‘A Vision for the Youth of South Africa’

Remarks by Lionel Isaacs

at the ‘Free to Be Cope’ Event

Organized by the Cope Youth Movement – Sandton Zone

March 19, 2009

Fellow South Africans, thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you, in these momentous times.

Across our country, on the eve of our fourth democratic election, our people are reflecting on the nature of leadership: that which we have had, that which we have, and that which we wish ourselves to have!

By many accounts, it appears that Youth have been more interested in this election, than in previous elections. While Youth should always be involved in elections and politics to safeguard their interests and contribute to national progress, there appear to be a number of major factors contributing to the high level of interest on the part of youth in this election. I will list a few.

This election marks the beginning of a new era in democratic South African politics, after the Mandela presidency, and the Mbeki presidency. Youth are interested in influencing and participating in this new era.

The dramatic and contentious transition of leadership of the ANC from Mbeki to Zuma, culminating in the forced resignation of Thabo Mbeki months before the end of his term, has gained national attention.

The controversial rhetoric of the leader of the ANC Youth League, has energized and polarized many people, especially the Youth, with responses ranging from those who appreciate his controversial words, and those who reject them, saying clearly, “Not in our name!”

The widespread dissatisfaction with the self-serving politics of the ANC, culminating in the highly publicized exodus of ANC members and the subsequent launch of COPE, a process which was initiated at the Convention in Sandton, Johannesburg on November 2nd 2008 , and building from there into the formal launch of a new political party in Bloemfontein on December 16th, has energized South African youth dissatisfied with the status quo. The youth are crying out for leadership on service delivery, economic development, poverty and unemployment, social justice, and progress in making a real impact on the devastating scourge of crime.

Finally, South African Youth, like many around the world, have been captivated by the successful presidential campaign of Barack Obama, appreciating his rejection of the politics of fear, narrow-mindedness, insult, labeling, rigid ideology and exclusion, and following closely, enviously, his articulation of a politics based on optimism, openness, honesty, maturity, ethics, big ideas, progress, pragmatism and inclusion.

As members of the COPE Youth Movement, what is our message for South African Youth?

Fellow South Africans, we ask you to reject the arrogance of a political party, who sees themselves as your rulers rather than your servants. Over the past several years, South Africans have become used to seeing scandal after scandal, political leaders at every level, national, provincial and local, engaging in corruption and cronyism.

Corruption has become commonplace. South Africa, we are asking you to reject this. We can be better than this, we must be better than this.

We have a massive task ahead of us. We have inherited an economy developed to serve the needs of the privileged few, rather than the many.

How can we expect to accomplish the goal of providing educational and economic opportunities for all, if those chosen to lead, spend their time and energy enriching themselves, either blatantly by taking kickbacks, steering deals to themselves through front companies, rigging tenders for family and friends, and guaranteeing access to the powerful and to the elite.

Fellow patriots, we can be better than this, we must be better than this.

Patriots, we cannot feign ignorance, and pretend we do not know the ending to the tale which is in the making. Modern Africa has no shortage of cautionary tales! We arrogantly ignore the history of countries like Kenya and Nigeria, whose progress has been slowed by the crippling effects of arrogance, greed, corruption, patronage, and cronyism. The collapse of Zimbabwe, closer to home, will hopefully serve as a wake-up call for South Africans determined to remain blind to the dangers of a politics devoid of accountability.

15 years on, we are saying that many of the problems we have seen, are exacerbated by the structure of our political system, which distorts democracy by making elected officials accountable first and foremost to their political party. Politicians are given positions by their party, and as such, are accountable first and foremost to the party bosses who have the biggest influence on their political future. This has created a chronic lack of accountability, enabling corruption, incompetence, and the placing of party interest above national interest.

That is why COPE is committed to electoral reform. Presidents, Premiers, Mayors, and Members of Parliament must be directly elected. That is the only way political leaders can be accountable to ordinary citizens.

As COPE Youth, we are stating unequivocally, that we must demand high standards from our leaders. The tragedy of our nation’s ANC-led slide into corruption, is that we are no longer outraged. We just shake our heads, and roll our eyes, and think, “That’s the way it is.”

