Vice-Chancellor’s Address: Young Leaders Bootcamp

By: Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela


07 July 2024 | Makhanda, South Africa – Thank you for the honour and privilege of being part of this critical young leaders bootcamp – an opportunity to engage young leaders of our city on leadership issues. Seeing so many of you this morning inspires me with great hope and optimism that our future is bright with promise. You, our country’s youth, will help us create a better society and world.
Rhodes University, local public and private schools, and other roleplayers have committed themselves to making Makhanda the national centre of educational excellence – from early childhood education and development to tertiary education. Earlier this year, we held a Makhanda Education Summit to reflect on this strategic goal and take steps to advance it. You, the learners in our schools, are a critical stakeholder in our endeavour. We want you to receive the quality education that can open a brighter future for you and our nation. As young leaders, you have a vital role in creating an environment conducive to quality learning, personal growth and development of learners at school.
This morning, I address you as leaders, not as future leaders, but as leaders, given your individual and collective roles in your schools. As young leaders, you have a crucial role in your school and in positively influencing other young people, promoting values such as responsibility, personal discipline, initiative, and collaboration. Young leaders like you are full of fresh ideas and innovative solutions to problems and can think outside the traditional frameworks or the proverbial box.


Leadership is one of those topics on which much has been said and written. Bookshops are full of books on leadership. Titles such as “Ten attributes/qualities of effective leaders” are common. With all due respect, leadership cannot be reduced to some ten or so qualities. Leadership is about influence. It is the ability to influence others to contribute to the realisation of a shared goal or vision. This does not require power or hierarchical position. Leadership is about serving others, not yourself.

As noted, leadership is not just about holding an elected position. You can be an effective leader without a position. Leadership is not about you, as a person, outshining others; it is about working as part of a collective to achieve a common goal; it is about being a good team-player. Leadership is about harnessing collective energies to focus on advancing the vision; ensuring that the others buy into the vision. Leadership is about providing a vision, a clear goal or an idea of where you want to take your group or organisation.
To be a good leader, you must develop a strong self-awareness. Know yourself and learn to lead yourself. You cannot lead others if you cannot lead yourself. Know and understand your strengths and weaknesses. If you have a deep level of self-understanding, you can acknowledge your limitations and are able to seek contributions from others to advance your common or shared goal.
In line with Plato’s cave metaphor, we are all prisoners in our caves. We are products of our own upbringing and socialisation. We hold prejudiced views and perspectives shaped by our immediate family and social circles. We, therefore, need to leave the cave and experience the light of the day and realise that there is a whole new world outside the cave, which is real, accessible, and progressive.
We are not perfect beings – we all have shortcomings and a partial view of our world. We cannot see everything – even that which is in our field of vision. In the gorilla experiment shared with you yesterday by Professor Pedro Tabensky, you realised that while you were focusing on the balls that were passed around, you missed out on seeing a gorilla that walked across the field in your full view. This is human, which is why we need others with different views and perspectives to enrich our bigger view.

Do not be dismissive of others’ views and perspectives. Different situations require different kinds of leadership. There are times and situations where one must lead from the front; there are times and situations in which one must lead from the middle; and there are times and situations in which one must lead from the back.

Do not confuse leadership with populism. Populists tend to exploit people’s discontent and disgruntlement and appeal to their base instincts. They offer simple and unachievable solutions to complex problems. Leadership is not about personal ambition and financial and material gain but about serving others. Good leaders are not easily corruptible. These are the “misleaders” that Dr Pakiso Tondi spoke about yesterday during his Welcome Note. Leadership is not about dominating and bullying others into submission or foisting your own views on others. It is about listening to others and steering the discussion toward achieving the goal or vision. So, listening attentively/intently to and hearing others is an essential attribute of a good leader.
A good leader can listen to all views and accord all views space to be heard. Be ever so careful of the influence of echo chambers. As a young leader, you must engage other young people who may have had different lived experiences to yours. Your leadership will be much poorer if you surround yourself with only those who share your beliefs, perspectives and worldview, and have had an upbringing similar to yours. You learn more from those who differ than those who agree with you.

You must, therefore, seek out those who hold different views and perspectives to yours. Leadership involves making decisions and taking risks. Failure and setbacks are inevitable parts of leadership. Always embrace these as opportunities for reflection, growth, and learning. Your keynote speaker yesterday, Mr Allan Magubane, spoke about ‘failing forward.’ Turning failure and setbacks into success is a hallmark of a great leader.
Leadership is about courage – a good leader has the courage to lead and call out those who act or behave in a manner inconsistent with good values. Call out those who engage in sexual harassment and gender-based violence; call out those who make derogatory or degrading comments about others; call out those who are xenophobic, homophobic, or transphobic; call out those who make sexist and racist comments. It is not uncommon for young men to sit around and make offensive and degrading comments about women, and this behaviour is condoned through phrases like “boys will always be boys” or “this is just locker room talk.” No! You must call out those who engage in this unacceptable behaviour as a leader.

We are not who we are; we are who we learn to become. We must always learn to comport ourselves in a manner that enhances the quality of experience of others. As young leaders, be disciplined and exemplary in your everyday life. Be consistent in public and in private. Help our schools and society deal with such problems as drug abuse, teen pregnancies and violence. Work with your teachers to create an environment in which every learner can acquire quality education, an environment that is free of bullying, initiation, harassment, and indiscipline.
As a young leader, be a voice of reason, encourage other young people who have lost hope and support those who are struggling with mental health issues and other personal challenges. Allow others to lean on you and look out for each other. May each of you embrace leadership as an opportunity to serve others and do so with honour, integrity and humility.
Thank you.