Old Mutual Wisdom Forum 2017

Student leaders can make populist activism work in SA, says Professor Swartz

The Old Mutual Corporate Wisdom Forum took place in Sandton this week where some of South Africa's greatest minds gathered to discuss global challenges. Now in it's 6th year, the thought-provoking theme to tackle in this edition was populism and economic reform.

Stephan Grootes caught up with one of the panelists, Professor Sharlene Swartz, an author and Harvard and Cambridge alumni, who currently sits as the Deputy Executive Director in the Human and Social Development research programme at the HSRC.

While many believe that populism is a threat to established order, Swartz expressed how important it is in a democracy and how students are the ones taking the lead in the charge against inequality.

We're only 23 years into a new country and students are drawing attention to things we should have dealt with a long time ago. It can definitely be a force for good.

Prof Sharlene Swartz, Deputy Exec Director in the Human and Social Development research programme at the HSRC

However, Swartz says that poor education is a massive we problem we face, and when we move towards educating the masses in the country, we'll have more and more people questioning populist movements and what they do, as well challenging leaders which is extremely important in any movement.

So how can a populist movement in SA work when so many class inequalities exist?

Swartz believes it's possible, and even invoked the saying "when spider webs unite they can tie up the lion".

The interesting thing with the student movement is that they formed an alliance between workers on campuses, and middle class students and of course working class students. That alliance is important. And I think it’s also important when it comes to issues of race. That there are alliances between black and white South Africans who see a different kind of future for us.

Prof Sharlene Swartz, Deputy Exec Director in the Human and Social Development research programme at the HSRC

However, Swartz believes that even though populism is crucial for change, what's missing is a new generation of leadership who can strategise and implement solutions after all the protests have taken place.

How do you actually bring about change in the curriculum? How do change institutionalised racism? How do you ensure job creation? Those are the things a lot of the first wave of Fees Must Fall student leaders are now studying at Oxford, Cambridge and all over the world. They're going to start coming back. And I think they are going to be our new leaders.

Prof Sharlene Swartz, Deputy Exec Director in the Human and Social Development research programme at the HSRC

Swartz believes this new breed of young leaders are going to have both an understanding of populist activism and strategies for change to succeed in South Africa.


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