Letsema Centre

Reinvigorating Youthful Leadership

Bennitto Motitswe is Executive Director of Letsema Centre for Development and Democracy. This is the original version of an opinion column article which appeared in the Leadership magazine in 2004.

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Are the youth of today (2004) as apathetic about democratisation, human rights, and governance as they are made out to be? How could we more constructively conceive of dynamic roles for youth in contemporary societies? Ask Bennitto Motitswe.

The subject of youth participation in developmental processes continues to be a question pondered by many minds, especially at this point where the oncoming of the third democratic election concurrently marks the end of the first decade in freedom in South Africa. A great deal of compelling historical evidence clearly points to generations of inspiring youth who contributed enormously to the successes of myriad human struggles and the ultimate attainment of human freedoms against many brutal colonial systems.

Undoubtedly, the astounding leadership ideas and the active role demonstrated by youth in South Africa like elsewhere have not only provided the impetus towards winning over apartheid and colonialism, but have also consequently created challenging obligations to successive intergenerational leadership. The general outcry after just a decade of democratic governance in South Africa has been that political activism amongst youth has become a shrinking pool – could there be any genuine concern in this, maybe or not?

In pursuing an analysis of the need to reinvigorate generational leadership, it is critical to commence by affirming a truism that youth are moulded differently over time around existing socio-politico-economic ideals of the present rather than the past. The popular motto is: »youth lives now, not yesterday, not tomorrow«. Of course, this does not entirely rule out as unimportant the argument that the present is somewhat influenced or shaped by the past, and that the future mostly reflects the desired product of the struggle between the past and the present. It is also persuading to argue that many citizen leaders are moulded by the kind of societal circumstances or environments they historically and/or contemporarily associate socially with.

These assertions suggest, inter alia, that the key challenge of sustaining the mobilising and organising successes from one generation of leadership to others requires concerted efforts by families, organisations and communities to continuously reinvigorate youthful leadership. Sustainable democratic governance depends on sustainable intergenerational leadership. Similarly, sustainable generational leadership depends on youth with leadership capabilities. The task of nurturing young leaders could be daunting.

The vast of both anecdotal and empirical research acknowledges that youth does not constitute a class on its own but is critically an integral part of societal mass, and is composed of one growth phase of a rising generation, which, while it may have allegiance with any of the ideological or class extremes making up diverse societies, nonetheless remains itself a highly contested and heterogeneous. Some refers to youth as a class in transit.

Nonetheless, it is important to emphasise that youth are never immune from societal upheavals and are often worst hit by persistent joblessness, amongst the many evident societal ills. The majority of youth draw strength from their competitive edge involving discovering the ever-changing global and human life trends. The litmus test for such strength is always the resilient capacity to identify self-interests, including grasping the deepest motivators or passions in life amongst youth in relation to the broader population.

In contrast, youth easily overcome its weakness of fragility by learning the demands of constant change rather than been influenced through normal classroom-based tutelages and subjective experiences of elderly generations of leadership. It could be observed that many elderly generations are never about to fully grasp the thinking and actions of younger generations in life – there is always a blame game characterised by mismatching intergenerational expectations – with parents demanding their children to follow their example in everything they do. Youth are visible in almost all facets of human activities and undoubtedly constitute the majority of active citizens in modern societies – and are therefore somewhat obliged to provide influential and effective input into ongoing processes of governance, democratisation and development – these are used herein through to demonstrate interrelated tasks of leadership.

Youth is therefore, arguably the leading socio-politico force in every contemporary society. Of course, this could perhaps be limited to those societies like South Africans, which is highly politicised and historically derived its character from waging social, economic, and political struggles.

The often concocted or rather over exaggerated problem of youth lack of participation is somehow also complicated by the popular presumption that everything about youth has to happen in the future and that something should be done in the present to prepare youth for such distant and abstract future. The major problem inherent in this innocent presumption has to do with the tendency to abandon the present self-interests of youth in mainstream decision-making and relegate such urgent interests to a considerate future framework. Perhaps we must engage in redefining both participation and the future – of course not in this already difficult piece.

Our preoccupation herein through is showcasing that generations of youth leadership resisted this tendency by assuming the front trenches in waging human rights struggles on pertinent societal issues with full grasp that they stand to benefit both in the immediate as well as in the future. Such benefits are never intended exclusively for youth but for the entire society. The benefits of waging struggles accrue to everybody and unfortunately the pain of struggling is always felt by those involved. 

The other unfortunate tendency with postponing youth interests has not only to do with curtailing their energies but severely underestimating the fact that youth are intelligent enough and possess the necessary tenacity of deciding on and working to achieve their shared and desired destinies in democratic and developing societies. More often than not, youth have to wage struggles for democracies first before they benefit. In fact, truth be told, youth are used to fight in liberation struggles but are often disregarded after victory. 

