What makes a good leader?

The present generation of young people in South Africa has a responsibility, as “tomorrows’ leaders”, to re-write a narrative that is different from what existed before 1994. Young people are faced with a challenge of evolving a South Africa that is more open and more just, where people have equal access to basic needs – with equal opportunity to live, work and learn, and where the rule of law holds sway in the fullest sense. Ultimately, to influence change within the current context, young people must first recognise and seize the opportunities that a liberal democracy affords them. They need to become active and responsible citizens who are committed to their communities. 

For young people to be able to participate meaningfully in the dispensation, and eventually succeed in leadership roles – where they are entrusted with state responsibilities, it is critical that they first become the change that they envisage. Theymust adopt character traits that can improve their personal growth and consequently effect impactful change across the country. Against this backdrop, the rest of this opinion piece looks at some of the essential character traits that young people must embrace or aspire to in order to effect lasting change in South Africa.

Interest to participate in public and community life

Young citizens should have, as a character trait, the interest to participate in public and community life. They must see themselves as social citizens with a group identity and rights; sense of belonging and interest for the pursuit of the common good rather than individual interests. This implies that at the community level they must exert their rights and enforce accountability of their elected representatives. Participation in activities such as volunteering at community centres, which foster community-building, is an essential attribute that many a young person should have. Young citizens should participate in community events, for example ward committee and IDP forum meetings taking place in their constituencies to make their voices heard. By exercising citizenship through participation in public and community life, young people are exposed to processes that deepen their knowledge and understanding of municipal procedures; in effect they discover how their communities are governed and who their leaders are. This experience is important for young people to effectively engage and contribute to community development. 

Get into the habit of learning and education 

Interest in learning and education is perhaps the most important trait that any young person should embrace. We live in a world where technology has taken root in almost every facet of our existence which calls for more effective education. This development continues to impact our lives in many ways. People have lost their jobs, while many others are unable to get jobs due to lack of requisite education to provide them with the necessary knowledge and skills they need to adapt to the changing circumstances of the 21st century. Arguably, lack of education is among the many factors responsible for the high rate of youth unemployment in South Africa. Many young people seeking jobs often do not have sufficient employable skills. It is thus crucial that young people develop keen interest for learning and education. They must take advantage of the education and learning opportunities that are now available to them.

However, they can only achieve this if they endeavour to ensure that learning and education become an integral attribute of their character.            

Personal responsibility and self – discipline

Personal responsibility and self-discipline are important character attributes that can transform young people into better and more responsible active citizens. Young citizens ought to take responsibility for their actions, have a sense of discipline and conform to the values, morals and laws that govern behaviour in our society.  When young people begin to take personal responsibility for their actions, some of the implications are; they do what is socially acceptable and right, such as practicing safe sex, restraining from violence, alcohol, drug/ or substance abuse, school absenteeism, and all manner of social vices. They do not lend themselves to corruption nor any form of deviant behaviour, instead they make good choices and conduct themselves in line with accepted principles.    

Commitment and resilience

Staying committed and resilient to a course is a major determinant of success of the course. It is an attribute that resonates with many successful people, including those who have made significant strides in academics, business and politics. If Nelson Mandela and his entourage in the African National Congress (ANC) had failed to remain committed and resilient to the course of freedom, during apartheid, South Africa would still be grappling with the challenge of toppling a regime that systematically marginalised majority citizens. Young people who have made decisions to pursue university degrees can only achieve this objective if they are committed and resilient to this course. Commitment and resilience are thus essential character traits that could elevate many young people and help them achieve their objectives.        

Be innovative and challenge themselves to implement strategies to end youth unemployment

Innovation, translated in this context as doing things differently or implementing ideas that transcend conventional ways (creativity) for the purpose of achieving positive results, is another essential attribute that could enable young people to make impactful change in society. If young people became more innovative and challenged themselves to implement their ideas, they will not only become self-sufficient through creating jobs for themselves, but also contribute to end youth unemployment in the country. Young people should think outside the lines and look for unconventional solutions every time they encounter a challenge. By focusing on how it can be done instead of why it cannot be done, young people may be surprised by how creative/ innovative they can become if they continuously strive to do so.       


Although the character traits discussed above may not be exhaustive, they are, nonetheless, important attributes that young people from across South Africa could embrace in order to bring about enduring change in their communities. In addition to these attributes, it is vital for young people to develop positive self-esteem and identity about themselves.

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