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21st Century Leadership: A socially engaged praxis?

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Thought Leader - Ayabonga Cawe

It was Charles Dickens, who in his book, A tale of two cities, said it was the best of times, it was also the worst of times. We certainly live in interesting times. We live in a century characterised by advances in technology, standards of living and cutting-edge innovation.

However, despite all of these human advances, many areas of human life haven’t been touched by the shared joy of progress. Millions continue to suffer under political and economic systems which reproduce inequalities in access to power, resources and other life sustaining means. Many of our prominent African leaders, in circumstances far from ideal, have articulated the idea that Africa’s contribution to humanity should be in the realm of human-to-human relations. More aptly, in a world where many of us are forced to be cunning and calculating pursuers of wealth, Africa and its young leaders need to remind the world of the importance of seeing humanity in each other. To be human, in a world that expects and teaches us to be machines in pursuit of industrial progress, must be our greatest pursuit. It then becomes important to ground our efforts at progress, in the richness and totality of the human experience. After all, what function does technological progress and innovation play, if we have not managed to deal decisively with the main social challenges of our time; poverty, ignorance and disease? 

I wish to discuss the important role that African youth can play, and are already playing in using the technological, commercial and industrial advances to solve some of the pressing social questions of our era. As easy as it is to be despondent, and restless in response to these challenges, we must always believe, even during the tough times, that we can make tomorrow better through our efforts and actions. Throughout the world, and in Africa in particular, young people have responded to the above challenge. The field of social entrepreneurship has become a buzzword in youth circles. A social enterprise, is an enterprise quite different from the conventional enterprise driven by a narrow profit motive. Unlike a normal enterprise, social enterprises have a dual purpose; the pursuit of both the profit and the social motive. In thinking of social enterprises it would be interesting to look at some of the initiatives that young Africans have pursued. One thinks of Ludwick Marishane, who has created a ‘dry bath’ which requires no water, and serves the hygiene needs of people living in water-scarce environments. What of Rea Ngwane and Thato Kgathlanye who have created a school bag from recycled regulation plastic bags, with a solar charged light to assist young people from communities without electricity. One also thinks of the interesting work being done by Yusuf Randera-Rees and the Awethu Project in incubating young entrepreneurs. These entrepreneurs, armed with nothing but a brilliant idea, are able to see their dreams realised through concerted guidance, effort, funding and hard work. It is through such innovative means of creating social solutions, employment and profit, that the field of commercial enterprise can be conducted in a humane and people-centred manner

These brief stories indicate three things to me. Firstly, that the leadership challenges of today and tomorrow require a different approach in order to solve. These challenges which require balancing different and at times divergent objectives, require young leaders to sort through the messy complexity of 21st century life, by prioritising and acknowledging the social implications of our actions. Secondly, one begins to realise, that an effective leader in our generation, in whatever sphere of life, is one who is expected to be driven by both the social and profit/or individual motive. In a world where the individual has become the centre of all, our greatest gift must be to give the world a social conscience and a sense of community. Thirdly, these initiatives have highlighted once again the importance of a culture of innovation in driving development and ultimate human progress. We have lived in a world where innovation and technological advance has been commodified. Packaged for sale and profit, our best human advances have become the preserve of the affluent, and as such, instead of lessening human suffering, they have made it starker. 

How then, do young leaders make a contribution to creating a culture of social innovation in the African century? Our responses to these questions will outline what organised initiatives and interventions will have to be spearheaded by young leaders. If one looks at the education system, there needs to be a clear review of the curriculum and the ‘academic’ bias of our education. In the first instance, our curriculum, fails in many instances to highlight the skills and competences required by our society in the 21st century. Moreover, it remains a moot point whether the curriculum aims to develop a generation of African youth with a sensitivity to the social challenges of our time. 

That a focus on innovation and technology is required, goes without saying, however a ‘problem-posing’ pedagogy, in the words of Paulo Freire, is what is missing? Such an education, as opposed to the ‘teacher filling the blank young mind’ kind of education, aims to understand how the young mind sees this world, and how they problematize it with the aim of transforming it.  Such an education would allow young people to see the social challenges we face, not in isolation to their own individual and collective dreams, realities and aims, but in tandem, with the aim of transforming our social reality. Such a holistic and socially engaged praxis, should be the cornerstone and character of our leaders of today and tomorrow. In a country where a lot is said about the culture of entitlement among the youth, and very little said about the culture of crass enrichment, it would be refreshing to have this model of leadership. Many corporations and institutions have already acknowledged the importance of the social motive, and have dedicated corporate social investment funds in this regard. This presents an opportunity for young leaders to create viable, sustainable enterprises focused on alleviating human suffering, and in so doing contributing to the advance of humanity. The young leaders of today and tomorrow, need not work in silo’s, but need to consolidate their efforts into a joint solidarity aimed at rethinking how the world conducts commerce and the social impact of such conduct. Imagine a continental oligopoly of social enterprises, and the impact, surely different from conventional types, that they would have on our social challenges. It is possible. 

About Ayabonga Cawe

Ayabonga is an Analyst at Dalberg Global Development Advisors, an international development consultancy. Ayabonga is also completing Masters in Development Theory and Policy at Wits. He has a Bachelor of Commerce in Applied Economics and Business Finance, and he has also obtained an Honours in Development Theory and Policy with distinction from Wits. Ayabonga is a co-founder of the Young Economists for Africa, a youth policy initiative that aims to add a youth perspective on questions of economic policy on the African continent. His research interests include: the political economy of South Africa, public-private sector partnerships in the South African economy, and issues of regional and continental integration in Africa.A poet and a writer, Ayabonga has written regularly for online youth platforms such as thatshowitis.co.za and consciousness.co.za on a range of social and economic issue.

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