In many societies, there seems to be an apparent breakdown in politico-developmental communication as youth are constantly wondering when their governments would deliver on their shared interests in particular or service delivery in general, and likewise, many governments typically or constantly calls on youth to participate and seize the opportunities created by democratic governance. This unfortunate breakdown of communication between citizens and their governments, especially younger generations in societies also lead to mismatches of social democratic expectations and therefore confusing roles in intergenerational leadership.

For this reason, and maybe more often than not, the clarion calls related to the role of youth seem to be flying across different trajectories which do not meet up. Arguably, youth do not require permission to explore own ideas – in every society no matter the social contradictions; the playing field is set for readily opportune youth to assume leadership in virtually all theatres of the transformative discourse, thereby acting politically in the broadest sense, and as is unfortunate, elderly generations would typically behave dismissive to anything seemingly threatening their average experience or life comforts.

Many families, organisations, and communities seem to have abandoned their fundamental responsibilities involving nurturing intergenerational leaders. They fall in the trap of doing things for young people instead of allowing young people to learn to do things on their own for themselves and with others to benefit society. It is only realistic that youth with leadership abilities would want to be seen readily representing their current self-interests in unfolding polity discourses for democratic governance.

It becomes increasingly important to acknowledge that young people in contemporary societies continues to contribute meaningfully in reshaping societal destinies by providing reinvigorated generational or youthful leadership and thereby co-creating developmental change. It is always time and space that compel youth to rise and be equal to the monumental tasks of reinvigorating generational leadership. Youth are characteristically effervescent and leadership-inspired. Their fascination tends to new trends rather than keeping steadfast to old traditions – this is more so in participatory democratic dispensations. The challenge is for older generations to open space and join in painfully permitting change as led by those they declared inexperienced and must still learn a lot to be where the elders are.

It could therefore be argued that the generation of youth leadership that dethroned apartheid will never be identical to the one that is charged with mammoth responsibility of reconstructing democratic governance in South Africa as it could be necessary elsewhere. The need to sustain youth interests remains eternal, although the strategies and tactics for achieving the linking transformative goals would need to be refocused to assume different mobilising and organising approaches as current generation of youth moves into redefining the future by acting in the present to create own future and not waiting to take instructions on when or how to do things for themselves.

It then becomes critical to elaborate dissimilar characterisations of generational leadership in the evolution of societal change. Perhaps generational leadership has to do more with the adaptability and sustainability of leadership ideas and roles in an ever changing socio-politico-economic environment, and also how mobilising and organising tools could be applied to retain and refresh active participation by younger populations in societies.

Claims as to apathy or some kind of disinterests amongst generational youth, especially regarding their roles in democratisation and development do not allow the engendering of understanding the broader meaning of politics amongst younger generations in diverse communities. Such claims disregard the heterogeneous character of societies and also ignore evident efforts by youth to ascend the stages of democratic governance by devoting their energies to acquire appropriate knowledge and skills in order to participate meaningfully in organisational and community-based activities encompassing virtually all facets of human development and societal change.

Youth participation can no longer therefore only be measured or narrowed to voting or physical attendance of public or organisational meetings but must include a wider assessment of demonstrated intergenerational leadership or active roles in local developmental and political activities.

A fair number of read or heard claims related to apathy generally tend to underplay youth participation and see it only in the context of comparative voting and party political experiences rather than seeing it as an issue of broad-based involvement of citizens (especially those youthful) in societal developmental change. More and more youthful generational leadership is driven by a passion for power and the desire to succeed and therefore unavoidably occupy the frontlines of struggles.

Much of public opinion and analysis on why youth get dismissed as politically apathetic during elections ignores fundamental factors contributing towards developing democratic knowledge, attributes and skills for young people, thereby moulding and nurturing them as responsible and self reliant citizens for sustainable development and democratization. Lack of dedicated democracy and citizenship education in the majority of the so-called developing nations continue to pose imminent challenges against the prospects for generational youthful leadership.

Citizens are easily conned into surrendering their fundamental responsibility to build and safeguard a sustainable democracy. Concerns around youth participation should be best conceptualised as a matter of ongoing need to reinvigorate generational leadership through involving families, organisations, and communities as partners.

We have a responsibility to shift public opinion and analysis on the matter of youth participation to endeavour to educate youth and other population ages by instilling a sense of compassion and ownership of destinies instead of exacerbating the demoralising emphasis on cynicism as regards democratic governance. In South Africa today, the clarion call to youth is to identify the common denominator for the new human struggles, be it inter alia, economic transformation or the African renaissance – there must not be doubt that youth fully grasp this clarion call and in their own way would seek to make unique contributions. All progressive nations of the world owe the development of young people into responsibly democratic citizens. At the same time young people must act decisively and not apologise for invoking creative ways of occupying the centre stage of transforming societies now not in the future, for their sake and for the sake of fellow citizens.