Alone in the Smoke: Where have Our Leaders Gone?

by Iswamo Kapalu

The breaking of bones and burning of buildings at university campuses has highlighted a number of national problems. Problems that, until last year, had either been quietly bubbling under the surface or whose extent was not fully known.

They have exposed, amongst other things, the failure of universities to democratize their decision making processes; they have shown how the media will choose sensation over the whole truth; how militaristic public order policing continues to escalate tension in public gatherings; and how irresponsibly made election promises can create unrealistic expectations.

The protests have uncovered the divisions that exist in student leadership and the toxic effect of celebrity on student leaders. The protests have shown a growing weariness with traditional political identity, with many student movements banning party regalia at mass meetings and choosing to unite behind principles instead of political parties. The protests have exposed the opportunism of opposition leaders whose voices have been conspicuous by absence from this crisis.

Each of those issues warrants its own article and I’m sure that, as time goes on, the ones that haven’t already been written on, will be. But one of the biggest issues that the protests have highlighted, is the desperate need to fill the vacancy in the office of the Presidency of the Republic of South Africa.

If we had a president, he or she would have been, as the first citizen, the first to condemn violence. She would have been the first to encourage patience and invite students and universities to the negotiating table. She would have been the first to condemn Gwede Mantashe’s offensive remarks about how universities should be closed to “teach students a lesson.”

If we had a president, she would have been working tirelessly to fulfil her oath to “devote herself to the well-being of the Republic and all its people.” As Head of State she would have been the visible shepherd that leads, as all true shepherds do, from the front. As leader of government, she would have been working tirelessly with her cabinet ministers- who took similar oaths- to come up with long term solutions to the various crises that have given rise to these protests.

Instead what we have is the deafening silence emanating roughly from behind the statue of Mandela, which now stands in front of the vacant Union Buildings.

In that silence, the familiar and almost forgotten sound of Casspirs, teargas and gunfire, struggle songs and breaking glass takes its familiar and almost forgotten place on South African campuses. And if senior South African “leaders” don’t find the time and will to show leadership, it is a sound that will only grow louder. Until it becomes the only thing we hear.

Mr Iswamo Kapalu

Iswamo Kapalu is a young South African of Zambian origin. He holds an LLB from the University of the Witwatersrand and currently works as a researcher, writer and social justice advocate at the Jesuit Institute.
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