Yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching Barack Obama speak live at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg.
I thought of capturing some of my thoughts on his lecture, and the title ‘The audacity of hope’ came to mind. It is the title of one of his books, and ties in powerfully with the themes he expressed.
His pleasantly meandering talk took us on a 100-year journey from the birth of Madiba until present day. Who would have thought that a young boy born in Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa a century ago, would have such an effect in history, altering the destiny of a nation, and in a way, the world.
He called on us to appreciate just how much progress has taken place in that 100-year period, a blink of an eye in the larger context of our human heritage and history. In that time, nations have been liberated from colonial rule, countries have shifted from unjust arrangements to more democratic ones. Globalisation has brought the world closer together, and all in all, billions have been lifted from poverty. We live in a world that is safer, more prosperous and more tolerant than ever before.
Not to say that we have not made mistakes. Ideological and tribal conflicts still happen with heart-breaking frequency. The things that have brought us progress and made us closer in some ways, globalisation, technology, trade, have made it easier for the rich to get richer and exert more control. Social Media, supposed to connect us has been weaponised to keep us misinformed and outraged. Unfettered capitalism has decimated communities and environments. We have failed at many of the bold claims we have made.
Which is why today, the world seems teetering on the edge of return to days gone past. From the ideals of democracy to politics of the strong man, the authoritarian. It can seem that we are on the regress, back to the historical cycles of competition, mistrust and conflict.
And that is where the audacity of hope comes in.
Progress has always been as a result of people fighting relentlessly for it. The fact that you are ‘right’, or ‘good’ does not mean your win is automatically assured. There is the prevailing sentiment, that things will work out, that ultimately the arc of progress is always forward, that technology will solve the problems, that our politics will eventually work for our benefit.
But that is not the case. We mustn’t just hope for the best, we must also fight for the best.
In his book, Zero to One, Peter Thiel outlines four main philosophical tendencies – definite optimism, indefinite optimism, definite pessimism and indefinite pessimism.
An indefinite pessimist looks out to a bleak future, but he has no idea what to do about it.
A definite pessimist knows the future can be known, but since it will be bleak, he must prepare for it.
To an indefinite optimist, the future will be better, but he doesn’t know how exactly, so he won’t make any specific plans. He expects to profit from the future but sees no reason to design it correctly.
To the definite optimist, the future would be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better.
Peter Thiel (Zero to One). Emphasis mine.
In a postmodern society like ours where repeated disappointment has made it far easier to be cynical than to believe, easier to disengage rather than hold firm convictions and advance forward, it is rebellion to believe. It is activism to hold on to hope and act accordingly.
We can create a better world. We have knowledge, we have technology, we have several billion people on the planet. We can do it. But it will not happen automatically or by accident. It will take us working together towards definite goals. Keeping the wheels of progress moving forward is perpetual work handed from generation to generation.
It will happen with great leadership. Individuals across all strata and levels of society, government and business. People with the Madiba spirit. People without ego, people with a passion for people. People with firm convictions, a stoic attitude and a steady patient hand. From the president of the nation, to the student leader.
It will take all of us. In his article, Umair Haque (one of our present day greatest thinkers in my opinion) outlines the idea that the forces of darkness and authoritarianism are not defeated by any one person. The idea of the lone ranger, the sole hero is a myth perpetuated by western thinking. But what’s the opposite of a hero? A chain reaction. Real change is as a result of a chain reaction, of waves of actions multiplied by the masses. Of people around the world being inspired by an incarcerated Mandela and continuing the struggle. Of people risking safety and even laying down their lives in service of an ideal. That is how change happens. When the people move as one, with leaders to steady the course and ensure safe landing.
So, we must believe. So, we must have hope. So, we must challenge ourselves to imagine a better world. To imagine new ways of engagement as a society, as businesses, as nations, as a human race. Our greatest challenge ahead is not one of technology, or ideology, or conflict. It is one of imagination. It is one of resolve.
Amandla Awethu. A luta Continua. The struggle continues. In solidarity, we will prevail.