Bright minds don’t think alike

I was selected as one of the 100 Brightest Young Minds in South Africa, attending the week long summit in Johannesburg. I’m not sure what I expected… I’ve been conditioned to expect CV-enhancing ‘leadership lectures’ full of glib platitudes and designer clothing, so BYM came as a bit of a shock to the system.

I confess to being a typical Eastern Cape-born South African, which for me means I can be a pretty judgemental person. I have been known to make snap judgements, for instance expecting Afrikaans people to be racist and Muslim people to be conservative.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself lang-arming to “Kaptein” in the arms of Jaco “dis nie Rooibos nie” Maré and planning green construction projects with Fatima Ragie. That is most likely my most surprising learning from the summit: check your prejudices at the door if you plan to be a business leader in South Africa: it just gets in the way of constructive engagement.

I’ve been at Rhodes for 4 years now so clearly I’ve been exposed to ‘diversity’ but actually throwing in my lot with the other 99 BYM delegates and embarking on this amazing week-long adventure helped me envision Tutu & Mandela’s rainbow nation in a way that Rhodes just never has.

I was privileged to be surrounded by a diverse group of young people who were passionate about our continent and selfless in their desire to make it a better place. For the first time in my life I drank the Kool-Aid, let go of my media-honed Afro-pessimism and began believing that our continent is truly a place of unfathomed potential.

So often we wonder if we are good enough, or if what we have to say is relevant, endlessly waiting for someone else to take up the challenge, or make a comment because they appear better suited based on their job title, their academic credentials or place in society.

Attending the BYM summit reminded me that those perceptions stifle debate and give us all excuses to not roll up our sleeves and set to work. The so-called ‘experts’ got us into this mess in the first place so we have a duty to try to find creative solutions to the seemingly insurmountable problems we face; so what if we fail – we can hardly make a bigger mess than the people in charge already have!

This point was highlighted by Dr Nkosana Moyo of the African Development Bank, who urged us not to allow ourselves to fall into this trap. He insisted we dictate what we want from the world, and mobilise each other to achieve it.

The South Africa we live in is a complicated society, weighed down by historical baggage. Racial and socioeconomic divides persist in part because we are unable to imagine a South Africa without them and for that to change, creativity and imagination are going to be at least as important as experience.

We were fortunate to be addressed by Ahmed Kathrada at the Summit Gala Dinner. It was such an honour to be in the presence of a man who fought for our freedom shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Ruth First, Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo; people who championed the cause of the masses of disenfranchised South Africans and were prepared to die for what they believed in.

What struck me about Mr Kathrada and his peers was their willingness to sacrifice, their acknowledgement that some things are more important than a long life, personal safety and even family. This is something that the current generation of tenderprenuers seem completely devoid of and I believe it is the key to understanding what is wrong with our country.

As an institution we spend countless hours trying to teach leadership, trying to cultivate innovative thinkers able to make critical decisions about the environment, economy, education and justice systems, yet 20 years after democracy South Africa remains mired in the past.

We continue to live in one of the most unequal societies on the planet and the gulf dividing haves and have-nots grows larger every year. I believe this is because we are unable to inspire people, reminding them that they’ll never achieve anything until they are passionate about it.

So many of my contemporaries are doing degrees they hate because their parents insisted or even worse, because they are too afraid to follow their passion, opting for BCom Accounts and failing because their true passion lies in horticulture or scuba diving or fashion design.

As a nation that has survived so much I believe we deserve to live in a country that lives up to the image SAA keeps advertising in their beautiful fictions on CNN.

Being surrounded by like-minded people reawakened my passion to contribute towards realising that vision of a functional society. I want the fictional holiday destination and World Cup PR to be a reality for those of us actually living here.

We need to begin to shift our value system and to realign them with those greats who paved the way for democracy. Working class people living cheek and jowl with millionaires in Hout Bay shouldn’t be depreciating property values in the area, they should increase erf prices because diversity is a desirable commodity.

We have spent 20 years mouthing blithe platitudes about democracy, all the while perpetuating a system which entrusts women of colour to raise white children and clean the homes of the affluent minority by day while relegating them and their families to sub-human status when the sun goes down; painting them as shadowy figures to be feared and ensuring that the private security companies are one of the few consistently growing industries increasing post-94.

Our children will never be equal until they all go to the same schools and access the same quality education, getting to know each other in the process.

BYM allowed me to begin recalculating the roadmap to that future with my peers. Interactions between us and people like Mr Kathrada reminded me that (in his words) “With freedom comes responsibility. Our freedom did not fall from heaven. Freedom was fought for. It is the responsibility of young people to build the new South Africa”.

In addition to his words, BYM reinforced my conviction that it is the responsibility of all South Africans to believe that change is possible and to be passionate enough about it to make it happen.

Perhaps if my friends planned to be an entrepreneur instead of talking about the corporate they want to work for, they would be innovators charting their own course. Perhaps if the homeless youth made an effort to clean the streets instead of just begging off them, a multitude of opportunities would befall them.

Echoing Biko’s sentiments: it’s about time we stop looking down on each other, surrounding ourselves with sycophants too afraid to declare that the Nkandla-building emperor has no clothes on.  We need to start surrounding ourselves with people who are better than us so that we remain humble enough to keep trying.

We need to realise that we haven’t succeeded, success is a journey not a destination and if we strive for greatness we will always be succeeding. It’s time for us to stop chasing phantom Western models of prosperity, stop crisis-managing and doing only what is urgent, but rather focus on doing what is right and what is important.

It was impossible to leave the summit unmotivated. It’s time for each one of us to start believing in the impossible because opportunities aren’t just seized out of thin air, they must be created. Let us grasp the theme of the summit “Make Shift Futures” and use what we have today to build better tomorrows.