"One of the most powerful ways of children and young adults acquiring values is to see individuals they admire and respect exemplify those values in their own being and conduct… The question of leadership generally, and in the educational sphere particularly, is therefore of vital importance." Nelson Mandela, Saamtrek conference, 2001
Low levels of civil involvement and apathay
The Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa highlights “low levels of civil involvement and political apathy” as a dominant feature among young people. Robert Mattes (2011), in his paper entitled “The born frees: The prospects for generational change in post-apartheid South Africa”, writes that “while popular support for norms such as dignity, equality, freedom, non-racialism and majority rule may have led to the demise of apartheid, it is by no means certain that these norms are sufficient to support a liberal democracy. He cites extensive social scientific evidence to substantiate his claim that “South Africans – of all races – pay minimal lip service to the idea of democracy, and that significant minorities would be willing to countenance one party rule or strong man dictatorship”.
The National Youth Policy (NYP) 2009 – 2014 comprehensively outlines what should be done to improve the generally accepted rather dire situation in which the majority of youth find themselves. Two items on this long list that are particularly relevant to the topic at hand include:
The empowerment of young people as assets for national development. Interventions should raise the confidence of youth so that they can contribute meaningfully to their own development and to the broader society.
Young people as instruments and agents of their own development
The importance of addressing this
"Knowledge and literacy mean power - but to be wise or ethical comes from experience, being in touch with the soul of one's community, kinship and solidarity."
Jacob Zuma Deputy President of South Africa Saamtrek conference, 2001
IkamvaYouth’s key focus is enabling disadvantaged youth to improve their academic results and access post-school opportunities. The phenomenal results and track record, have been achieved by young transformational leaders in their roles as volunteer tutors, mentors, branch committee (branchcom) members, assistants and coordinators.
The organisational approach to leadership and decision-making builds the capacities and experience the country needs for a functioning democracy. While the NYP effectively highlights the challenges that need to be addressed, its rather thin on its recommendations as to how these ideals can practically be attained. However, it does note that young people should be “meaningfully engaged at community level, thus ensuring democratic involvement, acquisition of first-hand knowledge and experience of civic action” .
The involvement of youth in civil society and volunteerism is a generally accepted means to bolster participation in democratic processes. Mattes’ (2011) research found that “born-frees who attend community meetings and join local action groups are significantly more democratic.” However, while Macedo (2005) acknowledges the potentially significant role civil society organisations can play in boosting civil engagement, he notes that their capacity to do so “depends on the rules under which they operate” and calls for the creation of a framework within which voluntary activities “promote the country’s most inclusive political ideals” .
The future well being of South Africa’s democracy and economy lies in the hands of our youth. This generation’s level of education, engagement with democratic processes, and cultural values and principles will determine the quality of leadership in the institutions, companies, organisations and Government of the not-too-distant future.
Ikamva Youth's Strategy
Democratic decision-making aligns with the organisation’s values:
A culture of responsibility for self and others
Responsibility is at the core of this approach to decision-making. When we have voiced our opinions and voted in accordance with what we think is right, we have a responsibility for this decision. As ikamvanites we have the responsibility to voice and own our thoughts, opinions and ideas and to offer them into the decision-making process in order to best fulfill our roles and responsibilities to the wider organisation and, ultimately, the learners.
Collaboration and peer-to-peer support
By participating in key decisions, we build our individual and collective experiences and capacities. By learning from the ways in which our peers think, we develop our own knowledge and leadership experience. When ikamvanites support peer learning between not only the learners and tutors, but also between branchcom members and colleagues, our organisation becomes better equipped to deliver on our mission.
Connected to the value of collaboration is that of diversity.
The more angles and perspectives from which an issue is considered; the better thought-out the responsive action. When diverse people collaborate in collective problem solving, the resultant solution is likely to be better than when one or two people (who can necessarily bring only their individual perspectives) decide. Palmer (2011) reminds us that “the benefits of diversity can be ours only if we hold our differences with respect, patience, openness, and hope, which means we must attend to the invisible dynamics of the heart that are part of democracy’s infrastructure” .
