The Big Read: Through the eyes of a hero

26 September 2014 - 02:19
By Jonathan Jansen
AN UNCOMMON SON: The Johannesburg funeral of Neil Aggett, trade union and labour activist, who died in detention after being arrested by the security police in 1982
Image: GALLO IMAGES/SUNDAY TIMES AN UNCOMMON SON: The Johannesburg funeral of Neil Aggett, trade union and labour activist, who died in detention after being arrested by the security police in 1982

There was always something wonderfully counterintuitive about Neil Aggett as an anti-apartheid campaigner - he was young, white and qualified in medicine.

He had a life of privilege ahead of him, living comfortably with those of his pigment, feeding off the benefits of white power and advantage. Yet he stared power and privilege in the face and went the other way.

This is what I call uncommon leadership, and it is a quality as rare and needed under apartheid as it is rare and required after apartheid. This is the relevance of Neil Aggett to all of us today.

As a leader of 30000 university students, I always look out for the uncommon leader. It is the seeing student who takes up the cause of blind students. It is the white student who decides to move into a black residence where he will stand out like a sore thumb and lose some of his white friends. It is the poor student who raises funds, not for herself - though that would be perfectly understandable - but for those even poorer than she so that the desperately poor can also have access to university textbooks. It is the Muslim student who defies her conservative family to marry a Hindu student.

What then are the qualities of the uncommon leader so beautifully captured in the life of Neil Aggett?

First, it is the ability to think and act outside of your skin. Most South Africans remain trapped inside the apartheid logic of four races. In a crisis, most South Africans fall back on these troubled identities. It is the exceptional leader that can rise above the constraints of race-based thinking.

Second, it is the ability to know the difference between right and wrong. This is the dilemma of contemporary South Africa found in the CEO of a company or the principal of a university who gives jobs to his own family members. How many of you would find a packed wallet on the streets and take it to the police station?

Third, it is the ability to "see" the bigger picture. The gift of Neil Aggett was to see a struggling worker and relate this to the oppression of workers, or to see patients in hospital return with disease profiles that he knew had their origins outside of the body. Michael Apple, the famed curriculum theorist, calls this the ability to think relationally.

Fourth, it is the ability to forge solidarities outside your usual circle.

National anthems make me nervous and, with Heritage Day this week, even more so, for embedded within that emotion is a sense of commitment tied up within borders.

This is the pre-eminent example of Neil Aggett, a doctor who declared his solidarity with union workers, a white man who declared his solidarity with black people.

Fifth, it is the ability to seek a third way, an alternative to destructive extremes. One of the characteristics of great leaders is to find a middle path in a crisis; this is risky, for it will, in the short term, alienate you from both extremes.

Sixth, it is the capacity to acknowledge personal weakness. I am not a strong leader, I am weak and I make many mistakes; when I seem most confident about what I am doing, I have doubts. Own your vulnerability, your weakness and your imperfection, and you will be a stronger leader.

Seventh, it is the commitment to change difficult things even when it is not obvious at the time. Neil helped to change South Africa though he could not possibly have foreseen the night of February 5 1982 when he died in a cold, lonely cell. An uncommon leader takes the long view but acts in the present to make things better for the next generation.

People in other countries often ask me why South Africa did not descend into a racial bloodbath given the long years of apartheid. One of the reasons is that, in the cauldron of that bitter fight against white supremacy, there stood tall among us white brothers and sisters who through their very example taught the struggle that not all whites were evil (an expression of our youth) and that the struggle was not against whites but against an oppressive system.

Kingswood College, you can be truly proud of your alumnus, Neil Aggett, who is, without question, one of our country's greatest sons.

  • Edited excerpts from the ninth annual Neil Aggett Memorial Lecture, Kingswood College, Grahamstown, yesterday