their leadership. It is a servant leadership that is not self-righteous – we all want to eat out, enjoy unnecessary luxuries, and have a few fancy pairs of shoes, sure – but it is a leadership that is not trapped inside the narrow confines of greedy self-interest.
Nene asks if youth organisations “are representing the interest of young people”? No. I think young people themselves can represent their own interests, and if we continue uncovering these alternative narratives, we’ll be pleased at how many meaningful examples of youth leadership are quietly but boldly helping us all move forward.