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    20 years on, is the ship rudderless?

    Thought Leader - Ayabonga Cawe

    ‘Who will lead in the twenty-first century? Better yet, how shall they lead? Who will go for us, and whom shall we send’? - Professor Walter Earl Fluker 

    Twenty years, depending on how one looks at it, can either be a very long or short space of time. In the history of nations, two decades are a somewhat insignificant period in the broader scheme of things. However, for a country like South Africa characterised by a history of inequality and dispossession, the last twenty years have been a clear indicator of the potentials and challenges that will face the country over the next few decades. Young leaders are called upon every day to navigate the exciting and scary landscape that South Africa is 20 years after Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa in April 1994.

    20 years since 1994, and I believe it becomes useful to see our democracy as a young adult battling to go beyond the tail-end of adolescence, and embrace the maturity normally associated with adulthood.

    Our democracy, is as much a volatile, inspiring, cheeky and potential-filled as many of the young people in our country. It becomes useful to see our democracy as a young nation at the end of its teenage years because some of the challenges faced are similar to those that many teenagers face. South Africa is a bipolar society, where the optimism and idealism of youth is mixed with the cynical reality of a society that has failed to deliver on its promises at the birth of democracy in 1994.What do I mean by a bipolar society? On the one hand we have experienced moments of euphoria – democracy, the World Cup, and many other achievements, but also we have experienced depressing moments; Marikana, xenophobic attacks, service delivery protests etc. 

    What can one then say of those who lead us, and their counsel and decisions in such difficult times? We clearly live in a country that has normalised the inherited crisis of poverty, unemployment and inequality. However the responses to some of these challenges, and their particular manifestation in protest and struggle by the subaltern classes of our society, have been met with understanding from some, disregard and utter disdain in many instances. Our leaders, placed in a position where they have to juggle and balance the, at times convergent, interests of a wide cross section of society, are often found to be pandering to certain sectional interests at the expense of other interests. Depending on one’s vantage point, the diagnosis of some of our structural challenges presents some interesting insights.  

    For instance, if one takes the perspective of organised business in this country or that taken by some in the liberal camp, then the challenges are as a result of an inflexible labour regime, corruption, a bad education system, a bad investment climate and if one reads the underlying tone of some of the messages on social media sites; the ‘laziness’ and expectant attitude of the poor black majority. If one is on the side of organised labour and the leftist camp, then neoliberal restructuring of the South African economy, and the persistent Apartheid-like mindsets of big business, which denies the working people of this country a living wage, contributes to the social crisis in South Africa. Mudslinging and name calling aside, the role of our elected leaders in our society is not to take sides, but to prioritise certain promises that have been made to the electorate. Most people in this country are not shareholders who elect the boards and management of big business, nor have the opportunity to elect union leaders and shop stewards, however we have the opportunity to elect those who frame the space between labour and business, the government. 

    We have seen all over the country protests and violent action from the people that the rainbow nation has forgotten. Fighting for a place under the sun, these patient people have election after election voted for what they thought would be a meaningful social wage after years of neglect by the Apartheid government. However for many of our countrymen and women, the dream of freedom hasn’t materialised. A social wage in the form of proper healthcare, education, housing and other related benefits, lies at the root of all the unrest one sees in this country, from Marikana to De Doorns, our people are increasingly becoming impatient with the pace of not only delivery, but their seemingly non-existent chances at upward social mobility. The actions of the marginalised in our society and the axis which then ties them to the actions of our leaders in society is best captured in the following passage by Professor Walter Fluker;

    ‘In order for a just civil society to exist, persons in responsible leadership roles must make decisions based on ethical guides. For historically marginalised people, the relationship of spirituality, ethics, and leadership is most urgent. With the long-range economic, political, and social costs of war, a troubled world economy, and rapid advances (crusades) in technology, science, and globalisation, we now have the makings of a social anarchy that threatens the very foundations of our social purpose. The impending catastrophic fallout of the present situation will have far-reaching negative consequences for the least of these, those whom the late Samuel DeWitt Proctor called “the lost, the left out and left behind’

    Professor Fluker is drawing our attention to the instability that results from making social crises such as those faced by South Africa, the normal course of events. What is the character of our leaders, who at times seem insensitive to the plight of those who have for centuries looked for a leadership sensitive to their plight? What is the character of our leaders whose aims of immediate enrichment, play into the same palatial political culture disembedded from the rhythm, dreams and worries of the people? What is the character of some of the business leaders, who speak of a culture of entitlement in our people, but fail to speak of the conspicous culture of enrichment in South Africa?

    This social distance and disconnect between the people and their leaders can be seen in the worker’s rejection of the once dominant union at Marikana, and lack of faith in local councillors and demarcation authorities, which lies at the heart of the service delivery protests. In Johannesburg, the eviction of informal traders, without an accompanying plan to accommodate them, indicates that our leaders’ notions of a world class city exclude the aspirations and daily struggles of those who have been exploited and excluded for generations on end. Our young leaders, in public and private service, must avoid what Fanon called the pitfalls of the post-colonial elite and the excesses of the nouveau riche, when he said;  

    ‘Seen through [the government’s] eyes, its mission has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, or being the transmission line between the nation and capitalism, rampant though camouflaged, which today puts on the masque of neo-colonialism…It follows the Western bourgeoisie along its path of negations and decadence without ever having emulated it in its first stages of exploration and invention…We need not think that it is jumping ahead; it is in fact beginning at the end’

    In the end, it is the young who will inherit the problems and solutions of today, the leaders of tomorrow, must start leading today, lest we betray the hopes of freedom that lead many to sacrifice their youth in pursuit of a different world. In the ultimate analysis, Africa and South Africa in particular require the leaders that Prof Fluker speaks of, and, ‘these are the leaders who stand at the intersections of character, civility, and community and dare to re-imagine the world’. Our country expects no less from its young leaders, as the judgement passed down by history will be far short of kind, if we renege on this generational responsibility.

    About Ayabonga Cawe

    Ayabonga is registered for a Masters in Development Theory and Policy at Wits. He has a Bachelor of Commerce in Applied Economics and Business Finance, and he has also obtained an Honours in Development Theory and Policy with distinction from Wits. Ayabonga is a co-founder of the Young Economists for Africa, a youth policy initiative that aims to add a youth perspective on questions of economic policy on the African continent. He is currently a Masters Research Fellow at the Public Affairs Research Institute as part of the Nedbank-PARI scholarship. Ayabonga has also worked as an intern economist at the Gauteng Growth and Development Agency.His research interests include: the political economy of South Africa, public-private sector partnerships in the South African economy, and issues of regional and continental integration in Africa.

    A poet and a writer, Ayabonga has written regularly for online youth platforms such as and on a range of social and economic issues. He is currently researching the institutional dynamics that govern public procurement in South Africa for his masters dissertation.