Young white South Africans…where are you?

image2In 2013 Janet Jobson, who is driving our leadership development portfolio, wrote an article under the heading “Young white South Africans…where are you?” which was published on Mail and Guardian’s Thought Leader website in March (read it here).  In the article Janet reflects on the challenges that Activate!, “a programme that supports a diverse network of young people to define a new purpose-driven post-apartheid identity and develop innovative solutions to SA’s toughest challenges”, have faced in attracting white participants.

Provocatively she hypothesise that “even the most progressive and active young white South Africans often only get involved on our own terms”, a statement that provoked some interesting debate and comments from her peers.   One year and another round of recruitment for Activate! later and the article remains relevant, Janet reports:

“So far there’s been very little increase in the number of white applicants for the 2014 take-in.  The recruitment took a very different approach for this year’s cohort: a re-branding to make the ‘prestigious’ network (rather than the programme) front and centre, a road-show to university campuses, direct engagement with more ‘white’ spaces (particularly churches, youth groups), and in the last month or so a direct engagement with critical NGOs that could nominate young employees. But the challenge remains. And at this point we’ve made a call to essentially move away from the racial profiling of ‘diversity’ and focus more on securing young professionals’ involvement (and hopefully as a by-product increase the diversity). Interestingly we have similar issues around attracting proportional numbers of coloured and indian young people. I think it might have something to do with the nature of social networks, and the social ‘pay-offs’ that are considered worthwhile in different communities”.

Janet’s article and the comments that she received raised some tough questions: “Where do we genuinely connect in our country on equal terms? Is it possible?”  One of the commentators talks of her own experience: “Being involved “not on my own terms” is damn hard. Much harder to participate in something, as a member not a leader, where the leadership and dominant culture is quite different to what I was used to at home/school, university and work. It was quite emotionally exhausting, feeling uncomfortable with the way we do things and wanting to change it but not having the – let’s face it, the usual – clout with the leaders to just have my way”.

We can spend time exploring and debating some of the ‘charitable and less charitable reasons (as Janet calls it) for why we are struggling to ‘really connect as equals’ on platforms such as those provided by Activate! But lacing Janet’s article as well as the delightfully honest comment quoted above, is the simple truth that ‘genuine connection’ between people requires humility… as Nelson Mandela said  – it was necessary to transform himself into a modest man in order to change society.

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