All the World’s a Stage

I always knew I would use my voice to change the world.

When my soprano singing voice landed me an invitation to attend the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (currently the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) in Glasgow, Scotland, more than 8,000 miles away from my home in South Africa, I imagined a future on the world’s grandest stages.

But it quickly became clear that my bank balance was too modest to support such lofty dreams of international training. I felt my chance at the spotlight slipping through my fingers.

I threw myself into plan B, a Bachelor of Music at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, followed by a Bachelor of Arts in political communications at the University of Cape Town. In my final year at university, a research paper I wrote on South Africa’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, opened the door to a job with the party as a parliamentary research assistant.

A year into the job, I realized that the parliamentarians I worked alongside were mere mortals. Two other 20-something friends who I worked alongside had a similar realization. We talked it over and asked, “Why not us?”

Why Not Us?

The three of us, not long out of university, ran for Parliament — and won.

I went on to become the spokesperson for the opposition party and eventually Democratic Alliance Parliamentary leader and leader of the opposition in the National Assembly — a key position in South Africa’s most important public square.

The experience provided me with a few key insights that today inform my work to inspire other young people to follow my path into political leadership.

The political system is deliberately opaque. This lack of clarity on how to enter politics strengthens the role of gatekeepers and the existing political party power brokers.

Demystifying politics requires a nonpartisan source of support and information. Few countries have such organizations that encourage and support civic-minded young people, regardless of political party or platform, to pursue elected office. Such a “political on-ramp” is critical to recruiting young people who are passionate about contributing to their country. Often, politics isn’t on their radar. It should be.

There is a reason our governments don’t perform as they should. Political systems and institutions are often designed to fail because they have been molded by people who use power and politics for empty vanity and personal gain.

Taking partisanship out of political recruitment can help us generate better quality and more diverse candidates — people who don’t want to work in an echo chamber but want to work across party lines to get things done for the common good.

I am an accidental politician. The stars happened to align and I found myself in Parliament. But we can’t build resilient democracies by waiting for stars to align.

At the same time, it was no accident that I jumped into politics with two young friends and colleagues. Young people are more likely to enter politics if they aren’t the lone young voice in the room. We can and must seed and support a movement of committed young people who fill the highest positions across my continent, transform political institutions, and revitalize our democracies.

Democracy Is Participatory

The need is urgent. Less than 1% of 18- and 19-year-old South Africans are registered to vote and less than 10% of 20- to 30-year-olds are registered. Our democracy can’t function if this trend continues.

While I stepped down after serving in Parliament from 2009 to 2014, you’d be mistaken to count me out of the political ecosystem.

I’m still using my voice to change the world — I am one of the co-founders of the Apolitical Foundation and Apolitical Academy Global with Daniel Sachs, Lisa Witter, and Robyn Scott. And I now lead Futurelect: an Apolitical Academy, headquartered in Johannesburg. Every year, up to 30 promising leaders graduate from our program. They have learned the skills of persuasion, influence, and negotiation, while strengthening their commitment to become ethical and accountable democratic leaders. They have become part of a global network we hope will support each other as they move forward in their political careers. I am also in the midst of launching a similar program to support African women who want to enter politics.

Today, I spend a good deal of my time traveling around the continent, stepping in the spotlight on stages from Lusaka to London, using my voice and my story to convince young Africans that our continent’s prosperity depends on many things — on health reform, social upliftment, entrepreneurship, and industrial development. But each of these things hinge on vibrant, representative, and effective political leadership.