The beauty of democracy is that it allows the space to reinvent itself. It our duty as citizens of democracy to ensure that this beauty is not jaded.

 

This spirited assertion offered by Erik de Ridder captures some of the challenging ideas presented at this year’s first dialogue jointly hosted by SAWIP and Inkulufreeheid on Monday, March 25 at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) in Johannesburg.

 

Under the theme of Leadership and Innovation for Social Change, and the role of Memory and Legacy guests gathered to engage with a panel led by Nicolas Wolpe (CEO of the Liliesleaf Trust), Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh and Erik de Ridder (Sawip Class of 2011 and co-founders of Inkulufreeheid).

 

Unlike the idealism that generally weighs in heavily when topics of “youth”, “leadership” and “innovation” are tabled, this dialogue stimulated a frank discussion around the opportunities and obstacles to youth-led social change in present-day South Africa.

 

This was kicked off by Mpofu-Walsh’s perspective on the role of young, educated South Africans in becoming active agents of change. He identified a sense of “middle class phobia” that hinders some of the country’s brightest minds from taking risks needed to realize a significant change in South Africa’s economic and political leadership. Without prescribing the risks that middle class youth should be taking, Mpofu-Walsh’s underlying message set an important tone for the rest of the dialogue: that we need to re-examine the assumptions on which our current societal paradigms are built.

 

One such paradigm is the motivational role of South African history, memory and legacy in nation building today. On this topic, Nicolas Wolpe (CEO of the the Liliesleaf Trust and son of political economist and writer, Harold Wolpe) challenged the current state of historical awareness amongst young South Africans. Reiterating the old adage that “we cannot know where we are going if we do not know where we come from”, Wolpe highlighted the importance of history education in nurturing a more aware, engaged and constructively critical society. He was also quick to raise Winston Churchill’s famous words of caution against the unquestioning consumption of “history written by the victors”. It was another critical reminder that history’s lessons are only as helpful as they are honest, transparent, and told from as many perspectives as possible.

 

Whilst South African history offers a logically invaluable foundation for South Africa’s future, it was de Ridder who tempered nostalgia with leadership’s present-day needs when he stated that, “there are no ghosts from the past who are secretly and invisibly paving a smooth road ahead for youth to become the leaders of tomorrow.”

 

In a roomful of Sawip Alumni, board members and esteemed members of business and civil society, these perspectives presented by Mpofu-Walsh, Wolpe and de Ridder were both food for thought and fuel for debate. More significantly, they provoked enquiry into a root issue of which the topics of legacy and innovation are symptomatic: the issue of achieving true, nationwide social cohesion.

 

This was certainly no closed-room problem-solving dialogue. If anything, these topics prompted more questions than answers – more opportunities to continue the dialogues among personal and professional networks beyond the boundaries of a single evening in March.

 

In a world of ubiquitous social connectivity and information exchange, the power of dialogue, debate and idea-generation is synergistic on a global scale. Therefore, if South Africans are to effect any significant change to the leadership crisis facing the nation it is necessary to ask the uncomfortable questions that are too often suppressed with political correctness; and to get comfortable with the complexity that comes with bringing together local and international minds from fundamentally diverse backgrounds but with a shared interest in South Africa’s prosperity. Perhaps, herein lies the changing paradigm of the dialogue.

 

In the spirit of social innovation, we welcome a continuation of these, and other, critical conversations through
– Twitter: @SAWIPlive and @Inkulufreeheid
– E-mail: info@nullsawip.org and team@nullinkulufreeheid.org

 

Special thanks goes to the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and Accenture for their sponsorship of this Dialogue.