The post-Madiba generation is fumbling the baton


The post-Madiba generation is fumbling the baton

That we’ve been retiring when it’s our turn to step up is not hard to understand

Former SA president Nelson Mandela walks past George Bizos, his lifelong friend.
GIANTS Former SA president Nelson Mandela walks past George Bizos, his lifelong friend.
Image: Reuters/Siphiwe Sibeko

In the past weeks SA has mourned the deaths of George Bizos and Achmat Dangor. In July Andrew Mlangeni, the last surviving Rivonia trialist, died. It’s hard not to feel that a generation of South Africans — lionhearted, ethical, inspirational — are irretrievably on their way out.

And what of us? The next generations, left to pick up the baton? You’d think we’d seize it and run as if our lives and this country’s future depended on it (which they do). Instead, it’s hard not to feel that the generation handed the baton, now in full maturity, is weighing it puzzlingly, wondering whether they should sell it, toss it or melt it down.

I’ve always been intrigued by a friend’s observation that our generation — born roughly between 1960 and 1980 — has never assumed leadership in public life in quite the way it should. Of course there are exceptions. And the giants of our past were exceptions too — it was hardly a generation homogeneous in its heroism. But the exceptions then did not seem quite so few as they do today.

That we have been retiring when in fact it is our turn to step up is not hard to understand. When democracy was ushered in we were cowed by the giants of the liberation struggle. Their skills and sacrifices had been forged in crucibles vastly different from our own. That culture of deference that was rightly owed stuck.

We’re also sandwiched between younger generations, many of whom have a technical literacy that make them and the universes they inhabit almost foreign to us. It’s virtually impossible for us to model for them how they should navigate those worlds.

As Netflix’s much-hyped documentary The Social Dilemmpoints out, admittedly more accurately reflecting dynamics within a North American milieu, the omnipresence of social media has seen a frightening increase in rates of suicide and self-harm among teens, girls in particular. A whole generation is said to be more anxious, fragile and depressed, less comfortable taking risks, so they are less likely to get a driver’s licence or even go on a date.

How else to explain a mantra so defining of public life at this time: stay in your lane?

Still, it would be a mistake to assume that our generation is immune to the popularity contest and vacuity that is often social media, that we aren’t also thoroughly invested in the “likes” and “retweets” that gauge social relevance today. How else to explain a mantra so defining of public life at this time: stay in your lane? We are terrified of being called out and caught short.

Years ago (longer now than I care to admit), I studied briefly in the US. That opportunity was allowed me by the generation of South Africans that came before. So bright, so alight with possibility did SA seem then that the world wanted a piece of it no matter how remote that piece might be.

It drove me crazy at the time how many Americans would recite with veneration and insist that the following words were those of Nelson Mandela: “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? ... And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Of course, that type of saccharine hyperbole was never Mandela’s, however brightly he and those of his generation shone. But what if he had asked my generation to shine our lights? Right now we’re like a collection of little lanterns, fumbling our way through the dark woods. “Should we shine our light here?” “How about over there?” “Probably best and safest just to switch them off altogether.”

• Fritz, a public interest lawyer,  is CEO of Freedom Under Law.

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