Shifts in our society are and will compel leaders to change, to become more authentic, to “get off their podiums” and truly serve the people rather than entertain their own belief that the people are there to serve them.
Leading this attitudinal shift is our next generation, the higher education students of South Africa. They are fearless, refuse to automatically respect leaders because of their positions, and have the power via social media and physical energy to unite and rally together in great numbers for a simple cause they believe in. They truly can be the generation that becomes unstoppable, only to be tamed by those with genuine motives that have their trust and an undeniable passion for fairness.
When masses unite in a single minded and clear cause they will only respect and allow themselves to be led by an equally united leadership team. And let’s be perfectly frank – the South African government and even ANC leadership seems divided, fragmented and not respected sufficiently to lead this united body of youngsters. As a result the leadership of this country has already lost control. With the current #FeesMustFall situation our government can do one or more of three things: 1) Hope the student leadership remain authentic in their cause and not become power hungry; 2) intensify violent resistance with armed forces – show them who is boss through aggressive push back, as was done in the past; 3) Humble themselves and consciously start a long journey of truly connecting with their own purpose and the needs of the people – in essence, build trust. We know that number two is not an option and in fact almost impossible to achieve in today’s highly visible world, without suffering irreparable collateral damage.
History has lived through many student uprisings. However 2015 may be a perfect storm where several factors collide, making the current event unprecedented – modern & fearless attitude of the younger generation; unmatched power and connectedness of technology; general trust deficit between leaders and followers in society – certainly in SA; reality or perception of weak leadership at the top; current leadership underestimating the younger generation; loyalty politics replaced by accountability politics; and much more. Our leaders are simply not prepared for this type of occurrence, while ironically they should be best prepared, considering their struggle credentials and backgrounds. These student leaders seem to outshine the struggle heroes who are supposed to be seasoned leaders. Perhaps because the seasoned leaders have lost their way, forgotten what it’s like to unite passionately behind a cause, to serve the people. Many of them have fallen prey to serving lower values like beaurocracy, compliance, entitlement, pride, defending or protecting a leader rather than protecting a cause, wealth generation at the cost of a higher purpose, holding on to power for the sake of it; and so on.
Let me illustrate what an authentic leader could have done on the day that students marched to Luthuli House. I know
it is simple with hindsight, but imagine Gwede Mantashe stepping out of the building on the same level as the youngsters and proactively suggesting they sit down to discuss matters eye to eye. This pro-active stance and symbol of humility…and strength…would have disarmed the crowd and won them over immediately. Apparently this is what Vice Chancellors across the country did – when students asked them to sit down they did.
Instead, Gwede Mantashe came out elevated, with a proud, stubborn attitude of “I am the leader”, or “these youngsters must respect me”, or “I cannot negotiate from a position of weakness by giving all the time”, or “I must show the world that these youngsters will not scare or manipulate me/us, the powerful ANC”. Those that still hold on to these beliefs that may have driven Mantashe’s behaviour would have felt that he showed his strength. But those that matter most in this particular battle – the students – lost respect for him.
He did not build trust but broke it down even further. Trust someone and they will trust you back.
Mantashe did not trust the students and they will not trust him back.
What could President Zuma have done had he been in tune with brilliant leadership? He could have sat waiting for the students, until they all arrived. And then, at the right moment make his bold announcement, with the education and student leaders flanking him, raising their hands as a token of solidarity, as Nelson Mandela raised F.W. De Klerk and Thabo Mbeki’s hands into the air. And then he could have gone down and shaken some hands, looked the students in the eyes. Instead, he was an everyday political leader that always makes crowds wait in the sun, because they (politicians) are the important ones, until the crowds become agitated and take it out on each other, or the SAPS. He made his announcement via a television screen and walked away from a great opportunity, no doubt with the compliments of his advisors echoing in his ears: “Good job Mr President! They will say the government listened to the people. That was a victory”. But in fact, the students lost all respect and trust, walking away with a belief that he opened a can of worms, that this is only the beginning.
What is happening is good, but of course it comes at a cost – no good has ever been achieved without a price. The positive is that up until today no one has managed to humble some of our leaders to shift their attitudes significantly – not the persistent, aggressive criticism and disruptions of opposition parties, or wealthy business owners that actually pull the purse strings for politics to function, or the media that incessantly yet importantly look over the shoulders of politicians, or a relentless Public Protector. It takes youngsters to expose and force them to become real and abide by promises, to lead as they ought to.
Having said all this, leading such an uprising in an effective, coordinated and controlled way is not an easy task and must never be underestimated. As numbers increase the space for outside forces to infiltrate its ranks grow and then things go wrong. Student leaders must guard vigilantly against radical, one sided and tunnel vision agendas that will aim to hijack their movement that seem to possess pure and clear intentions.
Listen to the interview done on CliffCentral.com with young leaders who are very involved in #FeesMustFall here
This article appeared on 29th October 2015 in:
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