Politics. I have mixed feelings towards this dry and empty word. The standard definition, ‘the activities associated with the governance of a country’, falls dismally short of my lived experience, which tells me that politics is nothing more than a fancy term for people in power who spend their lives either pretending to solve, or vainly stabbing at, big problems. Oddly enough, everything about it reminds me of a Chappie. It rolls around my mouth all soft and chewy, yet quickly loses its flavour and wrestles with my tongue while selling dreams to my belly that something solid is on its way.
This cynical attitude is born of a generation that has little regard for people in power. Young people in South Africa have only ever known weak-willed leaders who show zero initiative and lack the back-bone to stand up for what is right. At best, they are ineffective, and at worst, they are demagogues who carry empty promises and blatantly squander public resources. One need only to see a video of our amicable president chuckling to his ‘Thixo waseGeorge Koch’ to understand the kind of disgust we feel towards the people who were meant to be our role models, yet whose behaviour has seen them plummet in our estimation.
The issue here is leadership. It seems there simply is none. Where good leadership ought to prevail, there is instead a growing void. It concerns me that most young South Africans are completely disillusioned about what leadership is. We equate it with power, thievery, and incompetence. I daresay many have never experienced real leadership firsthand. This is true for all levels of society – from government, to business, to schools, to the home. Like children who have grown up with no parent figure, Born Frees have been raised in a cradle rocked only by ineptitude, negligence and scandal after scandal. We cannot ignore the profound effects of such an upbringing.
We are beginning to see the symptoms of such pitiful neglect. 2016 has been a turbulent year, to say the least. As it draws to a close, along with my high school career and all sense of familiarity and security, I can only wonder what will become of our country. I can only hope that in some places, amidst all the madness, there are pockets of individuals who have what it takes to be leaders – in the truest sense.
What is a good leader? In my opinion, good leadership requires depth of character, breadth of experience, and a sort of vision that elevates the leader, in his or her thinking at least, above the petty concerns of daily life. This is someone who truly listens, who has compassion, who knows what teamwork is, and who is well acquainted with the art of conflict resolution. This is a person who will not be drawn into the immature polarisation over every single issue that so plagues our society.
Where is the nuance? Why can we not tolerate the hesitant supporter, the sympathizing opposer or merely the good old fence sitter who has a knack for hearing both sides? We tend to dig our heels to defend our entrenched position, deaf to the voices of others and blinkered to the fact that in so doing, we gain certainty in our own argument, but not progress. A refusal to become entrenched in only one position, and to be fair even to those with whom one disagrees, seems to be so peculiarly difficult for most people.
The way Fees Must Fall has unraveled is, to me, an example of the dearth of leadership and people’s inability to meet in the middle. To be fair, it has been difficult for the movement, given that there has been almost no response from government. When President Zuma made his brief appearance to a group of SRC leaders and mumbled something about the need to return to studies, we knew then and there that we could expect no decisive role from up top – and this was made all the more clear when he decided to jet-set off to Kenya in the midst an ongoing national crisis. Where was the energy, where was the harnessing of what students have to offer, where was the creative joining of forces to solve a problem that is so much broader than just university fees? Fees Must Fall is really also about race, decolonization, reclaiming spaces, finding voices and finally standing up to a age-old, patriarchal, euro-centric world view. So much potential was lost when those in government – once revolutionaries themselves – simply abandoned the challenge and the opportunity.
Now we are in a caught in a deadlock. While certain universities blatantly ignore the cries of the protestors, they only add fuel to the anger, and while certain protestors continue to be violent and uncompromising, they only jeopardize the legitimacy of their own cause. Let us accept that the only long-term solution must and will lie in a compromise – from both sides of the divide. Firstly, things will not go back to the way they were; so to all the hopeful conservatives out there who thought this movement could be silenced by some Marikana-style muscling in by the authorities, think again. Secondly, given the absence of support from government, fees will not fall overnight, nor completely, if they ever do. This is the horrible pragmatic reality that some Fallists may hate to hear, but that may have to be factored into the negotiation process. To say this does not mean that I oppose the movement – I just long to see a little give and take from both directions.
The burden of finding this middle ground lies upon university management, student leaders and government. My feeling is that insufficient numbers of people in the thick of conflict have experienced what creative compromise really means. The loud, the violent and the charismatic win popular support when they refuse to co-operate because they answer a deep emotional need among followers. But leaders need to go further in their thinking than their followers do, to bring both their head and heart to bear on the subject. There is a depth to leadership that goes beyond ‘the cause’ or the skills one possesses. Legends such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi and I’ll even add, Thuli Madonsela, managed to lead with a rare dignity and quietness about them – quiet, but firm. Where now is the firm, quiet leader, who brings more than simplistic ideas to the table? Perhaps there are many people out there who wish to lead, but not within the established narrow framework…
Ultimately, it is up to those with courage, will and humility to find a way forward. The chaos that is ravaging our nation will eventually pass, but until it does, we need to do everything in our power as individuals to remain true to ourselves, not to get lost in the frenzy or the overwhelming pessimism; at times to learn to be silent and simply listen to the ‘other’, and to remember that the good leadership of tomorrow is groomed by the efforts of today.