We reject that type of thinking. That is the thinking that took hold in countries like Nigeria, and Italy, and we do not want those results. We must demand high moral and ethical standards from our leaders. We get the leadership we deserve. If we accept poor leadership, if we accept low standards, then we will get poor leadership, and we will get low standards. We know we have great challenges as a nation, in generating opportunities for all, and defeating HIV/AIDS, the legacy of Bantu education, and violent crime. To overcome these great obstacles to our nation’s progress, we need great leaders, and we will only get this if we demand great leaders. And the only way to get great leadership is to punish corruption, cronyism, incompetence, and lack of delivery at the ballot box.

What is the role of Youth leadership in society, and in politics?

Before I give you one view of what our role is, let me start by saying, what it is not.

Many of you will be familiar with the statements and behavior, of the ANC Youth League President. This individual, has made quite a name for himself, with his controversial statements, attacking all perceived enemies of himself and his leader, inside and outside of his party. It seems he believes the role of Youth leadership is to be consistently, thoughtlessly controversial.

What is sad, is not so much that a person of this caliber has come to occupy such an influential position in our society. What makes one sad, is that this person is representative of a pattern of youth leadership that has become prevalent in our democracy.

What our liberation heroes and heroines, our founding fathers and mothers, all the brave men and women who struggled for us, what they struggled for, was freedom, self-determination, and that we may have the opportunities that they did not. They fought that we may go as far as our inquiring minds and able bodies would take us.

What our people have always fought for is the opportunities we now have. The opportunity to learn at any educational institution, study any subject, enter any library, work in any profession. They fought, and in too many cases, died, that we may have these opportunities, to learn and build a life of our choosing.

That is the tragedy of the ANCYL President. A leader of the same organization which gave us Mandela and Sobukwe, who sought learning and scholarship, and engaged in reasoned debates which continue to inform us today, a leader of the same organization, gleefully specializes in rhetoric which attacks, insults and threatens; rhetoric which does not illuminate, enlighten, or build. Surely the Leader of the ANCYL in 2009, the successor of Mandela and Sobukwe, surely he should exhibit learning, thoughtfulness, and seriousness which reflects their example, not only because he has the benefit of their historic legacy to learn from, but also because he enjoys greater opportunity and access to education than they ever did; Mandela, who had to continue his studies behind prison bars?

Sadly, the ANCYL President is reflective of a modern paradigm of Youth leadership, and student leadership, who for all their enjoyment of the privileges associated with their offices, offer little in return to the Youth and society in desperate need of progressive leadership.

But it is not enough to say what Youth leadership is not. We must also be able to say, what Youth leadership is. What is the role of the Youth?

The first role of the youth in society, and in politics is to question. It is the unique position of the youth, who are not wedded to the past, and focused only on shaping a better, more just future to ask, why are things the way they are, and why are they not the way we would wish them to be?

It is this inquisitiveness, curiosity, and boldness, that makes the youth integral to society.

It is this natural tendency to renewal, that lifted our struggle, after the dark days of the 1960’s, when our leaders were imprisoned, banned, forced into exile, and the Apartheid regime deepened its repression. It was the youth, who reignited the struggle in the 1970s. It was the youth, like Steve Biko and others, on university campuses, who questioned their oppression.

Which leads us to the next role of the youth. After we question why things are the way they are, and why are they not the way we wish them to be, it is our role to learn, to think, to reason and to dream.

The youth who would form the Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko and others, were mainly university students. Cut off from revolutionary literature by Apartheid censors, they questioned their oppression, and questioned the role of the white-dominated student groups who would speak on their behalf, taking away their agency. They learned, and thought, and dreamt, and created a compelling and coherent ideology, which questioned the foundation of their oppression, and built a framework for liberation, through knowledge of self, responsibility and agency. What an achievement Black Consciousness was, and it was an achievement that came out of a burning youthful desire to learn, to think, to reason, and to dream.

The same goes for the youth of 1976, who rose up in defiance. Having seen no justification as to why they should be forced to learn in the language of their oppressor, they rose up, when their parents wished them to be patient for change.

