Alan Hirsch: How the youth keeps Mandela's legacy alive
Last month, at a conference on African Inequalities that our school co-organised with the London School of Economics, the first audience question came from a young woman. Why, she asked, was the graduate school that I am director of relaunching as the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance when Mandela’s legacy of appeasement entrenched much of apartheid’s economic structures?
Her question, despite its narrow context, echoes the broader concerns of many students and young people, struggling to reconcile the present need for meaningful strides to transformation with our past leaders’ first steps towards its possibility.
This demand for a more critical view of the Mandela legacy troubles some, intent on either preserving of the Madiba mythology or focussed only on the man’s remarkable personal and moral qualities. Young people are too radical, too eager to break instead of consolidating, the arguments go.
Yet, in demanding a critical reappraisal of our transition, young people, of course, are correct. It is right to question leaders; it is vital to be critical of policy. Space for debate breeds engaged, active citizens and active citizens can change a country.
Mandela exposed himself to criticism of his own unwavering belief in young people to drive the hard questions and seek innovative answers. Indeed, in May 1993, Mandela called, unsuccessfully, for the voting age in South Africa to be lowered below the age of 18.
In our view, Mandela’s greatest legacy is much broader than the merits or otherwise of his policy decisions which were constrained by the circumstances of his times. His central legacy was the example he set of bold, self-sacrificing yet ethical and accountable leadership. Mandela’s leadership is a beacon for our times, all over Africa.
Sampson Itodo is a young Nigerian activist – the executive director of YIAGA – which promotes youth participation in governance. He also convened the Not Too Young To Run movement, which spent years petitioning the Nigerian government to change the rigid constitution setting high age limits on those running for office.
I first met Sampson in 2016, when he was a participant in our school’s Emerging African Leaders Programme. Though, at that time, we were known as the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice, our work has always been inspired by the urgent call Nelson Mandela made at UCT in 1990 to "[transform] these great centres of learning into institutions that will have relevance" to the future of the country and the continent.
Sampson was one of thirty remarkable participants on the programme that year, drawn from ten African countries. Among them was a Ugandan transitional justice co-ordinator, a South African human rights lawyer, a Kenyan food security activist and a Zimbabwean public health programme director focussing on eliminating malaria. Despite their geographical and occupational differences, they were all passionate about creating and sustaining meaningful change – in their countries and across the continent.
Indeed, the young African leaders I have the privilege of meeting in this young leader development programme are high among the many reasons we at the Mandela School are clear-eyed optimists about our country and continent.
Investing in young leaders, as our diverse group of funders enable us to do, creates the kind of legacy I believe Mandela himself would have been delighted by: a living memorial, carried out by young, politically-engaged people pushing the imagination of what our continent can and should look like. The Emerging African Leaders Programme is one of many we offer for emerging African leaders from mid-career civil servants to high level experts.
When challenges to past South African heroes come, let us remember that Nelson Mandela was remarkably disinterested in preserving the heroic cult built around him. He left explicit instructions, routinely ignored for the past half-decade, for there to be no statues or monolithic structures erected in his memory. Mandela knew that actions spoke louder.
On May 31 this year, Sampson’s bill was passed with overwhelming support in the Nigerian Senate and House of Representatives. President Muhammadu Buhari signed it into law. Any Nigerian from the age of 35 years can now run for president, and from 25 years for the House or State Assembly.
Although he drove the process, Sampson did not achieve this remarkable feat alone: He did it through two years of concerted, strategic mobilisation of young people who cared about representation and wanted a voice in a political system they felt had failed them.
For Sampson, as for so many young people who may or may not yet have come through our programmes, Mandela’s legacy of belief in the power of youth action is alive and well. At the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, we will continue to strengthen the voices of the rising generation of African leaders.
- Alan Hirsch is director of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town.
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