Opinion: Sorry, Mandela, my generation has failed you

"Who are the potential Mandelas of our generation?"The question hung in the air after I had asked it. I didn't...

Posted: Jul 19, 2018 12:28 AM
Updated: Jul 19, 2018 12:28 AM

"Who are the potential Mandelas of our generation?"

The question hung in the air after I had asked it. I didn't intend to, as young South Africans hosted me at a Cape town event May this year, but it had slipped out as we engaged in an honest interrogation of our contributions to our nations.

But there it was, and the room was silent as a first response. It was a powerful indictment.

"Julius Malema has such a potential to be a once-in-a-lifetime-leader," we continued. "He has the courage and the charisma. But that kind of leadership requires clarity of character. How do we get that?"

As we celebrate Nelson Mandela's Centenary, that question hangs in the continental air.

Of course, to be sure, it is a question of global consequence.

From a generation illuminated by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr, Mohandas Gandhi and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, blazing trails and pushing down systems from the force of their 20s and 30s, we appear to have arrived at one guided by Evan Spiegel of Snapchat and reality TV star-turned-entrepreneur, Kylie Jenner.

But that question is of greater urgency for those of us on the African continent, because we bear the bigger burden of the world's problems.

We own the greater share of poverty and the least portion of capital investment.

We are surrounded still by wars and very rarely by good news.

Where are the leaders of such social consequence that they answer the questions of our time with the fearlessness and gravitas that a generation gone past did in its youth?

The great generation of Jomo Kenyatta and Nnamdi Azikiwe gave way to the disgraceful era of dictators such as Charles Taylor and Sani Abacha, among many others.

We have arrived at a place of an uneasy truce, but we still face significant problems, which we have confronted with small answers.

Our activism is innovative but timid, our anger is burning but contained, our efforts are well-intentioned but altogether small.

We often celebrate the heroism of Mandela, of Desmond Tutu, of Kwame Nkrumah.

But in many of our countries and communities, the opportunity for the same heroism exists now - corrupt leadership, discrimination against women, discrimination against gays, dictatorships - what are we doing to meet the opportunity that stands before us now, today - before tomorrow comes?

It appears that those seismic changes in social order only come from a willingness to stand not just out of but against the crown.

Then to gain the credibility and authenticity to lead it, while at the same time being ready to risk our very lives, or whatever it is that is just as valuable, to speak our truths, and to act on our truths, boldly, fearlessly, endlessly, until victory is worn, whatever the cost.

That effort will require much more than PowerPoint presentations touting change while extremely comfortable with the oppressive economic elite across the continent.

It will need more than conferences where little is risked but rather massive boots-on-the-ground organizations that use technology only as a tool rather than a crutch.

Our activism will have to be sustained until victory; our voices must continue to ring beyond our comfort zone.

We -- including myself -- are not anywhere near this crucial threshold.

And as we approach another milestone of a life well lived, and a model worth emphasizing in Mandela, the question that his life asks of me and my generation still stands tall, unanswered.

It towers where we cower, and thunders where we fumble.

"Young people are capable when aroused of bringing down the towers of operation and raising the banners of freedom," Mandela once said.

We apologize, Madiba, that we haven't fulfilled the promise. May we be reminded, today and always, of your urgent call.

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