Opinionista Xhanti Payi 15 May 2014

The burden of being young, black, and maybe talented

For the most part, being black in predominantly white organisations or white-led organisations is generally characterised by being second-guessed, consistently patronized and undermined. The Democratic Alliance debacle around Lindiwe Mazibuko’s departure for Harvard University highlights this very issue.

Lindiwe Mazibuko, for any number of reasons, has decided to pursue her studies at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. She would have spent time considering her future and how to best move forward given her achievements so far, her career path and life’s dreams. As a young and bright leader, she would have many considerations and indeed opportunities.

Helen Zille chooses the lowest of them all – that she is facing failure. Having “given” her all opportunities to succeed as a leader in the Democratic Alliance, Helen could not come to a calculation that proves Mazibuko as a capable leader, able to win a second term as the party’s leader in Parliament. She also couldn’t find other factors that would not necessarily exclude failure in the caucus, but overwhelmingly constitute positively to Lindiwe’s decision to take a year off to study abroad.

I have a few friends who have recently taken decisions to veer off their “long term career goals” and really pursue fully their interests. These are not extraordinary decisions, not at all strange actions in career paths of those who’ve worked for large organisations.

This is something that we knew only from white counterparts.

Our white colleagues, as I began my career, routinely took time off to “take the foot off from the pedal”, spending a year or more away – travelling through Europe, reaching for Africa’s mountain tops, learning a second language, or even simply, trying to start families.

But here we are in a twist about Lindiwe Mazibuko’s decision to go to Harvard University where she has every possibility to advance her career and make her a better person in her chosen field of work, including within the DA.

I could hear those words that have been uttered to many young blacks as they took charge of their own destinies, away from those envisioned by bosses or ‘sponsors’, as we have them in corporate South Africa. With a shaking head they say, “You see, you take a chance on them, invest in them, give them skills, and they leave.”

Such is the burden of young black people in the new society being built.

We need to transform all areas of society and show progress in those efforts. So, leaders in organizations such as Helen Zille’s give opportunities to talent such as Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane, who would otherwise not succeed without her intervention. In turn these young people have to carry this burden of performance to show that such acts of goodwill have not gone to waste.

However, as all free people can be expected to do, these same young people may have different ways in which they see the future as they pursue growth. They may even change their minds about the goals they had set for themselves, as this is the point of freedom. Yet when this happens, it is treated as a betrayal, treachery, a dishonesty and weakness of character.

Thus defined, young talent relies on white leaders “taking a chance” on them. It then follows that they are beholden to them, and may not change course or choose their own path towards the same or different end.

Given our historical context, we increasingly rely on young people to take up roles historically assumed by older white South Africans. In this sense, these young people are required to work hard to show their worth and deliver on the expectations they have for themselves, and the ambitions of an entire people.

Looking at Lindiwe Mazibuko, the work she was entrusted with as a leader in the Democratic Alliance, could it be said that she has failed in the measurements above, including inspiring young South Africans to continue to work hard and reach for more?

Whatever conflicts there are within the Democratic Alliance, and between Mazibuko and Zille, it has to be seen within the larger South African context. It has to be called out for what it is, namely, the fundamental problems we face within the imperative to reconstruct our society, and the perceptions we must manage about each other and ourselves.

Clearly there must be a more nuanced approach to how we see each other, and our approach to young black people in all spheres of society. While they represent hope for transformation, and even an easy way out to this imperative, they too have wide and even wild ambitions for themselves – beyond what those who contribute to their growth may envision and desire. DM

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"Take a chance, won't you? Knock down the fences which divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison you. Reach out. Freedom lies just on the other side." ~ Thurgood Marshall

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