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The Need to Differ Well

Date Released: Wed, 15 May 2013 11:09 +0200

By Sihlangule Siwisa, Rhodes University Alumnus


Our interactions as citizens of South Africa has often been along party political lines in the past except for the few times that we meet on the sporting fields for a major event, then we unite for a while and forget our differences.

This limits us in the sense that we may not find areas of agreement with people from opposing political parties for fear of censure from our own political home. This then tends to limit our capacity as young people to build the nation.

We need to create space for civil activism that super-cedes party political lines. This is what will help us build a strong nation.

We can build a strong civic movement that holds the public service corps, corporate citizens and private citizens accountable for what they do in our communities whilst retaining the theatre of power that plays itself out along political lines. Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with having a robust political process; I welcome that.

Having said that, I think that if we are to knit together a South African tapestry, we need to inculcate a mindset that says I AM SOUTH AFRICAN FIRST, BEFORE I AM A MEMBER OF A POLITICAL PARTY.

By so doing, we will create an underlying sense of Patriotism that allows us to not only differ, but TO DIFFER WELL.

The pursuit of fresh answers often necessitates the abandoning of fears to ask questions that violate the status quo. A classical example of this is the debate in South African over whether or not to nationalize the mines. I welcome dialogue on such matters, but in order for this to work; we need to give ourselves permission to be led NOT by the loudest voices, but by the most sensible.

The need to differ well emanates from the complexity of socio-economic & socio-political questions we are faced with, which necessitates the acknowledgement and weighing of diverse voices as we search for answers. There is a need for thought leadership that is flanked by eldership, because the problems we face are far too complex for us to abdicate our responsibility to think.

For instance, South Africa is a 2nd World economy in the sense that we have elements of both 1st world and 3rd world bound together in an inseparable destiny.

First world countries that have a high capital stock and high per capita incomes generally have high adoption rates of new technology because they have the disposable income with which to acquire that new technology.

People in developed economies have a significant percentage of early adopters of technology and they are willing to pay top dollar for this because the introduction price of new technology is high. Consequently, the economies that churn out this technology tend to soar.

The emerging economies that are destined to be the superpowers of the future will be the ones who are quick-footed in adaptation. In the challenging environment of doing business in an atmosphere of a global recession, it has become increasingly important for businesses to refine their service offering and to distinguish themselves through a unique value proposition.

As a result we need a workforce that is made up of individuals who are self-directed and have the ability to lead themselves and others up the path of progress. A critical part of this is the ability to absorb new technology, which improves individual and corporate productivity.

One of the conundrums we have had to deal with in South Africa, because of our past which is rooted in oppression, is the tendency to pursue individualistic goals that accrue no communal benefit. There is a gentleman who appeared in the 19h30 news last year who said that “increasing productivity is the management’s problem …we should not be punished for their poor management practice”.

This kind of thinking is symptomatic of a culture of doing ‘just enough to get by’. I know I am being harsh, but I think productivity is OUR responsibility. We need to have CAN DO CULTURE.

I have learnt from experience in the corporate world that there can be an inequitable transfer of skills across the race spectrum, which manifests itself in incongruent training budgets; delegation of tasks, but not the authority to perform tasks; exclusion of talent from the strategic discussions in the company and relegation to the administrative aspects. All of these are just a few of the silent indignities that undermine the confidence of young people in the workforce.

We need to build a bridge.

As a young person, I regard myself as a custodian of Brand South Africa and thus feel that we have to take cognizance of the voices that emanate from diverse sectors of our nation, such that everyone can take ownership of the national brand. But, above all, youth have the energy to drive change and national building. We need to work on our education system to unlock the potential of our youth early, so that they can develop mastery in a particular skill as opposed to merely seeking ‘work’. A skill you can sell in the open market and create jobs.

I believe that young people are a vital part of civil society is made up of organs of society that congregate to address issues affecting society in a manner that transcends the political sphere, but is still related to it. Civil society is made up of cause related organizations such as civic bodies, ratepayers associations, non-governmental organizations and religious communities.

As a brand custodian, my role is to be an agent of change in my community. Given such a responsibility, there is a need to harness the energy of youth to appreciate the value of community service. You need people with a highly developed sense of patriotism and a desire to do work that transcends personal benefit. This would allow us to re-invigorate the National Youth Service.

It is by embracing diverse views that we can articulate a message that will make SA a winning nation. In order to achieve this, we have to create a framework through which we can dialogue with civic structures without fear of reprimand which leads to self-censorship. There is a need for morally disciplined but intellectually unrestrained thought leadership that is flanked by eldership.

To quote the words of the late Oliver Reginald Tambo in 1991: “…we did not tear ourselves apart because of a lack of progress at times. We were always ready to defend our unity”.

Our unity is at its peril, when we fail to acknowledge and engage voices that offend our own sensibilities. Unless we differ well, we cannot defend our unity. AMANDLA!

A shorter version of this article was first published in City Press on 19 May 2012 under the title “The Need to Differ Amicably”. Sihlangule drew this article to our attention after listening to Peter Harris addressing our Business Forum on 11 May 2013 on “Post Marikana: Lessons Learnt”. We publish the full version here.