When I was seventeen, I started my first initiative – the Inspiration Club in my high school in Zimbabwe, Mzingwane. From that time, I was bit by a bug. I have since started other initiatives in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, most recently the Africa Business Leadership Summit. In all this, I have been driven by a real commitment to develop the potential of young Africans as visionary leaders and entrepreneurs in their communities and countries. More than once, I have thought of myself as possessed by this commitment. Yes, to the point of having spirited monologues and being caught by my amused and bewildered mum in our backyard.
Today, I would like to destroy myself in front of you. Well, not really. I would like to offer myself as a case study on the relation between privilege and leadership (development), and what I believe we need to think about as we build a generation of socially responsible leaders and citizens. I will focus on Africa and leadership development but I certainly see how some of my reflections are applicable in other geographical contexts and areas other than leadership.
Let’s start with Dalumuzi at age seventeen: when I applied for a United World College scholarship in March 2006, the economic crisis in Zimbabwe was escalating and my father could barely support out family. I remember when I was about to take the cold, twelve-hour overnight train ride to Harare from Bulawayo for my interview, my father gave me one of his old jackets from the 1980s (maybe even 1970s) because he couldn’t buy me a new, decent jersey. In November 2008, I wrote my admissions essay to US colleges and in the first two paragraphs, I narrated my ordeal as a teenager who had to queue for maize meal, cooking oil and sugar while my peers frolicked in my city’s hot spots. Six years later, the picture is different. During the years of the inclusive government, Zimbabwe’s economy began to pick up and my family is doing much better financially. I have received a good education over the years, which would not have been possible without the generosity of scholarship sponsors. I have the good fortune to speak about my work with Lead Us Today, a youth leadership development non-profit organization based in Zimbabwe that I started in May 2010, across the world.
I have become privileged.
In 2012, when I was home during the summer break, I was confronted by my accumulated privilege and pondered the many ways in which it might be slowly disconnecting me from many Zimbabweans’ realities. Two experiences unsettled my limited notions of what kind of leadership is required in Zimbabwe. One weekend, my father and I drove to visit my aunt in Zhombe, a rural village. We arrived at around midday on a Saturday and in twenty-four hours, we were on our way back to Bulawayo. We spent just one night, and yet I learnt so much. At one point, we went to my aunt’s fields. All she and my uncle talked about were the unpredictable rains, the small size and yield of their fields, the single bull that their entire village shared to expand their herds. Nothing about potholes on the roads, slow internet or electricity shortages.
When I was in the city, I conducted research for my undergraduate thesis in Makokoba, one of Zimbabwe’s poorest townships. Among many privileged people from Bulawayo, Makokoba is perceived as a filthy den in which thugs and prostitutes are bred. Yet, as I interacted with many of the township’s young men and women, I learned of their struggles to secure basic identity documents like birth certificates, which I took for granted, and yet were key in opening doors of opportunity for them. One young man had amazing talent as a soccer player and was highly sought after by Zimbabwe’s top soccer teams but could not sign up because he did not have a birth certificate. I was struck by how little I had considered the unique challenges of rural dwellers and poor youth; how I had previously formulated their challenges in my head. I began to realize that if I was to develop myself as a leader, I needed to go beyond the Zimbabwean reality I knew as a young man who had grown up in a middle-class neighborhood in the city, to educated parents. I needed to inhabit the spectrum of worlds and perspectives represented in Zimbabwe so I could see the world, its problems and possibilities for change from the position of the different groups of people in Zimbabwe. Unless I was able to do that, I would be trapped in my privilege and limited in my sense of reality.
My experiences have provoked broader questions, which I believe we are wise to consider in our efforts to develop African youths’ leadership potential. How can we develop leadership among youth in ways that acknowledge prevailing structural inequality but still ensure that power and privilege do not necessarily produce disconnected leaders? What socio-cultural realities and fictions do we need to engage and counter in order to produce a generation of leaders that relentlessly focuses on its work to improve society? How do we need to rethink leadership and leadership development models so that they increase the likelihood of a generation of more socially responsible leaders? I find these questions to be incredibly complex and without clear answers. It is by holding them in our minds, and keeping them in focus that we can develop critical self-awareness and, thus, build our capacity to exercise effective leadership.
These serious questions complicate the idea that we can take promising young leaders from troubled countries, educate them about democracy, human rights and accountable governance, ship them back to their countries and then they will wave some magic wand and disappear their country’s problems. The process of change is far more complicated than that. While this focus on the individual has great potential to yield visionary and grounded leaders for Africa, it misses a lot by failing to locate this education, training and development within broader social, economic, political and cultural contexts. One of the serious contextual realities is what I have shared: the real potential that privilege has in producing a generation of leaders who give disproportionate weight to their own priorities and understandings of the world; leaders who make calculations in their heads about the needs of others and do not engage with the multiple realities and perspectives that exist, resulting in ineffective leadership. We need to acknowledge that people with different experiences and backgrounds have particular notions of what change means for them. And unless we appreciate that, we are developing young leaders with very limited senses of reality.
In a more specific sense, I believe that it is not enough to send promising young leaders on scholarships across the world, much as it is incredibly valuable for them. It does not guarantee effective leadership for the future on the continent. There is a real possibility that only investing in individuals’ leadership development in this way perpetuates systems of political, economic and intellectual privilege (and dare I say, elitism) and, as such, leaves us where we’ve always been. No doubt, some of the top institutions where students attend high school and college – and I am thinking United World Colleges and US colleges, which I have had the privilege to attend – have community service programs that enable economically and intellectually privileged young people to give back. However, I believe it is not even enough for the privileged to “give back” to their communities. “Giving back” suggests a one-directional effort in which the other only receives. Instead, we need to recognize the inherent value in engaging with others at the same level and seeking to genuinely understand what they believe needs to be done to make progress.
In my work with Lead Us Today, we have designed our programs in ways that enable all kinds of young people – the book smart, the street smart, the enterprising, the disabled – to start experiencing what it means to consider multiple realities and perspectives in problem solving. We stress the importance of bringing together people with divergent points of view on an issue and build students’ capacity to listen and seriously consider what value each person brings. Through the projects that students design, together with their community members – ranging from a community night school model that is ready to scale to a promising community recycling program that is just developing – we provide opportunities for students to experience, in real time, their ability to make real, sustained impact.
Going back to where I started: What does it mean that as a student studying outside my home country, I have started a number of initiatives? Something. But it’s not enough. I have never visited any part of rural Zimbabwe for more than 24 hours ever since I was born. What kind of national or African leader can I be without the valuable perspectives I am sure to gain by immersing myself in the everyday lives of people who constitute a significant proportion of the continent’s population? In 2012, for the first time, ever, I interacted with low-income urban dwellers who really have it tough. How much of “Africa” do I really represent unless I engage with my country’s and continent’s problems from the vantage of youth whom we easily vilify as criminal, misguided and burdensome? I pose this question to the young people with the best education in the world, and to those responsible of imparting that education. We need to think more critically and deeply than we already do about the leadership development we are providing.
My challenge to everyone is that we need to educate African young leaders from a place of humility. We need to start teaching promising young leaders that they do not have everything figured out – that we all need to be humble and consistently, relentlessly and openly listen to and learn from the many voices that exist, and are clamoring for attention, in our diverse continent.