Working with young people has always been my passion. They inspire me and give me hope for our country.
They are not only our embodied future, but if you listen carefully they are the soothsayers of our nation.
Thus commemorating Youth Day, marked by the Soweto student protests of June 16, 1976, which dramatically foretold the socio-political trajectory of our nation, calls us to pay special attention to our youth.
If you want to know where our country is heading, it’s important to understand what our future leaders care about.
I recently returned from a trip to Freetown, Sierra Leone, where I was asked by the AU to attend the Third Technical Workshop on the Encyclopaedia Africana Project (EAP). The location was striking in its complex slave history and an apt backdrop for the gathering of seasoned African (and African diaspora) scholars, professors, officials and policymakers.
Conversations were rich, centred on “changing the African narrative”, but they sorely lacked an important contemporaneous voice - that of the youth.
The EAP was initially an idea borne by African American scholar WEB Du Bois and championed by Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president after independence from Britain in 1960.
Decolonisation was a political process, as well as an important historical period, but today it has gained new currency through the eyes of our youth.
Today young people the world over are challenging the dominant ways of thinking through complex intersectional social movements like #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and LGBTQI causes, for example.
In South Africa, this is more pronounced in our student body, where the call for decolonising our educational systems has also birthed important movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall, initially at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and then spreading like fire through the entire schooling system in South Africa.
Young people are not only “changing the African narrative”, they are interrogating the very stains of the ink in which our legacy is written.
It seems to me that the students of 1976, who fought the apartheid regime’s Bantu Education and “settler colonial” language policies at the time, are reincarnated in today’s student leaders, who are not only calling for free access to education, but for a complete overhaul of the Western-style education system as we know it.
What we’re witnessing today is the birth of a new breed of leaders - a decolonial leadership - who will go on to tackle some of the most oppressive systems our continent has ever inherited.
What does it mean to be a de- colonial leader?
At the Klaus-Jürgen Bathe (KJB) leadership programme - a scholarship that nurtures future leaders at UCT - scholars are grappling with this question in their own leadership journey.
Natalie Mangondo, a UCT engineering graduate and founder of the African Pioneers Association, states: “I think that decolonisation has become a dirty word, almost like feminism once was.
“However, I think it’s similar to feminism in the way that African ideas, practices and values should be brought to the table as women’s ideas should be.”
But what are these principles and values that differentiate a decolonial leader from an ordinary leader?
Jean-Luc Ciappareli, a UCT social sciences student, outlines some of the qualities he believes a decolonial leader should portray.
“A particular sensitivity to the harms of colonisation and its legacies, and a deep understanding of power relations; having a desirable, unifying vision for what a decolonised society could look like; humility and staying grounded as a leader, remembering that decolonisation is not about the individual, but caring about grassroots effects; and a commitment to a cause they believe in.”
Particularly in our context, it is clear that the legacies of colonialism and apartheid have left deep and lasting scars in our society through the systematic decimation of whole cultures, languages, arts, indigenous wisdom, and human dignity through social, economic and political exclusion based on race.
“Our ultimate goal as leaders is to be able to make the world a less hostile environment for African thoughts and ideas, and in that way hopefully be able to change the mindsets of African people, so that they may see themselves as capable and worthy,” says Nelisa Khwela, another UCT KJB scholar.
As I made my way back from Freetown to Cape Town, I marvelled at our youthful continent. With a median age of only 19.2 years old, and the average African president aged 62, I couldn’t help but wonder, like the EAP delegates in the room, if the aspirations of our young people are truly understood?
In honour of Youth Month, let us truly listen and give voice to our future decolonial leaders, as they are the living encyclopaedic narrative of our country and continent.
* Belisa Rodrigues is the programme manager for the Klaus- Jürgen Bathe (KJB) leadership programme at UCT.
About the Klaus-Jürgen Bathe (KJB) leadership programme mission:
“Our primary goal is to produce graduates with outstanding leadership qualities and a strong sense of social justice who will go on to play leading and significant roles in business, government, industry and civil society in South Africa and on the African continent.”
The Saturday Star