This past weekend at the University of Cape Town, six young students, all in their early 20s, dared to knock on the doors of Jameson Hall demanding entry into the 50th commemoration of Bobby Kennedy’s Ripples of Hope speech. In that audience sat Graça Machel, Kerry Kennedy, daughter of Bobby Kennedy, and 20 other Kennedys, John Lewis, Chris Coons, and a number of other US Congressmen and women, Helen Zille, Max Price, Patrick Gaspard, Wilmot James with about 800 other guests.
The students’ entry was well timed as it overlapped with John Lewis speaking about the good kind of trouble that young people need to embrace if change is ever to be realised. John Lewis noted very briefly their entry below the podium and continued on with his speech, which felt like a sermon. As the speeches concluded, the MC asked that those students leave the venue. In response to this and the murmurings across the room, Graça Machel simply interjected by saying “let them stay”.
As South Africa approaches 3 August, it is important to remember that there will be a great deal of noise from our politicians on their leadership abilities, on their credentials, on their ability to lead and on their apparent claim to be people of integrity. Our realities will, however, be far from perfect and South Africans will have to engage in a good kind of trouble in the months (and years) of turmoil ahead.
The events of the past weekend and South Africa’s upcoming Youth Day next week remind me about two recent conversations. The first was with Adegboyega, a friend in Lagos, who works on a state (or provincial) level and who, like many other young Nigerians, embraced the idea that Muhammadu Buhari would usher in a new era of prosperity, stability and certainty. Adegboyega, and his generation, were not impressed by the abuse of state resources and the culture of ambivalence and corruption. The conversations leading up to Buhari’s election were laced with the steadfast belief that he was a man of integrity and that he would wash away the years of complacency and corruption.
The honeymoon around Buhari’s ascendancy has passed in part because of the economic consequences of inaction and uncertainty. However, Adegboyega, like many others who supported and campaigned for the change, continue to believe that change can still happen even though the veneer has been washed away. This past week, Adegboyega shared a very simple statement that “integrity is not enough to govern a nation”. Nigeria, despite having what many regard to be a man of integrity as a leader, is struggling and for the past while has been unable to arrest the decline or even to shift gears.
The second conversation was with Bronwyn, a young and passionate South African, who firmly believes that we are only entitled to an opinion if we have exercised our right to vote (as well as our other rights and responsibilities). We debated this idea especially because of the lacklustre slate of candidates and political parties available. However, Bronwyn’s view on this issue remains unchanged. Bronwyn’s sentiment of participation by South Africans is an important call especially for the 14-million or so South Africans who don’t vote, but this will not be enough.
South Africa is at also at that crossroad. Our challenge is not simply about electing different people. We will have the opportunity to elect thousands into office and many of those candidates will claim to stand for something more and that they stand against corruption. However, the lesson from Adegboyega’s country is that integrity is not enough.
We cannot simply watch the decline, the capture of our institutions, and the self-enrichment. We are drowning in leadership that is self-indulgent, over-indulgent and deceptive. We need to challenge the very nature of our society like the generation of 1976 did when they did the unthinkable and challenged the status quo. We need to engage in the good kind of trouble.
We cannot rely only on the integrity of a few or the hope that Pravin Gordhan, and those like him, will arrest the decline. It will not be enough simply to be heard or allowed to stay in the room. We must address our problems and issues. Our struggle cannot be staged; it cannot be micromanaged, but what is certain is things are going to have to become more unpleasant and uncertain before they get any better. DM