South Africa is facing a leadership vacuum, and the future needs graduates to contribute meaningfully, writes Sizwe Mabizela.
Your graduation ceremony takes place at a particularly challenging time in the history of our young democracy. You graduate at a time when our country is at a crossroads, when our nation is engulfed by anger, turbulence and racial polarisation, and when the foundations and pillars of our constitutional democracy are being tested. You are graduating into a society in which greed, corruption, deceit and malfeasance have been perfected into an art form, one we could not have imagined even a month or so ago.
These are extraordinary and uncertain times. Much is at stake. Our country is in a deep crisis; it has been pushed to breaking point and is unravelling. Fast. Many in our society feel trapped in a state of powerlessness, hopelessness and helplessness.
As you graduate, I wish to remind you that your country has never needed you more! Your country needs your integrity, honesty and skills, your fresh and innovative ideas, your talents, knowledge and expertise, your youthful idealism and enthusiasm, your energy and resourcefulness. Your country needs your courage, courage that will speak truth to falsehoods and challenge the sham explanations that discredit and insult us all. You have a significant contribution to make in ensuring that we pull our country out of the abyss in which it finds itself.
The recent political and economic developments in our country should give us pause for thought and reflection about the society we have become and what the future might hold for us. We might argue, debate and possibly agree to disagree on how we got to this stage. What is beyond dispute, though, is that at the core of the challenges facing our society is the spectacular failure of political leadership. The current crisis should underline the importance of electing leadership that is competent, accountable, honest and trustworthy.
Our country is in desperate need of quality, good, caring, compassionate, courageous and moral leadership; a leadership which, from the idea of Eleanor Roosevelt, not only inspires confidence in the leader, but one that inspires people to have confidence in themselves. The kind of leadership which is not a function of material wealth, high office or status, or bestowed by a degree or qualification, but one that must be earned through ethical conduct, impeccable integrity, visionary endeavour, selfless public service and commitment to people and responsibilities.
In future, when we choose leaders, we must take to heart the sage advice of Octavia Butler, a celebrated African-American science fiction writer, when she says: “Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”
All our challenges notwithstanding, we should never allow apathy, despair, cynicism or despondency to take hold in our society. It is an inevitability of nature that even the darkest night has to give way to the dawn of a bright new day. This too shall pass! And this is the significance of your graduation this morning – hope, optimism and a promise of a new and a better tomorrow.
Given all we have experienced in South African history, we, of all peoples, cannot afford to lose the hope that sustained us in the dark days of apartheid, we cannot afford not to imagine a better society and world than the one which we pray we inhabit temporarily.
Your education has equipped you with knowledge and values to imagine a better future for our society, and has given you the ability to contribute to a tomorrow that is more just, fair, honest and respectful of every citizen, regardless of whether you are moving into the world of work or pursuing a further qualification.
As you cross the stage, your challenge is to hold fast to the belief that you can and will contribute to our joint future as a democracy in which so much is at stake. You are more than equal to the challenges that face our society and humankind.
You join a small and privileged segment of our society – a knowledge elite. In the globalised world, membership of this knowledge elite carries with it special duties, obligations and responsibilities that you cannot and dare not shirk.
Never be afraid to raise your head above the parapet on social, economic and political ills that afflict our society. Never allow the fear of failure to drive you into the safety of inaction. Never sacrifice your values of personal integrity, honesty, trust, fairness and respect for instant gratification or political expediency.
This is an edited extract from Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Mabizela’s speech, delivered at a graduation ceremony last Thursday