Someone once said that 10% of the population will be corrupt, another 10% will be incorruptible, and the remaining 80% will be swayed either way depending on their circumstances. It is up to that one 10% to ensure that the majority does not become indifferent to – or even worse, complicit in – the evils of others.
This is a somewhat simplistic representation of our society, but the underlying underlying message is clear: with freedom, with intelligence, with education, comes responsibility.
Perhaps it was by sheer chance, or far too much time on my hands, or a desire to do something outside of myself, that I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer at the Co-Willing African Economic Development Conference in Woody Cape over the last seven days. It is not often that we youngsters go through the humbling, and necessary, experience of feeling ill-equipped, unqualified and worth little more than a cog in a machine.
As I stood collating the pages of what was probably my 42nd 30-page booklet, I realised that this was my turn.
Before this trip, a couple of my friends asked me what the conference was about and what I would be doing as a volunteer. The truth is, I didn’t even know.
“Oh, you know, I’ll just be lending a helping hand. It’s some conference about renewable energy solutions for Africa and I think a couple of ambassadors and important people will be there.”
“Some conference” this turned out to be! Little did I know that I would have the privilege of meeting a group of people who are directly transforming our continent. Never have I felt so inspired by the selflessness, intelligence, dedication and determination displayed here. Co-Willing is a non-profit organisation founded in 2014 whose vision it is to promote sustainable development and ethical governance in Africa. Its members consist of lifelong activists, business people, lawyers, scientists, and other highly skilled people who have dedicated their lives to the social, economic and political upliftment of Africa.
I could not have imagined that I would be spending the next few days alongside the key peacemakers of South Sudan, the architects changing the face of our African cities, the hard-hitting whistleblowers keeping our politics in check, celebrity TV personalities-turned-philanthropists, three ambassadors, international investors, scientists, a person who, in her own words, “aligns people’s spines and souls”, and so many other unique human beings.
My volunteering included everything from chopping carrots in the kitchen, setting up venues, photography, summarising presentations, taking minutes of meetings, to playing the part of “the princess who blushed” in our after-dinner theatre shenanigans. I have been satiated with knowledge and a newfound interest in ecological agriculture, waste management, alternative energy solutions, and vocational training in the hospitality industry.
Although only seven days long, this experience taught me so much about myself and the world in which we live. I learned that change is difficult – a slow grinding, uphill process where individuals must constantly work at unraveling a tangle of red tape, apathy, and corruption in order to achieve anything that will last. It takes people with enduring energy and determination to make things happen. Many of us have vague plans to “make a difference” someday, but how many of us are willing to get down and dirty, to put in the time, effort, emotional drain, physical pain, financial strain and lonely hours to achieve this?
Good leadership is hard work
Like-minded individuals who have a vision for stronger leadership and economic resurgence in Africa must work together in order to be effective change-makers. We are living in an age where we are quickly losing faith in the dreams, and nightmares, sold to us by our politicians. We are surrounded by half-truths, fake news and downright lies. Sooner or later, politicians will have to face the fact that they have no vision – good or bad – to offer us any longer.
My personal belief, now compounded by my experiences, is that the the African transformation we so long to see is not going to come from the hallowed halls of parliament (or, to put it more figuratively and aptly, the billowing tents of our national circus), nor from the great assemblies of any world organisation. It is going to come from people on the ground, people like you and me. It is going to come from the business owners, the farmers, the young people and the activists.
If this is our responsibility, we need to start now with questioning the assumptions that have stealthily formed the basis of our world view. We need to shake off the cynicism, sensationalism and polarisation that is fast becoming the norm – and not even the norm, but the new desired language of the educated, the politicized and the woke. The focus cannot be the instant reaction, the fame or the popularity. Everything about the way we do things in Africa, and indeed the world, has to have two crucial ingredients: sustainability and ethical conduct.
Instead we are shaking our heads in disgust at the possibility that a president may very well escape 700-odd charges of fraud and corruption. We are repulsed by African “leaders” who blatantly flout the outcome of a democratic election and loot state coffers before exiting at the eleventh hour. How can it be that the total GDP of the entire African continent is equal to the GDP of a single country – Germany? How did these thieves, thugs and liars get to where they are – leading people?
I do not believe that any person is inherently bad. But most of us have an inclination to step back and distance ourselves from anything difficult. It’s far easier to say, “I’ve done nothing wrong” than to admit, “Actually, I’ve done nothing at all”. The Co-Willing conference made me painfully aware that I, too, have a role to play on this continent. And so do you. Twitter rants and Allyship groups on Facebook aren’t going to cut it any more. Discourse and cathartic expression are extremely valuable, but they can only go so far. The danger for our generation is that we think that talking will solve Africa’s problems. They may make us feel better, but they won’t create jobs; they won’t hold politicians accountable and they won’t position us on the global stage.
So as we all go our separate ways and try to carve a name for ourselves in the world, I implore the people who read this – the people I went to school with, my friends, the young people of South Africa – not to disappear into your tempting bubbles of privilege; not to turn a blind eye to the myriad injustices that occur under our noses every day; not to settle for a comfortable life of indifferent citizenship, but to acknowledge that freedom is a shared responsibility. Economic, social and political freedom is a joint effort. What kind of South Africa are we creating?
Fast-forward fifty years from now: what this country becomes will be our shame or our pride. Let’s not leave it to hindsight, as our forefathers have done, to realise what went wrong. Let us accept the burden of carrying our country and our continent on our shoulders, as backbreaking and overwhelming as it may be. If not now, then when? If not us, then who?