Commitment to impact through democratic processes
Better decision-making will ultimately lead to better impact. However, democratic processes are not easy, hence the need for ikamvanites to be committed to seeing them through even when addressing particularly challenging or thorny issues.
Integrity and openness
It’s by having things open and transparent that ensure individual and collective integrity. Through transparency and openness, we’re held accountable to the community at large (learners, parents, volunteers, donors, colleagues, the board, etc).
IkamvaYouth’s model is underpinned by the ethos of contributing what we have gained (through our experiences and education) to build a better ikamva.
Mattes (2011) cites Inglehart’s (1990) socialisation hypothesis that experiences in late adolescence powerfully influence the development of individual attitudes and makes a case for the “conscious teaching of pro-democratic values and preferences to the young through civil society and mass media”. IkamvaYouth takes this a step further with an experiential, peer-to-peer learning approach. The pedagogy goes beyond tutoring, career guidance and computer literacy to the development of leadership skills and work experience by placing the responsibility of programme delivery in the hands of the young people that run each branch. IkamvaYouth’s registered Non-Profit name is Ikamva Lisezandleni Zethu (The Future is in Our Hands), and this ethos drives all we do.
Since inception in 2003, IkamvaYouth has adopted a democratic decision-making approach to organisational governance. Branches are run by branch committees, comprising branch coordinator, assistant and the most-committed volunteers and learners. Each branchcom is voted annually during the Strategic Planning Weekend (SPW), and everyone (including parents, partner organisations, and community leaders) is welcome to participate in our branchcom meetings, which happen every two weeks. Everyone gets one vote; official branchcom members get two. Everything is discussed openly and transparently (including salaries, performance reviews, budget decisions etc.) and everyone gets a say in how things are done at the branch level.
The approach has yielded the following advantages:
Ownership and high commitment from volunteers and learners. 50% of matriculants become volunteer tutors and mentors. There are many volunteers (most ex-learners), who’ve volunteered consistently on a weekly basis for many years. Ownership inculcates loyalty, and a transparent and inclusive means of operating has enabled the beneficiaries of the project to become its leaders.
Innovative ideas. For example, it was committed learners who developed the minimum 75% attendance requirement policy and the first group of ex-learners-turned-volunteers who developed the no new grade 12s policy to ensure that our efforts reap the best-possible outcomes.
Young people gaining work experience, through participating in meetings, making important decisions, learning about project management, budgets, minutes, teamwork, delivering and reporting on programmes and professional etiquette (e.g. punctuality; professional communication via email)
Young people developing their leadership capacity and skills through leading teams of volunteers, learning to voice their opinions in large meetings, and being held accountable for programme delivery
Social cohesion: when all South African youth – black and white, from diverse socio-economic backgrounds and every level of educational privilege – work closely together and achieve incredible results, strong bonds are formed and the impact on social cohesion and integration is tangible.
Decision-making has the flexibility and insight needed to meet different challenges in varying contexts. Decision-making that includes the voices of those closest to the problem is most likely to meet the problem.
The model develops a culture of responsibility, commitment and peer-support, and the experience whereby each ikamvanite’s opinion influences decisions becomes an integral part of who we are and how we operate.
The national management committee (natcom) was established when there were more branches in other provinces. To date, natcom has comprised every branch coordinator, as well as the director, national coordinator and national project manager. They are the body from which branchcoms can elicit support, and that approves big decisions (for example, those with financial implications).
The aim of this body is to ensure collaboration and prevent duplication of effort. Strategy, policies and budgets are developed by natcom (building on the proposals from branchcoms), with ultimate approval required from the board of directors, which ensures that the organization stays focused on mission and aligns at all times with the values; manages risk and takes ultimate legal and fiduciary responsibility.
Democratic decision-making at a natcom level yields the following positive outcomes:
Collective decision making from diverse groups of people with multidisciplinary educational backgrounds and expertise, combined with close understandings of ground-level realities leads to context-relevant, well-considered decisions that draw on organisational expertise.
