I have so many questions in my mind as far as the student “uprising” is concerned.
Here is one: Are the current events a reflection of what has been happening behind the scenes in our society over the last 20 years?
For example, have parents been holding public conversations with a persona that was different from their private one? In other words, at work they professionally said and did what was needed as far as the black or white boss, employees and transformation process was concerned. They gave the right answers in diversity workshops and played the ‘politically correct game’. But at home they had private conversations with friends and family – with their children present – that were reflective of honest concerns, irritations and even hateful feelings. Are we currently seeing that these ‘double lives’ have rubbed off on the next generation and now it’s coming back to haunt us?
On the other hand, is all this as bad as it seems, or is it a sad but necessary process towards change that has simply been far too slow? Perhaps this is society’s collective way of unleashing frustrations for lacklustre progress that falls far short of expectations? Maybe our “screenager” generation is acting out – a group that was raised in front of screens and have come to believe requests are made available at the press of a button?
Some of us may be disappointed because this is the generation many have placed their hopes on to somehow overcome our past; to look past race and colour. Are we, the older generation perhaps projecting our own insecurities – and failure to act – on to this generation?
Let me be absolutely honest about my own internal conversation during these tumultuous times, which perhaps you can relate to.
First, I see on a recording how a white student engages a black student group and how one of the latter slaps the former in the face. I feel emotions swelling inside me. Fortunately I process this very quickly. I am immediately grateful that the white student did not retaliate, because that would have been fatal – I might have, and my 2nd Dan Black Belt would have come in handy, to a point. Then, I am not sure whether these swelling emotions inside me are racially based – am I upset because a black student had the audacity to slap a white student in the face, with a hateful attitude clearly radiating from him? Fortunately I immediately realize that if I saw a lone black student engage a group of white students and one of the white students slapped the black student in the face, I would be equally upset.
I realize that what actually triggers my anger and emotions is unfairness, not race;
as well as the arrogance and short-sightedness of people who allow an unruly mob mentality (even on social media) to incite and then capture them doing stupid things that they would never ever do if they were rational – they break down and destroy rather than make peace and build. As Nelson Mandela said: “It is so easy to break down and destroy. The heroes are those who make peace and build”.
Having said all this, I find that because of my background and our history I have to confront the possibility of racial bias inside me to make sure it is not my reason for a certain level of anger, to neutralise it before I move on. Maybe it is like being a rehabilitated alcoholic who has been dry for a few years, yet has to be vigilant not to regress back into the habit, because he knows it once was a weakness. And I am aware of the fact that as human beings, when under pressure, we are in danger of sinking back into old and weak habits – it is human nature.
Next I entered the world of Facebook and stumbled across the incident in Bloemfontein where black students, seemingly from the EFF, marched onto the field to disrupt a rugby match. The players started physically confronting them and then audience members came to their aid, fighting the EFF supporters off the field – most of you have seen the video. Many comments by white Afrikaans speaking South Africans expressed pride and accolades for beating the EFF followers – a skirmish has been won! “Give them their own medicine”, “We whites must stand together”, and many more comments about “us” and “them” – of course the same sentiments are seen amongst black youngsters.
I responded in Afrikaans to my fellow Afrikaans audience: “Ja, en vandag gee “ons” vir “hulle” pak en more gee “hulle” vir “ons” pak. En so gaan dit aan tot daar soveel chaos is dat “ons” kinders en “hulle” kinders nie kan swot en kwalifiseer nie, en dan brei dit sommer verder uit waar “hulle” ouers “ons” ouers pak gee en dan gee “ons” ouers “hulle” ouers pak, tot dat daar genoeg chaos is dat niemand kan werk nie, en….. Dit is nie die regte pad nie. Iemand moet die “higher road” neem hier, anders stap ons almal binnekort saam die “lower road”.
In English: “Yes, and today “we” give “them” a hiding and tomorrow “they” give “us” a hiding. And so it goes on until there is so much chaos that “our” children and “their” children can’t study and qualify themselves, and then it expands further where “their” parents give “our” parents a hiding and then “our” parents give “their” parents a hiding, until there is sufficient chaos that no one can work, and… This is not the correct path. Someone must walk the higher road here, or soon we will all be walking the lower road together.”
For this statement I of course received some support…and not. There is anger and frustration in the air. My appeal for mature leadership and walking the higher road is snubbed by many. Some believe that “we” have been walking the higher road for more than twenty years and what has it brought us? My response: The challenge is when the other party also believes that “they” have been walking the higher road for the past twenty years and things have not worked out for “them”. The “us” and “them” mentality simply takes us nowhere fast!
When students rise it affects all of us because they are the children of the older generation and the brothers and sisters of the younger generation. We all look on and cannot help but be dragged into the “war”, whether physically, emotionally or by proxy. Children of prominent and respected leaders of our society like Deans of universities, politicians and even our beloved Public Protector get involved, which in and of itself evokes more and perhaps different feelings and opinions. It brings the conversations into our homes – right to our Sunday lunch table. It forces all of us to confront the demons inside us.
Our political leaders seem to stand patiently on the side-lines watching and doing the bare minimum, allowing all this to play out; perhaps allowing the younger generation to assert and find themselves in the process. And interestingly enough we see counter balances, real leadership and the high road mentality emerging, such as the groups of students at both the University of Pretoria and the University of the Free State promoting peace across racial lines – #SouthAfricaMustRise.
But this “patient” strategy by our current leaders may instead be a reflection of weak, unassertive, unconfident leadership, which would matter when suddenly, one incident triggers an irrational emotional response – the white or black student strikes back – and before we know it we have a student “Marikana” on our hands.
We don’t want to end up uttering those chilling words: “If only we…”
This Cherokee Indian proverb captures an essence for me: “An old Cherokee was teaching his grandchildren about life. He said to them: ‘A battle is raging inside me … it is a terrible fight between two wolves. One wolf represents fear, anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego (let me add racism). The other stands for joy, peace, love, hope, sharing, serenity, humility, kindness,
benevolence, friendship, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.’ The old man fixed the children with a firm
stare. ‘This same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, too.’ They thought about it for a minute and then one child asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’ The old Cherokee replied: ‘The one you feed.’”
Every single South African must ask him or herself: “Which wolf am I feeding?” Though this should always be a personal process and question, it is even more important to individualize in the absence of great leadership. A respected leader like Nelson Mandela can lead followers towards feeding the second wolf. But if the leaders are not there the responsibility rests more squarely on my and your shoulders.
Adriaan Groenewald is a leadership expert and commentator. Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on firstname.lastname@example.org for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP or @LeadershipPform.