We know great leaders. Leaders who are unashamedly passionate about their particular causes. But most importantly, it is important to know other young leaders, like you and me. Our thoughtfulness, integrity, and ambition, speaks volumes to those we serve.

Some time ago, I had a fascinating discussion with an influential business leader around the role of youth as active citizens in South Africa. To my dismay, the individual explicitly expressed that the only active citizenry he has heard of by youth was tyre-burning, frustration, and impatience – a sign of not being able to articulate concerns through appropriate channels. It seems as though young people choose to express their frustration with the myriad of societal issues they face by means of violence, he said.

Uncomfortably shifting in my seat, I responded and said that there were hundreds, if not millions, of young men and women who have shown exceptional efforts towards the betterment of not only our communities and country, and also on an international scale. My best defence in this challenging conversation was the success stories of young people I have crossed paths with during my time with ACTIVATE!

As I anticipated, the conversation  shifted to one young, radical politician and how he was  perceived to be representative of all young people who advocate for our causes, disregarding the countless other exemplary youth leaders whom we should more often be celebrating and acknowledge.

Reflecting on this conversation, I recognise why the narrative is being perpetuated and why there is this struggle to shift perceptions about youth in South Africa. I do, however, strongly feel that we need to push harder to reshape this narrative to one that is more positive, to a thinking that has a more honest reflection of young leaders demonstrating success in our country’s development. 

With the countless examples of unethical leadership in both Government and Business in our country, it is not difficult to assume that youth have and will continue to inherit mediocre standards of leadership. In South Africa, it is not uncommon to have leaders who have engaged in fraudulent activities, corruption and nepotism;  leaders who headline our media platforms with scandals and fail to perform to the standards we expect them to, and yet they continue with the important responsibility of ruling our country, companies (sometimes both, in overlap!) and even our communities. While this type of leadership is being normalised and preoccupies our attention, it leaves little room for the success, impact and legacies that others are trying to achieve.

Looking back at the 2014 election campaigns, political leaders regurgitated the importance of young people in our growing democracy, and made promises about what they would do, if given power, but fail to perform against their own targets. The Youth is told repeatedly how many jobs will be created for them. This year’s State of the Nation Address mentioned very little about the progress on youth issues.  The education crisis continues to be one of the biggest disappointments for young people. The role of civil society organisations and advocacy movements has shifted to be that of ‘cleaners’ and providing services those elected were meant to do.

Great leaders seem to be somewhat mythical. We look to and quote Ashley Kriel, Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela as if we can only aspire to their greatness and that we would never be able to fill their shoes. We ought to identify within ourselves as those great leaders have and also start looking to each other as Activators for inspiration.

More importantly, we need to celebrate our success as young leaders more, so that we may remain unashamed and uncompromising in our purpose and what we believe in. There are committed, ethical young individuals within ACTIVATE! who are active and are steadfast in all the issues we are passionate about. They do so with conviction, and integrity – something some of our current leaders lack.

If I could redo the conversation which sparked this piece of writing, I would only slightly rephrase my response to ask the individual what he is doing as an active citizen to enhance the situation for young people. I would again continue to celebrate and acknowledge the success of young South African leaders like Asanda Vumazonke who works with disadvantaged rural youth, mentoring them through their entire tertiary education. A woman like Pumeza Mdingi who works in one of South Africa’s most impoverished communities educating young people around HIV/Aids, and Mhlanganisi Madlongolwana who is recognised as a young African leader for his work with youth. I would cite  the whole network of more than 1000 other youths who are successful in their attempts, not only to shift the negative discourse around youth, but who are doing so with conviction, ambition and integrity.

Juzaida Swain is an Activator and Programme Officer: Strategy and Fundraising at the The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation.


If you would like to join the ACTIVATE! Change Drivers network, visit to apply. Applications close 31 October 2014.

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