As we work collectively to address our challenges, everyone involved in the decision-making develops their capacity for dealing with problems and builds leadership skills and experience. It is through considering our mistakes collectively that we can all learn from them and ensure that we’re continually improving. The greater each individual team member’s capacity, the greater the organizational capacity to expand reach to more learners and deliver more impact.
Implementation to date
At each stage of organisational growth, ikamvanites have had to ask ourselves, “How do we ensure grassroots ownership while exponentially increasing the size and geographical reach of our organisation?”
During each transitional growth phase we’ve had to develop various processes and policices and restructure organisational decision-making bodies in order to maximise the advantages of democratic decision-making while mitigating the challenges that inevitably arise.
With seven branches currently operating, and many more in the pipeline over the next few years, the current branchcoms (and natcom) board structure involves the following shortcomings:
It’s inefficient use of time and resources for everyone to decide everything. According to Palmer (2011), “Just as a virgin prairie is less efficient that agribusiness land, democracy is less efficient than a dictatorship… And yet this loss of efficiency is more than offset by the way human diversity, freely expressed, can strengthen the body politic – offering resilience in the face of threat, adaptability to change, creativity and productivity” . However, the reality at IkamvaYouth branches, with two paid staff coordinating up to 180 learners and volunteers, means that each person has a significant workload. With increasing decisions to be made by natcom as we establish more branches, hire more people and establish more partnerships, it’s become unrealistic for everyone to be a part of every decision.
Those with less insight have the same weight in the decision-making, which can lead to less-insightful decisions receiving the majority vote. (E.g. with more branches in one province, the perspective from that part of the country can weigh in more heavily on decisions about something that is experienced by and more closely affects branches in another province).
It relies on people voicing and owning their opinions, which can be difficult in some situations (e.g. new or junior colleagues are less likely to voice opinions that contradict with those who’re in higher leadership positions)
It’s not always productive or fair to air organisational and/or individuals’ dirty laundry for all to see.
There are legal limitations in some instances. Eg. For disciplinary hearings, staff members need to be held accountable by their leaders and not the people they lead.
In overcoming these, IkamvaYouth has had to once again respond by tweaking the model and introducing another decision-making body at the regional level. Regional coordinators will work closely with branch coordinators, and represent their views and opinons at natcom. We’ve also had to ring-fence the kinds of decisions that require input from a select group of people closest to the issue at hand (e.g. performance management and disciplinary issues etc.)
Implications for others
Where possible, use a step-by-step approach to show how you succeed, or with hindsight, could have done things better.
“The essential ingredients of struggles for justice are human beings who, if only for a moment, if only while beset with fears, step out of line and do something, however small. And even the smallest, most unheroic of acts adds to the store of kindling that may be ignited by some surprising circumstance into tumultuous change” (Zinn, 1994) .
As a young organisation run by young people doing big things and setting ourselves goals that border on miraculous, it’s inevitable that we will all make mistakes. The standards we’ve set ourselves are very high and we will not always meet them. Inevitably, in learning and building as we go, we will at some points fall short. It’s important that we can learn from our mistakes in a supportive environment that enables professional development rather than hiding challenges or problems for fear of name and shame in the open, transparent structures and communication. It’s also important for accountability and integrity of the organisation that we’re answerable to our learners, communities, supporters, colleagues and the board. Keeping issues under wraps is a slippery slope and we need to safeguard our organization from corruption by continuing to hold each other accountable for all we do.
Natcom is currently developing performance management processes that strike the balance between the provision of a safe environment where we can learn from our mistakes while still upholding high standards and ensuring accountability.
While significant steps have been made, IkamvaYouth still has a way to go along the path towards the perfect model for large-scale, grassroots, democratic decision-making. It’s probable that it’s a path without destination, and requires regular pit stops where we evaluate our progress, our direction and recalibrate to address challenges that inevitably arise with increasing reach, budgets, legal implications and requisite levels of professionalism. By adopting an open, democratic decision-making approach to figure out our way, we will ensure that new directions remain true to the values and democratic processes.
It’s certainly a more difficult path to follow than a top-down, hierarchical decision-making structure. However, the more young people climbing steep leadership learning curves and making important contributions, the greater the possibility of widespread, values-based leadership in South Africa.