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Beyond the Rhetoric of Transformation

butterfly transformation

"...the lady announcing my name substituted my surname with a dramatic pause, decided it wasn’t worth the effort and, after a few seconds of awkward silence, proceeded to some less strenuous John Smith or other."

Home. It’s the smell of my mom’s baking vegetables and the sweet aroma of coconut oil that fills the kitchen every evening. It’s my dad’s collection of every Ladysmith Black Mambazo album ever released – including the old cassettes. It’s umnqusho, Downton Abbey, and the chilly winter mornings of Mthatha. It’s the potholes and dirt roads of old Transkei; intertwined with the path of the new South Africa – where #MenAreTrash, we all love The People’s Bae, and nothing cures a rough day like a little restorative bingeing on Mzansi Memes.

I haven’t been home in six months. During this time I visited my future university in San Francisco, worked as a journalist and communications coach, explored Israel along with my own soul, worked in a hotel in Germany while learning the language, embarked on the even more ambitious quest of learning Russian, hiked the Alps, and most recently, participated in an intense leadership conference in Atlanta, USA.

A Wake Up Call

It’s the latter that really tilled the soil of my thinking. I spent ten days with 22 young leaders from countries like Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and Brazil. Our aim was to connect, share ideas and learn from people leading the world in innovation, medicine, ethical business, and sustainability – all with the overarching challenge of transforming these insights into real initiatives.

Now here’s the thing: I’ve literally travelled the world for debating, public speaking and a myriad other engagements, yet I’ve never set foot in another African country. This was the first time – in the USA, of all places – that I’d had the opportunity to connect with my African brothers and sisters from across the continent.

I remember vividly during Public Speaking World Championships in Hong Kong in 2015, when the one black guy on our team also happened to be the only black guy in the entire tournament – or in Pittsburgh in 2016, when the lady announcing my name substituted my surname with a dramatic pause, decided it wasn’t worth the effort and, after a few seconds of awkward silence, proceeded to some less strenuous John Smith or other.

These are mild instances of what my travels have made clear; Africa remains on the peripheries of most global stages. When we do get the spotlight, it is often to bewail the endless challenges of our continent: despotic leaders, rampant corruption and ceaseless poverty.  Let me get a few facts out of the way:

  • 589 million people living in Africa still do not have access to electricity.

  • Fewer than 20% of women in Africa have access to education.

  • Africa, which holds 16% of the world’s population, contributes just 1.1% of global scientific knowledge.

And, to top it all off, did you know that the combined GDP of the entire African continent is equal to that of just one country – Germany?

Yep, this is Africa. This is home.

We live on a continent where it is the norm for leaders to steal from their people, where communities are destroying each other in violence, and where girls are more likely to be raped than they are to finish school.

What will it take for the liberation of Africa? Liberation is not just a political concept – at its core, it is of the heart and of the mind. The political liberation that swept through the continent during the 20th century has given way to oppression by various elites, where greed for power and protecting one’s own takes priority over true, servant leadership. The role models of young people are not those who positively contribute to their society, but those whose Instagram pages attract the most followers. There’s a veneration of shallowness, show, empty wit, and vanity.

Rethinking transformation

Terms like “transformation”, “ethical leadership”, “sustainability”, and “a spirit of Ubuntu” ought not to be buzzwords thrown around in air-conditioned conference rooms and slogans cried at political rallies, but principles by which every African lives. Each of us needs to come to a personal point of understanding that doing what is “good” is not a favour, but an expectation.  Gentle and ethical behavior at home and at work, concern for a community wider than our own immediate family, and simple humility are not supposed to be the exception, but the norm. Neither is this way of life an inconvenience to our own selfish whims, but ultimately an integral part of what is good for ourselves. The effects of such good deeds are not privileges, abnormalities, and lone case studies to celebrate, but the norm that plays into the natural order of what it means to be human, and what it means to live in community with a vision of a better future.

How we love buzzwords! True transformation begins with transforming the self. Our leaders talk of “radical black economic transformation”, but never of “radical black transformation”, as if the one automatically precipitates the other.  It seems the assumption is that once the economics are transformed – when a new lot of us are rich and comfortable – then this glorious thing called transformation is achieved. Recovery from oppression is a lot more than getting access to money in larger quantities – at its core, it is about matters of the mind and spirit. Once these are resolved, they manifest outwardly in an ability and a will to create the kind of world we want to live in.

Perhaps “freedom” as we have come to know it is merely being given the option to take off our chains. We are our own persons. We choose how we want to live. We have civil rights; we have equality. But are we really free? Those chains still exist in mental form. Their weight still burdens the way we think and act.

There’s a culture of flaunting wealth here in South Africa. If it isn’t some fresh-out-high-school Forex millionaire posing next to Lamborghinis he probably doesn’t own, it’s young women whose tactical relationship choices afford them a life of irresponsible luxury. Check out the Instagram page “richkids_of_southafrica” – apparently posting bank balances is a thing now!

When a person is enthralled by their own perception of how others see them, is this not an absolute indication that they are still bound in some way? More often than not, it is a symptom of a deeper insecurity, of a person who is not whole. Too many people’s aspirations are built on what they have, not on who they are. If these are our values as a nation, the pestilential greed and self-indulgence ravaging both the public and the private sector can come as no surprise.

There is anger, too. Let’s address this: we cannot thrive in an atmosphere of constant rage. Anger unchecked is anger that destroys. It can only be useful when it is channeled and transformed for some higher purpose.

In an article in The Sowetan, Fred Khumalo describes an encounter he had with one young man who was wearing a T-shirt which read “F**k Whites”:

“When I asked him what he was trying to achieve through that slogan, he told me the message stemmed from the black consciousness philosophy of Steve Biko.

Such tragic distortions of black consciousness can drive a man almost to tears. Black consciousness is not about hate. It is about love, a black person loving themselves and their people, and asking them to love, respect and cherish each other.

The love thus espoused is not an end in itself. It is love that is meant to inspire us to vomit out the poison of hate that was at the core of apartheid. As children growing up under apartheid, we were tainted by the poison.

We cannot liberate ourselves from mental slavery, as Bob Marley asked us to, if we still carry within ourselves the poison of hate.”

Personally, I view the anger, hostility, and general greed that increasingly is molding our worldview as young South Africans as the surest indication that we have not fully liberated ourselves from the shackles of oppression. True freedom is the ability to transcend the kind of thinking that crafted our oppression in the first place.

Being home has reminded me of all the things I love about South Africa. But it has also reminded me of the things I have never liked, and the things that make me fearful for its future. It’s difficult trying to be a part of this process when my path takes me in directions so far from my home country. Simply being aware is not enough. I know that my opinions may never be aligned with what is mainstream. I want to embrace, and go deeper. With me it’s a “Yes, but…”

In an increasingly polarised South Africa and world, we need more people who can step out of the confines of dualistic thinking, listen more, serve more, learn to empathise, and orchestrate their own emotions, will and thinking to serve the greater good.


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