This brings me to the next role of the youth, to be impatient. Having asked why are things the way they are, and why are they not the way we would wish them to be; having learned, and thought, and reasoned, and dreamed; the youth must be impatient as to why an undesirable status quo must persist, and why society is happy to leave necessary progress and change just over the horizon.

This is one of the most important aspects of our role, to be impatient. We must be impatient for progress. We must not believe those who say yes, they agree that change is needed, but these things take time. Where would we be if our fathers and mothers were not impatient? Where will we be, if we keep postponing the urgency of change? How long will we tolerate incompetence? How long will we tolerate corruption? How long will we tolerate poor leadership? How long will we let party politics take precedence over our nation’s agenda?

Which brings me to our final, most important role. Our most important role, is to be idealistic. It is in our youth that we develop principles and ideals, which govern our dreams. We must be big and bold enough to be idealistic. That is the tragedy of corruption and cronyism, and a society that privileges elitism and political connections over merit and talent. It makes the youth cynical. They look around, and are pessimistic of their prospects, thinking that who you know will always be more important than what you can contribute. We must resist the temptation to be cynical. We must resist the temptation to compromise. If we will not be boldly, confidently, innocently idealistic, who will be? If we will not articulate the ideals by which we will reshape our society into the land of opportunity, safety and prosperity we know it can be, who will?

To the Youth of South Africa, I say to you today, we are the ones we have been waiting for. No one else is going to do the work. No one else is going to vote the ineffective politicians out and the progressive public servamts in. No one else is going to stay informed, and hold them accountable for their promises and their performance. The only people who will do it, are you, and I.

In conclusion, I would like to ask each one of us, to think about how our choices, will reverberate into the future. 60 years ago, countries like Nigeria, Ghana, and South Korea were at relatively similar levels economically. Within a couple of generations, South Korea, through investment in human potential, equipping its population with education and expertise, has developed itself, into an advanced economy, which meets the needs of its people. They achieved this through a developmental state supportive of small, medium, and large scale entrepreneurship. Through a highly competent, skilled, and educated civil service, they supported the businesses that would take South Korea from an agrarian developing country, into an advanced country which excels at heavy industry, building and exporting cars, ships, consumer appliances, cellphones, TVs, refridgerators, washing machines, that are sold around the world.

The world will not wait for us. 30 years from now, when our children stand in our place. What South Africa will they inherit? Will they inherit a country with decaying infrastructure, pockets of wealth amidst a sea of despair, the few haves hunkering in their compounds with generators and water pumps and armed guards keeping out the have nots? Will they inherit a country which eaks out a living selling metals to other countries who fashion them into finished products, which they then sell back to us? Will they inherit a country which begs other countries for investment and tourism? Will we be a country that descends into mediocrity, living off of past glories, holding up the legacy of Mandela, even as we slide into irrelevance? The challenge for all of us, is to build the next great South African success story.

I believe that South Africa can be world class. We must choose to make it so.

I believe South Africa can have a politics worthy of our historic struggle for self-determination, dignity, and humanity. We must choose to make it so.

I believe we can build a society where all men, women and children need not fear being the victims of the brutality of violent crime. We must choose to make it so.

I believe we can build a society where all of our citizens have access to quality health care. We must choose to make it so.

I believe we can build a society which defeats the epidemic of HIV/AIDS. We must choose to make it so.

I believe instead of taking pride in being able to buy Korean cellphones, Japanese TVs, and German cars, we can build our own manufacturing and engineering capability to be proud of, so that one day South African products and machines can be the envy of the world. We must choose to make it so.

I believe South Africa can stop relying on foreign investors to lift us out of poverty, and take the responsibility for empowering our entire population with education and expertise, so that we can create our own jobs by building new small, medium and large enterprises which will sell products and services that the world will buy, thereby growing our economy. We must choose to make it so.

I believe we can build our own politics of optimism, openness, honesty, morality, inclusion, pragmatism, progress, and big ideas, which we can be proud of; A politics which can again inspire the rest of the world. We must choose to make it so.

I believe we can build a better South Africa. We must choose to make it so.